*** DEBUG END ***

Tombland, by C. J. Sansom, and Cuthbert of Farne, by Katharine Tiernan

28 June 2019

Fiona Hook enjoys two tales set in England in different periods

IT’S SUMMER 1549, and Henry VIII has been dead for two years. Radical changes in religious practice are being imposed by the Protector and Council, acting as regents for the boy king, Edward VI. The currency has been debased to pay for a costly and unnecessary war with Scotland, and people can no longer afford to feed their families. Meanwhile, the gentry are enclosing land and raising rents, evicting farmers who can’t pay. Hunger and discontent are rife, and the common people are ripe for rebellion.

In the seventh outing for C. J. Sansom’s Tudor detective, Matthew Shardlake, he is asked by the 15-year-old Lady Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I, to investigate the murder of a distant Boleyn relative, declared dead years before, but recently found horribly murdered. When the hunchbacked lawyer and his young assistant, Nicholas, arrive in Norfolk, they discover that the dead woman’s husband, the obvious suspect, may not have done it.

Sansom has a doctorate in Tudor history, and it shows. Through his protagonist’s eyes we see the impact of the religious reforms, as Shardlake encounters a workman reluctantly whitewashing a church’s wall-paintings, his wages paid by the sale of silver plate which his family gave the church, and attends the first ever church service in English. More importantly, Shardlake finds himself caught up in Kett’s Norfolk uprising, and the final pitched battle between the rebels and the forces of law. In a highly interesting 50-page essay at the end, the author examines the causes of the rebellion and its impact on subsequent events.

This is not just a detective story, though Sansom places his clues and his denouement with his usual skill, and his characters, the gentle lawyer with his ready compassion for the less fortunate and red-headed Nicholas, desperately clinging to his gentleman status, are as sympathetic as ever. It is more reminiscent of a fat 19th-century historical novel — think Lorna Doone or Harrison Ainsworth — something to take on holiday and really get your teeth into.


THE lives of Dark Ages British saints have proved a rich source of material for the novelist in recent years. There have been several imaginings of the life of St Hilda. Now Katherine Tiernan has turned her attention to Hild’s contemporary, St Cuthbert.

Bede, the main source for the saint’s life, naturally focuses on his spirituality and miracles. The author’s fascination with the saint leads her to research the historical background of the period, one of great political and religious upheaval, in which he was directly involved, and she uses the material intelligently. Her protagonist starts life as a warrior — Bede calls him a “soldier of Christ” — and Tiernan makes the highly plausible suggestion that it was the shocking outcome of a campaign in which he was involved that turned him to the monastic life.

The story develops from three different viewpoints. A third-person narrative gives us Cuthbert’s own reactions to the difficulties and temptations of the novitiate and, later, to the solitary life on the island of Farne, whence he is recalled to be Bishop of Hexham. Queen Enfleda of Northumbria is present at the Synod of Whitby, and provides an overview of the conflict between the Celtic Church and the Roman, headed by the turbulent Wilfred, Cuthbert’s exact contemporary.

Enfleda’s daughter, Aelfled, was given to God as a child, and succeeded Hild as Abbess of Whitby. Bede shows her as having a particular affection for Cuthbert, 20 years her senior, and it was she who wrapped him in his shroud when he was reinterred. In Tiernan’s capable hands, Cuthbert is her beloved mentor from early childhood and we see the saint’s spiritual development through her eyes.

Tiernan has a flair for psychological insight and an imagination that fills in the gaps in the historical record without ever doing violence to what is likely. She is also possessed of a vivid visual imagination, and an illuminator’s eye for small details. This is a highly pleasurable and intelligent piece of historical fiction.

Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.

C. J. Sansom
Picador £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

Cuthbert of Farne
Katharine Tiernan
Sacristy Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)