Day 1196: Lamentation

Cover for LamentationAlthough at the end of the last Matthew Shardlake novel, Matthew vowed to change his life, it is not substantially different in 1546, the beginning of the last novel in the series. He has vowed not to become involved in any more political cases, yet he takes one more for Queen Catherine, formerly Catherine Parr.

The religious situation in England is more fraught than it has been. As King Henry is the head of the church, he believes that all must follow his beliefs. Yet he vacillates between a more conservative view of the church and the reformist view, with resultant trials for heresy on both sides. Right now, the conservatives, headed by Bishop Gardiner, seem to be in ascendance, and having a reformist queen would be very inconvenient for them. Queen Catherine’s followers are fairly sure that if the conservatives prevail, she’ll be brutally discarded.

Unfortunately, Catherine has written a document, Lamentation of a Sinner, and not destroyed it as she was advised. Although it is not heretical, it distinctly shows her reformist views. More seriously, Henry would view her having written it secretly as disloyalty. Unfortunately, the document has been stolen from a locked coffer for which only the Queen has the key. Matthew agrees to try to recover the manuscript.

At the beginning of his investigation, Matthew encounters the murder of a printer, Greening. This man belongs to a group of religious radicals, and he is found clutching a page of the Queen’s manuscript in his hand. The investigation is further confused when Matthew learns that Greening was printing another book, an account by Anne Askew of her treatment before she was burned for heresy.

I think that this last novel is the best of the series. Despite its bulk, it is fast moving and atmospherically charged, reflecting everyone’s fears at the time. No one in Sansom’s books, it is true, seems to have any sense of humor, and perhaps that is partially what has bothered me about the series. In any case, by the end of the novel, Matthew has certainly set foot on a different path.

Related Posts




Day 1117: Heartstone

Cover for HeartstoneI’ve been slowly making my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series just to read Heartstone, which is on my Walter Scott prize list. Although I enjoy the period and Sansom’s thorough research, I will have to consider whether I want to follow the depressive Shardlake’s adventures further.

In Heartstone, Shardlake is summoned by the queen, who by now is Catherine Parr. She asks Matthew to investigate an allegation related to the Court of Wards and Augmentations, which is notoriously corrupt.

Michael Calfhill was employed as tutor to Hugh and Emma Curteys until their parents died. Their wardship was sold to Nicholas Hobbey, their neighbor, even as Michael and the vicar were trying to track down an aunt to take charge of them. Emma died from smallpox and Michael was dismissed, but he worried about Hugh. So, a few weeks ago, he went to visit him unannounced. He returned distraught, claiming he had found out something frightful and wanting a lawyer to sue to remove the wardship from Hobbey. But a few weeks later, he was dead of an apparent suicide. Bess Calfhill, his mother, was once servant to the queen and has gone to her for help.

Matthew is also interested in looking into another mystery. In the last book, he befriended Ellen Fettiplace, a resident of Bedlam. When he examines the records to see who is paying for her support, he learns that she was never committed there. Matthew has heard stories about Ellen that involve a rape and a fire. Since his business with Hobbey takes him near to her village, he decides to find out how she came to Bedlam.

This novel is set with the background of Henry VIII’s war with the French. Throughout the novel, the main characters encounter preparations for a French invasion, and Matthew’s investigations take him to Portsmouth just before the Battle of Solent.

I was easily able to guess the big secret in one case (although I’m not sure it was obvious), but I was mistaken about the other. Certainly, the mysteries are not the most important aspect of Sansom’s novels—they are just the force that drives it forward. Sansom has a talent for immersing readers in the period. Still, Matthew is lonely and sad, and his life seems to consist of one loss after another. In this novel, he decides to change his life, and I may read the next one just to see if he does. (I believe there is only one more.)

Related Posts



Dark Fire

Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

Related Posts


Dark Fire


Day 651: Literary Wives! The Last Wife of Henry VIII

Cover for The Last Wife of Henry VIIIAgain, we have a group book review with Literary Wives, where a group of bloggers get together and review the same book about wives on the same day. If you have read this month’s book and would like to participate, leave comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!


In considering The Last Wife of Henry VIII, I come smack up against the issue I’ve mentioned in the reviews of several historical novels based on the lives of actual people. That is, how an author can make the subject interesting while staying faithful to the events of the person’s life and to the person’s character.

In this novel, Erickson has a fairly clean slate to work with, because Catherine Parr’s life has not been covered as exhaustively as that of other Tudors. Yet it is one thing in historical fiction to invent the details of ordinary life and another to present readers with questionable events. The most obvious of these is to have Parr’s love affair with Thomas Seymour begin while she was still married to John Neville, when to all indications it began after Neville’s death, when she was left a relatively wealthy widow. And, might I add, the unlikelihood that they continued their physical relationship (if they had one) while she was married to Henry VIII. Not in that court and atmosphere, with that history, I’m guessing.

But this is aside from the point that with all this inventing, Erickson still fails to make Catherine Parr an interesting character or her story compelling—despite the fact that it probably was compelling. The actual Catherine was much more capable and influential than Erickson’s character, in fact.

Literary Wives logoWhat does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

First, for the Tudors wives were bargaining chips. The novel depicts Catherine as taking control of her own fate in some of her marriages, but only within limits. That is, in both instances if she hadn’t had another suitor, she would have had to marry the person chosen for her. Within the marriages, the limits to her spheres of action are chosen by her husband unless, as in her marriage to Seymour, she has her own money, which gives her leverage. In three of her marriages, her husband’s activities or relations with her husband’s relatives make her position insecure, so much so in her first marriage that she is left a poor and unprotected widow, at least according to Erickson. I would submit that in actuality, what left her insecure after the death of Henry VIII was more likely her marriage to Thomas Seymour than anything else.

In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by wife?

Catherine usually tries to do her duty by her husband, whether she loves him or not. The exception is her affair with Thomas Seymour while she was married to John Neville (which I don’t believe actually happened). In the terms of the novel, this is probably supposed to make it more romantic (it doesn’t), but it makes her character less consistent. I would say that for Parr, a wife is dutiful, affectionate, and tries to do the right thing. Her marriage to Henry VIII also shows her as compassionate, capable, and politically astute. Her marriage to Thomas Seymour, on the other hand, shows her as fatuous and besotted, unfortunately the reputation that has survived her. If I can sneak in a comment about stepmothers here, I believe her actual relationship with Henry’s children was much warmer than depicted in the novel.

Related Posts

The Tudor Secret

Bring Up the Bodies

The Marriage Game