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By C.J. Sansom
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The seismic events of the 1549 English rebellions are surprisingly little known; but Tombland is based on the known evidence, and the huge camp on Mousehold Heath actually existed.
Some events, such as those concerning the gentleman prisoners in Part Six, and one incident that takes place in Chapter Seventy-five, may appear too far-fetched to be true, but they actually happened.
More detail is given in the Historical Essay.
IT RAINED THROUGHOUT our journey to Hatfield Palace; hard, heavy rain that dripped from our caps and made our horses’ reins slippery and slick. Occasionally, a gust of cold wind drove it at us slantwise; as though even now, in early June, the chill of the hard winter and cold spring was reluctant to let go of the land.
There were six of us in the party that set out from London in the grey morning; myself, my young assistant Nicholas and four sturdy men in the service of Master Comptroller Parry, swords and knives at their waists. Their leader, a taciturn middle-aged man named Fowberry, had arrived at Lincoln’s Inn the previous morning, bearing a letter from his master requiring me to attend the Lady Elizabeth at Hatfield on a case of urgency and delicacy. I was to return there with him, stay the night at an inn outside the town, and meet with Parry and the Lady Elizabeth the following morning. The letter added that he was sending Fowberry and his men to accompany us back as a precaution, given the unsettled state of the country after the risings in May. It was unlike Parry, a naturally verbose man, to be so brief, and I wondered what it augured. The purchase and sale of lands, the business I had conducted for him on behalf of the Lady Elizabeth these last two years, occasionally involved delicacy, but seldom urgency.
We spoke little on the journey; the weather did not encourage conversation. Nicholas rode beside me, his long slim body bent over his horse, Fowberry on his other side and his three men behind. The traffic was mainly in the opposite direction, carts bringing supplies to London and a few lone travellers. Once though, a fast post-rider brightly arrayed in the King’s livery and accompanied by a pair of armed servants rode up behind us, sounding a trumpet and waving at us to move to the side of the road. The party overtook us, spattering us with mud from the highway. Nicholas looked at me, rats’ tails of red hair on his brow dripping water into his eyes and making him blink. ‘I wonder what that was,’ he said. ‘Another proclamation from Protector Somerset?’
‘Perhaps. I wonder what about this time?’
‘Perhaps he decrees that blind men shall see, or fishes fly through the air.’
I laughed, but Fowberry, on my other side, looked at him askance.
EVENING CAME ON, the grey sky darkening. I turned to Fowberry. ‘We must be at the inn soon, I think.’
‘Ay, it can’t be far now, sir,’ he replied in his deep, lilting voice. Like Parry, and many others in Elizabeth’s service, he was Welsh. He sat solid astride his horse, ignoring the weather; a soldierly bearing. Perhaps, like many of his countrymen, he had fought in the French wars.
I ventured a smile. ‘A good idea of your master, that we should spend tonight at this inn. Otherwise I should be presenting myself to the Lady Elizabeth as soaked as a drowned rat, and bespattered with mud.’
‘No, sir, that wouldn’t be right at all.’ His face remained expressionless. I had hoped to coax him into revealing something of what our summons portended, but if he knew anything, he was not saying.
Nicholas drew his horse to a halt, pointing over to the right of the road. At a little distance, across a field of growing barley, a light was visible. ‘Master Fowberry,’ he said. ‘Look over there. Could that be the inn?’
Fowberry halted, signalling his men to do the same. Wiping the rain from his eyes, he peered into the deepening gloom. ‘That’s not it. We’ve another mile to go.’ He leaned forward, screwing up his eyes. ‘And that’s an open fire, it’s not coming from a window. I think it’s in that copse of trees behind the field.’
One of his men put a hand to his sword. ‘Not another camp of rebel peasants?’ he asked.
‘I’ve heard there’s been more trouble in Hampshire and Sussex,’ Fowberry replied quietly.
I shook my head. ‘That’s a small fire. Probably just another crew of masterless men wandering the countryside.’
‘They could be watching for lone riders to rob.’ Fowberry spat on the ground. ‘The Protector should have these rascal knaves branded and made bond slaves under the new law Parliament passed.’ He nodded. ‘We’ll warn the innkeeper, he can alert the constable and send the town watch out.’ He turned to me. ‘You agree, Master Shardlake?’
