Surviving Henry VIII’s England

Lamentation: A Shardlake Novel, by C. J. Sansom, (Mulholland Books), 656 pages, release date 24 February, 2015

You know what it’s like when you find a good series of novels: you burn your way through them, then anxiously wait out the years it takes for a new volume to appear. I feel this way about C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. Historical mysteries set in Henry VIII’s England, these books are richly plotted and demonstrate a complex grasp of that time’s theology and politics (and theology was politics in Henry’s England).

Shardlake is a semi-outsider character. He has a comfortable income, but is still viewed with disdain by many of the political figures he finds himself working for. He’s also a hunchback, which adds another level of disdain, as deformities of the body were often viewed as evidence of deformities of the soul. In Henry’s England, human lives were easily sacrificed to political ends, so Shardlake isn’t only looked down upon: he’s viewed as disposable.

Lamentation is set at the end of Henry’s reign. The King is clearly dying, though it’s treason to say so. Henry has been separated from Rome and has ruled as the Head of the Church of England for years. He vacillates between religious reform and conservatism.  The Protestant and Catholic factions in his government are fighting to see which will come to power once Henry dies and the crown is passed on to his underage son, who will be guided by regents.

One of the book’s early scenes is the burning of the heretic Anne Askew, which illustrates how very dangerous questions of faith can be at this time. Accusations of heresy can be easily used to harm a business or political rival.

Henry’s sixth (and final) wife, Catherine Parr, is a member of the Protestant faction, and more of a reformer than Henry himself, which puts her at considerable risk in this unsettled time. Shardlake has admired Catherine since before her rise to Queen, so when she summons him to the palace, he goes willingly—even though he realizes that once again he will be drawing close to the dangerous politics of the court. A book has been stolen from Catherine’s apartments, a book written in her own hand and from a clearly reformist perspective. Either side might want to use it for their own ends, and regardless of who possesses it, Catherine risks the king’s wrath should he come to know of her Lamentations of a Sinner.

Shardlake agrees to hunt for the book under the pretense of looking for a stolen jewel and soon finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue, as the saying goes. There’s a murdered radical printer; memoirs of Anne Askew that attest to her having been tortured by two members of the King’s council; an uncertain pact with an old enemy; and a group of reformers who may be trying to smuggle both Catherine and Anne’s books to the continent, where they can be published by reformist presses.

Sansom’s Shardlake novels gets richer (and, happily, longer) as the series progresses, and Lamentations is an excellent addition. Let’s hope that Shardlake will outlive the King and continue his work during the reigns of Henry’s three children.