Historical fiction: Matthew Shardlake and the dark side of Tudor England

By , December 13, 2009 4:42 am

The good, the bad, and the ugly in historical novels

There is a lot of bad historical fiction around. A good percentage of it is just sex in funny clothes and people saying “forsooth!”, “divers” and “God’s blood”, still in funny clothes.

But good historical fiction is not only an interesting read, it evokes a feel of the time and place, and the undercurrents and emotions of a different time.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, but a good historical novel can be an interesting guide book. I enjoy reading good examples of the genre, mostly those set in England.

King Henry VIII, in about 1540

King Henry VIII, in about 1540

This post is a review of one series of books I can highly recommend – C J Sansom’s 4-book (so far) look at Henry VIII’s London, through the eyes of a lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court still around today.

The series as a whole

I have really enjoyed these books, and bought them as presents for various family members and friends, as well as reading them myself.

They are not only tightly plotted and well characterised, they really evoke a sense of time and place; Tudor London comes to life in all its religious upheaval, poverty, smell and action.

Our hero

The central character of the books is Matthew Shardlake. He is a barrister, who lives in Chancery Lane, and has chambers in Lincoln’s Inn.

He is originally a rural man, from Hertfordshire, an only child, whose mother died when he was young.

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII's chief minister in the 1530s

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII's chief minister in the 1530s

He has a hunchback, which alienates him in many ways from a society that sees such physical deformity as bringing bad luck to others.

Matthew was, in his younger days, a keen religious reformer, what we would now call a Protestant.

He’s certainly not perfect – inclined to be melancholy and perhaps over-analytical, but he is a very interesting and credible character.


The first book is set in 1537, 4 years after Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, and the future Elizabeth I was born, and the year after the execution of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s re-marriage to Jane Seymour.

The Reformation was in full swing in the 1530s. By the time this book starts, all the smaller monasteries had been dissolved, and the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, had his sights set on the larger, richer, and more powerful monasteries.

Matthew Shardlake is therefore instructed by Cromwell to visit the monastery of Scarnsea, on the south coast (a fictional town and monastic establishment, clearly near Rye and Winchelsea, and sharing much of the characteristics of the Cinque Ports in general). The previous Royal Commissioner has been murdered, and Matthew’s job is to solve the murder and procure the voluntary surrender of Scarnsea’s monastery to the Crown.

The book is set mostly in the monastery, in the depths of a cold winter.

Dark Fire

Anne of Cleves, who became King Henry VIII's fourth wife in 1540

Anne of Cleves, who became King Henry VIII's fourth wife in 1540

The second book is set 3 years later, in 1540. Thomas Cromwell is at risk of falling from power, after arranging the King’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. He has been told that dark fire, also known as Greek fire, has been discovered and is desperate to procure this long-lost weapon for Henry VIII.

Cromwell sets Matthew Shardlake on the trail of the dark fire, in return for protecting Matthew’s hapless client, Elizabeth, accused of murdering her young cousin.

For more about the real ancient weapon of Greek Fire, see this article. There is a detailed review of the book in the Guardian, here.


This, the third in the series, is set partly in London, and mostly in York, on the occasion of Henry VIII’s Progress with his new, fifth wife, Catherine Howard. In 1541, following rebellions based in the north of England, Henry went on the grandest Progress of his reign, visiting all sorts of towns, cities, and ports across the country.

Matthew Shardlake is given a post on the Progress, and gets to see his (increasingly grumpy and malevolent) King, and also a secret mission from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who wants him to keep an eye on an important state prisoner, Edward Broderick.

The dark, ever more dangerous environment of Henry VIII’s later years is very well portrayed in this, as is the King himself.


In the fourth, and so far last, of the series, Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak, his assistant, are investigating the case of a boy imprisoned in Bedlam (the Royal Bethlehem hospital) for the insane. The boy is suffering from religious visions and anxieties. There is also a serial killer on the loose, getting more violent and aggressive as he kills more often. Shardlake is once again working for the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, whose own position looks shaky as Henry VIII pursues yet another wife.

For a review of Revelation from the Times, see here.

6 Responses to “Historical fiction: Matthew Shardlake and the dark side of Tudor England”

  1. Joanna says:

    Sounds like interesting reading!

  2. Brian says:

    I always worry about reading fiction when it comes to history. Mostly because I start to record the fictional parts as real history. I suppose because I am a bit lazy and don’t bother to check out the real from the made up.

    Can’t argue though that historical reads are some of the best kinds and a lot of what they used to get up to for real couldn’t be made up these days.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melissa, BrianRS1. BrianRS1 said: History and traditions of England » Historical fiction: Matthew Shardlake and the dark side of Tudor England http://bit.ly/7CeLIr [...]

  4. Bearie23 says:

    My sister enjoys historical texts about Tudor England, and historical fiction about that era. These books sound like good recommendations for her. Thanks for sharing!

  5. These books sound like an interesting read. I need to put these on my reading list. Thank you.

  6. Sarah Bailey says:

    Sansom’s Shardlake series are compulsive! Required reading for any bookworm, whether their interest is history, crime or simply just a damn good yarn with believeable, three-dimensional characters!

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