I hesitated. Nicholas gave me a warning look. He knew my views on the current unrest, but this was no time or place for an argument. ‘As you think best, Master Fowberry. Though whoever is over there may be about some honest business.’
‘Best to be safe, in these dangerous times. Besides, Hatfield Palace is close, and we would not wish trouble near the Lady.’
I nodded briefly in acknowledgement. We jerked at our tired horses’ reins, and rode slowly on. Whoever was setting a campfire in this weather, I thought, would have a sorry night of it.
THE INN, JUST outside the little town of Hatfield, was a fine, comfortable-looking place. We dismounted in the yard and a couple of ostlers led our horses away. Fowberry’s men followed them, leaving him with Nicholas and me. I was stiff and sore; bone-tired after the journey. My back hurt, as it did more and more these days on long rides. But an ageing hunchback of forty-seven could expect no less. A servant came out of the inn and shouldered our packs, leading us into the large old building. The interior was bright with candlelight, for it was now full dark. A stone-flagged hall gave on to a large taproom from which some fellow-guests, traders of the better sort from the look of them, regarded us curiously. A plump, bald man with an apron over his doublet left a conversation with one of them and bustled over.
‘Master Fowberry,’ he said cheerfully. ‘We were told to expect you.’ He bowed. ‘And you must be the legal gentleman come to consult with Master Parry.’ Sharp, nosy little eyes studied us.
I said, ‘I am Serjeant Matthew Shardlake, of Lincoln’s Inn. My assistant, Master Overton.’
The innkeeper nodded cheerfully, then turned back to Fowberry. ‘I am pleased to see you, sir.’ He leaned closer and spoke quietly. ‘I would be obliged, sir, if Master Parry could pay your guests’ charges in gold coin. The silver coinage is so debased–’ He shook his head.
‘We always pay in gold at Hatfield Palace,’ Fowberry said proudly.
The innkeeper bowed again, gratefully. ‘We are always honoured to trade with the palace–’ He paused. ‘We have not seen you for some time, sir. The Lady Elizabeth is well, I hope.’
Fowberry smiled tightly. ‘Indeed yes, my good man.’
‘And over her recent troubles, I hope.’ He looked at each of us in turn, like an eager raven keen to see what trinket of gossip it might pick up. The room behind him had fallen quiet.
Fowberry spoke coldly and steadily. ‘I do not chatter abroad the business of the household I serve, Goodman.’
The innkeeper stepped back a pace. ‘Of course, sir. It’s just–business with Hatfield Palace has been slack.’
‘It’ll get slacker if you go nosing for information about the Lady’s affairs,’ Fowberry replied brutally. ‘But here’s something that is your business. A mile south we saw the lights of a camp in the fields. To the left of the road. You might do well to let the constable know.’
‘Probably only a few men grouped around a fire,’ I explained.
The innkeeper, though, looked serious. ‘I’ll send word.’
‘Do that,’ Fowberry said. ‘And now, we’re all soaked. We want rooms with fires, and towels. Then bring some food for the gentlemen.’
‘Will you eat down here?’ The innkeeper indicated the taproom. ‘Good company, and a fire lit, given the weather–’
‘We’ll eat in private, thank you,’ I answered.
MASTER PARRY HAD arranged a room each for Nicholas and me; he had spared no expense. He could afford to, the Lady Elizabeth being one of the richest people in the country. A fire was already lit in my room and it was bright with candles. I changed out of my wet clothes, setting them before the fire to dry. My bag had been brought up and I laid out my lawyer’s robe carefully on the bed.
The food came, thick mutton pottage, bacon with bread and cheese, and a jug of beer. Rough fare, but good. Shortly afterwards there was a knock at the door and Nicholas entered, bending his head to pass through the doorway. He, too, had changed, and had dried his red-blond hair. He wore a green doublet tied with silver aiglets, with a fashionable high collar showing a little ruffle of shirt above.
‘Sit down, lad,’ I said.
‘Thank you, sir.’
We set to our food with a will. When he had taken the edge from his hunger, Nicholas put a hand to his purse and took out a little silver coin, laying it on the table. ‘I was given one of these in London yesterday,’ he said. ‘The latest shilling.’
I picked up the bright new coin, stamped with the head of our eleven-year-old king, a serious expression on his face. Around the edge was stamped Edward VI by the Grace of God in Latin. I weighed the coin in my palm. ‘It’s bigger than the one they put out at the beginning of the year. But more copper in it?’
