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
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
Cuthbert of Farne
Sacristy Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9