It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: dissolution.
But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .
I have come very late to the detective stories of Matthew Shardlake, since this first book was originally published in 2003, but I was fascinated to enter a Benedictine monastery just at the time when it was threatened with dissolution by Henry VIII via the machinations of his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. I have studied the ideal of the monasteries providing alms, care for the sick and accommodation for the traveller by being self-sufficient with their farm, fishponds and gardening. I also know that Cromwell’s accusations of gluttony, fornication and profiteering were based on real crimes committed by many of the monks.
Shardlake provides us with an outsider’s view of the monastery at a remote coastland site where devout, hard-working brothers lived alongside wrongdoers who enjoyed a comfortable life with luxurious food. His task as a Commissioner to discover the murderer is further complicated by the discovery of another body and several likely suspects. Expecting his assistant, Mark Poer, to support his efforts, he is distressed when the young man begins a dalliance with Alice, who is helping in the Infirmary. The claustrophic atmosphere of the monastery is increased by the severe winter weather and the dangerous marshland.
Although long-winded, the mystery is complex, and it is difficult as a reader to guess who is the murderer. We come to know Matthew very well, dealing with the pain of his humped-back while attempting to maintain dignity and respect. We see his failings and sometimes rigid religious views but also appreciate his kindness and consideration for others. The problems of keeping office and keeping your head while working for Cromwell’s government are all too evident and I found this account much more realistic than the Tudor world of Wolf Hall.
Dissolution can be purchased from Amazon UK