‘I think so.’ Nicholas frowned. ‘God’s death, does Protector Somerset take us all for fools as he robs the country of its silver? All this chopping and changing just raises prices even further. Beer is up another farthing.’
I smiled wryly. ‘He needs silver from somewhere to pay for his Scottish war. Along with this latest round of new taxes Parliament has granted him.’ I shook my head. ‘When the old king died, I thought all this pouring money into unwinnable wars would stop, not that things would get even worse.’
Nicholas grunted. ‘Do you think we’re beaten up there?’
‘It looks like it.’
‘That will be a great dishonour for England.’
I looked at the coin thoughtfully. ‘I have never seen prices rise so fast as this year. If you are a poor workman–’ I shook my head. ‘With that, and grasping landowners raising rents and enclosing lands–’
Nicholas interrupted me. ‘What else are they to do? Prices go up for them too. I know my father found it hard to turn a profit, which was why–’ Nicholas broke off, shrugging, a frown crossing his freckled brow.
I looked at him. Three years before, when he was twenty-one, his Lincolnshire gentry parents had disinherited him for refusing to marry a woman they had chosen for him, but whom he did not love. The bitterness caused by their rejection still haunted him, I knew, though he seemed happy enough as my assistant, and looked forward to the prospect of soon being called to the bar. He worked hard and skilfully, though his heart was not as wholly in the law as mine had been at his age, and spent much time carousing with other young gentlemen–he remained acutely conscious of his gentleman status–in the London taverns and, I suspected, the brothels, too. I thought sometimes that what he needed was a wife. Although not conventionally handsome, Nicholas was a striking young man, and not lacking in confidence; but he did lack money, being reliant on his limited earnings, and that would count. Currently, he was paying court to another barrister’s daughter, Beatrice Kenzy. I had met her a couple of times, and did not like her.
Changing the subject, Nicholas asked, ‘Is it possible I shall see the Lady Elizabeth tomorrow?’
‘Unlikely. I see her rarely enough.’
He smiled. ‘You brought me because her status means you should not arrive without someone to serve you.’
‘You know that is the way of it. Though there may be documents to copy. But access to the Lady Elizabeth is strictly controlled by Master Parry and her ladies.’
Nicholas leaned forward, his green eyes alive with interest. ‘What is she like now?’
‘I have not seen her these eight months,’ I replied. ‘Not since I went to deliver my condolences when–when Queen Catherine died.’ I stumbled slightly over the words, swallowed, then continued, ‘Elizabeth is fifteen, but you deal with her as with an adult. She has never known a secure childhood.’ I smiled sadly. ‘She is extraordinarily clever, though, quick with words, and she can use them sharply. When I was first appointed to work under Master Parry, she told me that her dogs would wear her collars. And so she expects.’
Nicholas hesitated, then said, ‘This business–do you think it might be connected with what happened in January–her trouble?’
‘No,’ I answered firmly. ‘The scandal involving Thomas Seymour died with that wretched man. That I do know.’ I looked at him firmly. ‘Remember, the Protector publicly acknowledged that the Lady Elizabeth was involved in no illegal marriage plans with Seymour. That is all I can say on the matter, Nicholas. I have my duty of confidentiality.’
‘Of course. Only—’
‘Only everyone from that innkeeper to every lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn would love to know the details,’ I answered with asperity.
‘No, sir.’ He looked a little uneasy. ‘It is just that, this matter we are summoned on being urgent and confidential, I wondered if there might be some connection. Whether–’
I nodded. ‘Whether there might be politics involved. No, I am sure not. And I am sorry to have snapped just then, only so many have fished for gossip, knowing I work with Parry.’ I shook my head. ‘Better sometimes, Nicholas, to know as little as possible. There, a free piece of advice from an old lawyer.’
LATER, WHEN NICHOLAS had returned to his room, I went and opened the window. The rain had stopped, though the sound of water dripping was audible through the still night. A half-moon cast a dim silver glow over the fields surrounding the inn. People were already saying this would be a bad harvest, the first in four years. I wondered what would happen if there was a dearth of grain on top of everything else.
