C. J. Sansom
(Pan Books, 2004 paperback)

C. J. Sansom gives a chilling portrait of the times of Henry VIII through the eyes of a hunchback barrister, Matthew Shardlake. We think with pride of the evolution of British law but history has an awkward way of reminding us justice was more the exception than the rule in earlier times.

Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of Roman Catholic church property and all the riches of monestaries, went to the Crown, Thomas Cromwell and others at their whim:

Lord Cromwell’s face hardened and he leaned back in his chair. … I hope you are not becoming soft. In these times I need hard men in my service, Matthew, hard men.’ His face was suddenly full of the anger I had seen in him even when we first met ten years before. ‘This is not Thomas More’s Utopia, a nation of innocent savages waiting only for God’s word to complete their happiness. This is a violent realm, stewed in the corruption of a decadent church.’ [p. 12]

The King required an oath from all the members of the religious houses acknowledging him as Supreme Head of the Church, only a few refused:

‘There were forty of us, and they took us one by one. Prior Houghton first refused the oath and was interrogated by Cromwell himself. Did you know, Commissioner, when Father Houghton told him that St Augustine had placed the authority of the Church above Scripture, Cromwell replied that he cared naught for the Church and Augustine might hold as he pleased?’

‘He was right. The authority of Scripture stands above that of any scholar.’

‘And the opinion of a tavern keeper’s son stands above St Augustine’s?’ Jerome laughed bitterly. ‘When he would not submit, our venerable prior was judged guilty of treason and executed at Tyburn. I was there; I saw his body sliced open by the executioner’s knife while he still lived. But it wasn’t the usual hanging fair that day, the crowd watched silently as he died.’

… The Carthusian continued. ‘Your master had no better luck with Prior Houghton’s successor. Vicar Middlemore and the senior obedentiaries still would not swear, so they too went to Tyburn. This time there were calls against the king from the crowd. Cromwell wasn’t going to risk a riot the next time, so he tried all manner of pressure to make the rest of us take the oath. He put his own men in charge of the house, where Prior Houghton’s arm, stinking and rotten, was nailed to the gate. They kept us half-starved, mocked our services, tore up our books, insulted us. They picked off trouble-makers one by one. Someone would suddenly be sent off to a more compliant house or just disappear.’ [pp. 222-223]

… The remaining brethren were told to swear or be taken to Newgate where they would be left to starve to death. Fifteen swore and lost their souls. Ten went to Newgate, where they were chained in a foul cell and left without food. Some lasted for weeks —’ He broke off suddenly. Covering his face with his hands he stood rocking on his heels, weeping silently. [p. 223]

Other laws were passed:

The horse had been picking its way slowly over the icy ruts in the road, but halfway down Fleet Street it stopped and tossed its head anxiously. A little way ahead a crowd had gathered, blocking the road. Looking over their heads I saw two of the constable’s men struggling with a young apprentice. He was resisting fiercely, shouting out at his captors.

‘You are the forces of Babylon, you seize God’s chosen children! The righteous will prevail, the mighty shall be pulled down!’

The guards pinioned his arms behind his back and hauled him away, still kicking. Some of the crowd yelled catcalls after him, others shouted support.” [p. 370]

… ‘So they’ve taken another hot gospeller. An Anabaptist by the sound of him. They’d have all our property, you know!’

‘Is there a round-up of unlicensed preachers? I’ve been out of London again.’

‘There’s talk of Anabaptists in London, the king’s ordered all suspects to be taken. He’ll burn a few and just as well. They’re more dangerous than the papists.’

‘There is safety nowhere these days.’

‘Cromwell’s taken the opportunity to have a general round-up. Cutpurses, fraudsters, unlicensed preachers, they’ve all been lurking in their dog-holes in this fearsome weather and he’s rooting them out.’ … [p. 371]

Physical disabilities carried a penalty. The narrator, a barrister, Matthew Shardlake, had a hunchback:

I had made light of it, as I always did, but the looks the villagers gave my hump, and the abbey-lubber’s remark, had sent a familiar stab of pain through me. It had settled miserably in my guts, crushing my earlier enthusiasm. All my life I had tried to shrug off such insults, though when I was younger I often felt like raging and screaming. I had seen enough cripples whose minds had been made as twisted as their bodies by the weight of insult and mockery they suffered; glowering at the world from beneath knitted brows and turning to swear foul abuse at the children who called after them in the streets. It was better to try and ignore it, get on with such life as God allowed. [p. 38]

Shardlake tried to become a priest:

‘Boy,’ he said, ‘you can never be a priest. Do you not realize that? You should not be taking up my time with this.’ His white eyebrows creased together in annoyance. He had not shaved; white stubble stood out like frost on his fat red chaps.

‘I don’t understand, Brother. Why not?’

He sighed, filling my face with his alcoholic breath. ‘Master Shardlake, you know from the Book of Genesis that God made us in his own image, do you not?’

‘Of course, Brother.’

‘To serve his Church you must conform to that image. Anyone with a visible affliction, even a witherled limb, let alone a great crooked humpback like yours, can never be a priest. How could you show yourself as an intercessor between ordinary sinful humanity and the majesty of God, when your form is so much less than theirs?’

I felt as though, suddenly encased in ice. ‘That cannot be right. That is cruel.’

Brother Andrew’s face went puce. ‘Boy,’ he shouted, ‘do you question the teachings of Holy Church, time out of mind? You that come here asking to be ordained as a priest! What sort of priest, a Lollard heretic?’ [pp. 39-40]

It was a time of form dominating the law:

Kate Wyndham was the daughter of a London cloth merchant accused of false accounting by his partner, in a case brought in the Church court on the basis that a contract was equivalent to an oath before God. In fact his partner was related to an archdeacon who had influence with the judge, and I managed to get the case transferred to King’s Bench, where it was thrown out. [p. 114]

Anne Boleyn was hostage to the rack. The novel has Cromwell confessing his role in the decapitation of Anne Boleyn:

‘When the king turned against Anne Boleyn last year, I had to act quickly. I’d been associated with her from the beginning, and the papist faction would have worked my fall with hers; the king was starting to listen to them. So it had to be me that rid the king of her. Do you see?’

‘Yes. Yes, I see.’

‘I persuaded him she was adulterous and that meant she could be executed for treason, without her religion coming into it. But there would have to be evidence and a public trial.’

I stood looking at him silently.

‘I took some of my most trusted men and assigned to each a friend of hers whom I had chosen — Norris, Weston, Brereton, her brother Rochford — and Smeaton. Their task was to get either a confession, or something that could be made to look like evidence that they had lain with her. Singleton was the man I assigned to deal with Mark Smeaton.’

‘He made up a case against him?’

‘Smeaton looked to be the easiest one to force into a confession; he was just a boy. So it proved, he confessed to adultery after a session on the Tower rack … His tone as he went on was reflective, matter of fact.

‘… I sent him [Singleton] to make sure that in his speech from the scaffold — there’s a tradition that should be done away with — the boy [Smeaton] did not retract his confession. He was reminded that, if he said anything amiss, his father would suffer.’

I stared at my lord. ‘So what people said was true? Queen Anne and those accused with her were innocent?’

He turned to me. The harsh light caught his face and seemed to leach his eyes of expression as he frowned at me.

‘Of course they were innocent. No one may say so, but the whole world knows it, the juries at the trial knew. Even the king half-knew though he couldn’t admit it to himself and irk his fine conscience. God’s death, Matthew, you’re innocent for a lawyer. You’ve the innocence of a reformist believer without the fire. Better to have the fire without the innocence, like me.’ [pp. 366-368]

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