Shardlake Review A Gripping Tudor Mystery That Explores What Fuelled The Dissolution Of The Monasteries


(MENAFN- The Conversation) “This house is rotten to the core,” snarls Jack Barak, Thomas Cromwell's man of business, as he condemns the Benedictine monastery of St Donatus to closure and oblivion. Based on Dissolution , the 2003 debut of detective novelist C.J. Sansom, Shardlake on Disney+ draws us into an enclosed world of corruption
and murder as Henry VIII's Reformation threatens the end of a thousand years of the monastic life in England.

Dissolution is part of the Shardlake series, which totals seven books and has won praise for the believability of its historical settings , as well as the quality of the writing. Originally trained as a historian, Sansom, while not entirely wedded to historical accuracy, brought some of his academic training to his writing.

For instance, his research for his third book, Sovereign, led to the publication of a well-regarded article in the academic journal Northern History on Henry VIII's 1541 Great Progress (where the whole court went on tour) to Yorkshire. This put him in the unusual position of contributing to academic debate about the Tudors, while also being a best-selling novelist.

As a Tudor historian, I tend to read other kinds of things on my day off. But I have always made an exception for C.J. Sansom, who has the knack of making Tudor England come alive in ways that strictly academic history cannot. My enjoyment of his work led me to work with York Theatre Royal on the recent adaptation of Sovereign at the King's Manor , close to where Henry and Queen Catherine Howard stayed.

Shardlake begins when a royal commissioner surveying the community of St Donatus is found beheaded in a crypt. The lawyer Matthew Shardlake, acutely intelligent but underrated on account of a physical disability (he is scornfully written off as a“crookback”), is sent into the monastery to investigate and to secure its closure for Cromwell and his King.

Adapted for screen by Stephen Butchard and directed by Justin Chadwick, the series remains fairly faithful to the book while also bringing a bleak dramatic interpretation of its own.

The show's setting is broodingly Gothic. Mist sweeps in from the marshes, torches gutter, black-clad monks glide silently around with their faces hidden. Over four episodes, the body count rises as Shardlake hunts down the evidence that will seal St Donatus's fate. He is haunted by the ghost of Mark Smeaton , the young musician whose alleged affair with Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn sent the Queen to the block, for reasons that are gradually revealed. An abused novice is befriended by the compassionate Shardlake, but cannot be saved. A monastery pond is dragged for the old evil it contains.

The series is set during the dissolution of the monasteries, which was authorised by the Suppression Acts of 1536 and 1539 . Historians still debate why Henry VIII took this revolutionary step: whether any of the rhetoric about re-purposing monastic revenues to charitable use was genuine, or the whole operation was to do with power and money.

Before his infamous divorce from his first wife Katherine of Aragon, King Henry had been a supporter of the religious life and visited monasteries on progress. But when they became associated with resistance to the Reformation, and especially Henry's stand against the pope, they were fatally compromised.

Reformation historian Peter Marshall argues , that the dissolution was a“spectacular, public, evangelical campaign, announcing the purification of the English church”. If King Henry sanctioned that policy, it was Cromwell who imposed and policed it. We see this play out in Sansom's first book and this series.

The dissolution of the monasteries was the biggest land grab since the Norman Conquest. The richest pickings went to the crown, leaving the rest to be traded for loyalty to the Reformation and its brokers at the royal court. All sorts of people were involved, from the aristocrats who converted monastic complexes into private houses to the poor who sifted through the gleanings once everyone else was gone.

The English landscape, physical and political, was reshaped by the dissolution in ways that are still being recovered by historians and archaeologists. Although a work of historical fiction, Shardlake reminds us of the mixture of ideology, competition and greed that powered this turning point in history.


Sean Bean as Cromwell who has sent Shardlake to solve the murder and close the monastery. Disney Media

One of the impacts of this period on the show is that all of England's medieval religious houses were destroyed during the Reformation. This meant Shardlake had to be filmed in Hungary and Romania. So St Donatus is more castle than monastery, complete with watchtowers and secret passageways. It's not accurate, though the forbidding presence of the building does add to the mood of secrecy and fear.

The show makes for a thrilling watch and the production benefits from strong performances. In the title role, Arthur Hughes (a former Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company) is watchful and softly-spoken but capable of showing steel when provoked. Hughes himself has radial dysplasia and brilliantly evokes Sansom's detective.

Anthony Boyle is excellent as Barak, his swagger and quick temper complementing Shardlake's subtler methods. Actually, Barak is more vulnerable than he first appears. The growing affinity between the two, from suspicion towards trust, is well handled.

Irfan Shamji is a dignified Brother Guy, the Moorish physician who brings forensic skills to this tale. Sean Bean is a menacing and amoral Cromwell. Peter Firth, meanwhile, brings the same Machiavellian quality to the Duke of Norfolk that he perfected as MI5 chief Harry Pearce in the BBC spy drama Spooks .

Christopher Sansom died just days before Shardlake was first screened. As joint executive producer, he gave his blessing to the production. With several other excellent Shardlake novels to call on, it seems likely there will be more to come.



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