Friday, August 07, 2009

Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

This is the third book in the Matthew Shardlake series. I had seen this title promoted in a couple of places, and then we went to York. In honor of the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's crowning, the city of York was giving away free copies of the book and holding a number of events related to it all summer.

Set in 1541, Henry VIII is "progressing" from London to York. With 3000 people in tow, including his newest wife Katherine Howard, Henry is making a show of strength to the North. Five years earlier, some 30,000 men joined a "Pilgrimage of Grace," objecting to Henry's new religion and general treatment of the North. Henry and his advisor Wolsey promised negotiations, dispersed the crowd, then ruthlessly hunted down and killed the leaders. Robert Aske, the spokesman for the Pilgrimage, was hanged in chains--which means he was left to die of thirst and starvation, and his bones are still suspended over York Castle at the start of "Sovereign."

Yes, Henry VIII has developed into a cruel and tyrannical king, and the ceremonies planned for his arrival in York include the abasement and humiliation of the city's Council for their failure to prevent the Pilgrimage of Grace. Our hero, Matthew Shardlake, is sent to York to hear petitions from the people of York, to dispense "The King's Justice." He is also charged with seeing that a suspected rebellion leader is brought safely to London to be tortured at the Tower.

Shardlake continues to suffer a crisis of conscience. Originally a fervent supporter of Henry's break with Rome and the new Reformed religion, Shardlake is seeing that the ideals of religion are being corrupted by greed and ambition, and that the king he admired has become casually cruel and unpredictible. Shardlake wants nothing more than to keep his head down and live a quiet life unnoticed by those in power. Unfortunately, his previous work for Cardinal Wolsey has been notice by Wolsey's successor, and he is pressed into joining the King's Progress.

Things get complicated quickly, even before the Progress reaches York. A glazier is found murdered, impaled on a shard of glass. Before he dies, he whispers to Shardlake "No son of Henry and Katherine can be the true heir. She knows." Shardlake can't resist puzzling over the meaning of this statement, and thus he leads himself into further trouble. Visiting the glazier's house, he discovers an old box full of strange documents. An odd royal geneology, an act of parliment called the "Titulus Regulus" and a handwritten document that appears to be a confession of someone called "Edward Blaybourne." But before he can properly examine these documents, someone coshes him over the head and steals the papers.

There is also the matter of the prisoner--a young man whose bravery in the face of the torture facing him rattles Shardlake. The prisoner points out that Shardlake's job is to deliver him to London well enough for the torture to last even longer, and Shardlake's conscience is shaken. When the prisoner is found poisoned, Shardlake figures out how it was done and again has to quettion whether he was doing something immoral in saving a life only so that it could be ended in torture.

My favorite parts of this novel take place in York--a city that I totally fell in love with while we were there. Many of the sites of the novel still exist today, most notably the York Minster, the cathedral that was already over 300 years old at the time of Henry VIII. The King's Manor still stands, the last of the buildings of St. Mary's Abbey that was dissolved and repurposed to hold the Progress. Characters enter through the Bootham Bar, the gate to the walled part of the city where we walked to get to our hotel.

The plot is quite complicated, and requires an awful lot of history to be explained in order to follow what is going on. The murderer of the glazier is discovered about half way through, but the motive is connected to the larger issue of rebellion against Henry VIII. York was the home of the Plantagenet kings Edward IV and Richard III, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry VIII's father. A convoluted issue of whether Henry VIII is a "true king" because he has only the smallest drops of royal blood takes a long time to explain. At issue is an old claim that Edward IV was an illegitimate son of the Duchess of York (Cecily Neville) and an archer from Kent. When Henry Tudor took the crown from Richard III, he married Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV) to unite the houses of York and Lancaster and put an end to the Wars of the Roses. But if Elizabeth was not truly a "daughter of York" but only the offspring of an adulterous affair with an anonymous archer, then Henry VIII wasn't technically royal and should not be king.

This is a pretty shaky basis for an uprising, if you ask me. How much "royal blood" is enough, anyway? Just one drop? No matter how he got there, Henry VIII has everything he needs to stay on the throne--he's got armies, and money, and a navy, and fortresses, and torturers, and dungeons--all the apparatus of the state. He's also got no rivals--by 1514 he's executed the last of the Plantagenets in England. The only remaining member of that family is a cardinal in Rome. No dynasty there! Henry VIII is in no danger of being ousted from the throne.

There is a secondary plot--obvious to those who know their Tudor sex scandals. Queen Katherine's reign is perilously close to its end. In November of 1541, Henry VIII is presented with evidence of Queen Katherine's infidelity. This issue is a bit of a red herring--could this be the reason for the claim that "no child of Katherine and Henry can be the true heir?" Because it would not be Henry's child? No, this is incidental to the plot, although it is a dangerous secret to know.

About halfway through, the novel moves toward London where, in a carry over from "Dark Fire," Shardlake continues to press a suit against the powerful Sir Richard Rich, a real historical figure. After refusing to be warned off, Shardlake finds himself arrested and taken to the Tower of London to be tortured. He is actually subjected to a vise on his jaw, and the passage is quite disturbing. It makes it even harder to condone the use of torture as a method of information gathering and reinforces the sense of Tudor England as a very scary place to be.

The strength of the novel is in the evocation of Renaissance England as seen by someone who is really rather average--neither royal nor living at court, but a private citizen who struggles with his own ethical boundaries. Definitely worth the read.

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