New focus on Reformation in CJ Sansom's latest novel

 Over the past few years I have had the good fortune to review a fair number of excellent works of historical fiction, one of these being Chris Sansom's debut novel Dissolution. At the time I wrote that the book, set in the dangerous days of the Reformation and which introduced us to Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell during the surrender of the monasteries, was a real 'page turner' and augered well for the future. Having just finished reading Revelation, Sansom's eagerly awaited fourth offering in the Shardlake series, my opinion of the author has actually increased.

The year is 1543 and King Henry VIII, having sent his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, to the block the previous year, is pursuing the newly-widowed Catherine Parr, intent on making her his new queen. Rumours from the court have emerged that, whilst not looking for a reconciliation with Rome, Henry is nevertheless reverting to many practices and ideals of the 'old religion', much to the alarm and distaste of the Protestant faction, who now feel that they are under attack. All over London, radical puritanical sects are springing up, taking as their prime doctrine the Book of Revelations, with their ministers' preaching hellfire and damnation against anyone with conservative or papist sympathies. They hold their Bible meetings in secret, fearing the attentions of Bishop Bonner of London, who is set to purge the city of these 'Bible-men'.

With his former patron Thomas Cromwell executed some years previous, Matthew Shardlake is now a Serjeant, or senior barrister, appointed to the Court of Requests. His latest case is that of a teenager, Adam Kite, thought to be 'possessed' because of his radical religious rantings, and who, prior to his hearing, has been sent to the Bedlam for his own protection. The case is touched upon during a dinner at the house of Shardlake's friend and fellow-lawyer, Roger Elliard, who is in agreement with Shardlake that the boy must be protected so as not to arouse the wrath of Bonner, and perhaps burned as a heretic.

Some days after this event Roger Elliard is found brutally murdered. Matthew attends the inquest and is incensed when the King's assistant coroner appears to sweep the case under the carpet. Following the inquest he confronts the coroner, Sir Grebory Harsnet, demanding to know why he adjourned the hearing so swiftly. Harsnet tells him that he was warned to expect a confrontation, adding that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer himself, has summoned them both to Lambeth Palace for a meeting of the upmost secrecy and importance. On arriving at Lambeth they find Lord Hertford and Sir Thomas Seymour, brothers of the late queen Jane, also in attendance. What transpires at the meeting starts in motion Shardlake's most terrifying and bizarre assignment to date. Together with his faithful assistant Jack Barak, he embarks on a case involving unparallelled evil which will have far-reaching consequences on the lives of all concerned, including Adam Kite and Lady Catherine Parr. The events also threaten his relationship with Dr Guy Malton, the ex-monk who is both his physician and great friend.

Sansom portrays the character of Matthew Shardlake as a good, moral man, who after starting out as a zealous supporter of the King's religious reforms, now finds himself increasingly troubled by doubt. His once strong faith in God and his King's motives has been tested and shaken to the core by the bigotry, cruelty, and political machinations of powerful men, whose religious beliefs count for nought in their thirst for power and riches.

With his diligent historical research and clever, intricate storylines, the author's descriptive narrative style brings the pages so vividly to life that one is virtually transported to the London of Henry Tudor. Sansom is a writer who has the grace to respect the intelligence of his readers, and although works of fiction, for anyone interested in these troubled times I heartily recommend the Shardlake series.

Revelation, by C J Sansom, published by Macmillan can be bought through Amazon on the ICN Home Page.

Share this story