I admit it. I’m a total sucker for historical fiction – and absolutely adore all the books of C J Sansom. I’ve reviewed a few from the Matthew Shardlake series before (e.g. Revelation, Dark Fire and Dissolution) so i eagerly opened my copy of the 5th in the series: Heartstone. I only hope that there are more…

What makes them such page-turners? Well for a start, they have the pace of a good detective mystery. Shardlake is a superb creation. Amateur sleuth and stubborn, hunchbacked London barrister, he takes on the sorts of injustices from which the ‘great and good’ walk by on the other side… or even perpetrate. He’s a valiant-for-truth and a protector of the weak, in large part because he is one of society’s marginalised himself despite his mind. We’re frequently reminded that ‘hunchbacks bring bad luck’. Is there a subtle allusion to the Tudor propaganda against Richard III here as the hunchback, I wonder? (To see what I’m getting at, check out Josephine Tey’s masterly Daughter of Time.) Sansom’s sublime skill, however, (as I’ve noted before) is his ability to weave genuine plot-twists and cliff-hangers into the meandering events of genuine Tudor history. For not only is Sansom a trained lawyer, he is also a PhD historian. When combined with story-telling abilities, this is a potent combination.

In Heartstone, we’re in the last few years on Henry VIII’s reign, following on a few years after previous books (which, incidentally, all get nods by Shardlake on p296). He’s engaged in his 3rd campaign against France (as disastrous and pointless as the previous ones), but is now married to Catherine Parr, an old friend of Shardlake. The queen engages the lawyer on what (inevitably) proves to be a rather dangerous case. I will not plot-spoil at all – it’s too good a read to do that! But despite coming in at just over 600 pages, I’ll simply say that this is a rich and gripping book. More than that, there were aspects of Tudor life about which I previously knew nothing, and yet get meticulously researched and vividly brought to life:

  • the sweat and heat of the old iron foundries in Hampshire and Sussex
  • the recruitment and training of the famed English military archers – and the impact on a whole society of a country threatened with French invasion
  • the protocols, snobberies and excitements of a Tudor stag hunt
  • the brutal life on board the warships like the great Mary Rose

The biggest eye-opener, however, was the ancient Court of Wards, created by Henry to raise revenue by overseeing the sale of orphans’ wardships. It was appallingly abused and notoriously corrupt – as Sansom notes in his afterword, its abolition was one of the great achievements of Cromwell’s Parliament. While Shardlake normally works in the Court of Requests (which was a forum to protect land rights for the vulnerable), he gets dragged into this murky world at the Queen’s behest. And these 3 big themes come through the book – all of which seemed very contemporary.

  1. The power of leaders to drag their country to war: a frequent refrain is the cost of the king’s wars with France – both in terms of taxes but more importantly, in terms of lives. It is chilling to see, especially when the campaigns seem so futile and whimsical – an elderly cleric near the end of the book reflects on just war theory and concludes this French campaign certainly wasn’t that. Does this all sound familiar? Not quite the same, I realise, but Iraq anyone? My hunch is that the various post-invasion enquiries were going on in London while Sansom was writing this.
  2. The destructive grip of ambition: as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that ascending the power ladder in Tudor England takes ruthless dedication and single-mindedness. Several characters are determined to rise at all costs. And several of the crimes encountered by Shardlake illustrate the point perfectly, with thevictims of others’ ambitions are left reeling or dying. But they are not the only victims. The ambitious men themselves suffer awful consequences. As one character says ‘Ambition, sir, I believe it a curse.’ (p281) Two characters are told that they ‘deserved it’, after all that they’d done.  Therein lies a wordplay that forms the book’s title. A heartstone was in one sense a goodluck charm. It was a bone from a stag killed at a hunt – and was presented to the first person to bring it down (presumably itself a wordplay on heart’s bone or hart’s bone (the old name for a deer)). As well as bringing the owner (who’d wear it on a necklace), it was meant to have healing properties. But 2 or 3 different people are described in the book as having hearts like stone. And as Shardlake bitterly observes to a great adversary near the end of the book, the king takes advantage of henchmen around him, because they are ‘men without even hearts to turn to stone‘ (p547). And the power of ambition is something that never goes out of date, does it?
  3. The extreme vulnerability of children, especially daughters: this is probably the key thread of the book, however – as one might expect when the subject is the Court of Wards. There are 3 parallel stories of children that Shardlake struggles to protect. And this is what makes this, the 5th in the series, one of the most poignant. We see children consigned to Bedlam, stolen as military booty and mascots from invaded lands, sold when orphaned to so-called protectors. It is truly horrendous – but one has little doubt about the credibility of such plot-lines. No doubt things were far worse. And in order to survive, such children find themselves having to act parts (as several in the book have to) – they are trapped and institutionalised, to the extent that even when they can physically walk way, they are chained psychologically. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the horrors of those abused as children by parish priests – which again bring such issues horribly up to date. (To see an impassioned articulation of the decades long damage, see this plea on Irish TV).

History should teach us – but rarely does. However, it’s amazing to find so much depth, provocation and research in a novel, and a whodunnit to boot. I’ve one, tiny stylistic quibble I’d not noticed before – I sometimes wished he’d let the dialogue speak for itself, without having to explain the significance of what everyone says immediately in the narrative. But that’s not a big deal. These are all wonderful books.

One undercurrent I’ve not touched on (but it’s something that this book has in common with its predecessors) is Shardlake’s struggle to sustain a theistic worldview. He is full of anguished doubt as he battles injustice after bloody injustice – as well as seeing firsthand the horrors caused by wielders of power. Belief in God or providence or fate has been dissipated. One or two characters half-heartedly try to resurrect his faith – including Queen Catherine Parr herself. And it is left to a decrepit parish priest (who harks back to the old pre-reformed ways) to attempt, amidst his beer cups, to attempt a defence. He even manages to point to precisely where I’d point when seeking to grapple with the goodness of God in a suffering world – the cross of Christ. As Seckford says, because of the Cross ‘I think Christ suffers with us.‘ (p601) But Shardlake dismisses this with a simple ‘What is the good of that, Reverend Seckford?’

If only he saw. But I certainly don’t begrudge him his questions – for none of this is easy nor lightly dismissed. This is a brutal world – and the Tudor world far more brutal than ours, perhaps. One is onlyglad that there are people around like Shardlake – and hope that there were those of conscience and integrity even in those dark Tudor times to stand for truth, justice and the downtrodden – as in fact Jesus himself did. It’ll be fascinating to see how Shardlake manages if he reappears in young Edward VI’s reign and even Mary I’s – for religion will be even more a burning issue. I fear that the events of those years will in many ways make faith even harder him. But I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

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