I turned from the window. I should really do the exercises my doctor friend Guy had prescribed before going to bed, but I was too tired. I worried about Guy. For the last month he had been ill, with a low fever it seemed nothing could abate, and for a man now in his mid-sixties that was serious. I would visit him again as soon as we returned to London. In truth, I feared him dying. I had lost so many people these last few years, not only Queen Catherine. Jack Barak, my former assistant and friend, I saw seldom–and clandestinely–for his wife Tamasin, once also a friend, had never forgiven me for leading him, three years before, into an affair where he had lost a hand, and nearly died. Their little boy, George, nearly four now, was my godson, but Tamasin would not allow me to visit the house. I had never even seen their daughter. My former servant boy, Timothy, was gone to be an apprentice, my old servant girl, Josephine, was now married and far away in Norfolk. Her last letter to me had suggested that she and her husband were in difficulty; I had sent back some money and asked her to let me know how she fared, for I knew she was pregnant, but there had been no reply, which was unlike her, and it worried me.
I sat on the bed and thought, I am become melancholy. And then the realization hit me, starkly: It is because I am lonely. I had seen Timothy and Josephine almost as the children I had never had. It was foolish, foolish. And I was becoming bored with my work, the endless land conveyances, the negotiations to buy farms and manors that sometimes petered out into nothing. I had been much happier in the years when I represented poor men at the Court of Requests. I had looked forward to getting Nicholas to assist me in such cases, perhaps knocking some of his gentlemanly prejudices out of him, but when, two years ago, Rich became Lord Chancellor, it was indicated that my post was needed for another. I shook my head sadly.
AS I READIED FOR BED, I remembered that frightening day in January again. Elizabeth had escaped the accusations against her, as had her servants; Parry had been allowed to return to Elizabeth’s service, though Kat Ashley was still kept away. Thomas Seymour had died by the axe in March; the execution of his own brother for treason had caused much gossip, and weakened the Protector. I had not seen Rich since. My office had indeed been searched by his men, probably more to make a nuisance than anything else. I had had to tell Nicholas and Skelly, who had been present when the searchers arrived, what had happened. I had seen fear in Nicholas’s face then, and had understood it; he was remembering the last time I had been involved in the savage world of court politics, during the plot against Catherine Parr three years before. Through me he had been drawn into its coils, though he was only a lad just up from the countryside. We had seen terrible things.
I saw myself reflected in the window; the candle picked out the deepening lines on my face, the growing stoop of my hunched back, my hair still thick but completely white. I seldom prayed these days but that night I knelt and asked God’s help for my sick friend Guy, for Josephine in her unknown troubles, for the Lady Elizabeth, and for those unknown men out in the countryside on whom Fowberry had set the Hatfield Watch.
NEXT MORNING, WE ROSE early and, after breakfasting, rode the short distance to Hatfield Palace with Fowberry and his men. The weather had turned warmer, with a light wind and fleecy clouds high in the sky. Nicholas wore his short black robe, and I wore my hood, white serjeant’s coif, and dark silk summer gown, the breeze stirring the fur collar. My horse, Genesis, had been reluctant to set out that morning, and I realized he was getting too old for such long journeys.
Hatfield Palace was modern and commodious, built in bright red brick around a central courtyard, with a park beyond enclosed by high walls. It was Elizabeth’s main residence now, containing her household of some hundred and fifty people. Standing in the main doorway to meet us was a middle-aged woman with a round face, keen eyes and an air of confident severity. She wore a black dress and old-fashioned gable hood. A large bunch of keys hung at her waist. I had met Blanche apHarry before; Welsh, like Thomas Parry, she had served Elizabeth since babyhood and controlled the running of the house and access to her mistress. We dismounted and bowed to her. With a nod and a wave of her hand she dismissed Fowberry and his men, who led our horses to the stables. She looked hard at Nicholas, who carried a folder containing paper for making notes, then turned to me with a brief smile.
‘God give you good morrow, Serjeant Shardlake. I fear you will have had a wet journey yesterday.’
‘We did, mistress, but made it safely.’
She nodded. ‘Good. Master Parry awaits you. The Lady Elizabeth will receive you later.’
She led us into the building. It was decorated with tapestries and good furniture, but in a sober style very different from the colourful, rather overblown decoration the old king had favoured in his palaces. The servants, too, were dressed in blacks and browns; a Protestant style for a Protestant mistress.
We came to a corridor I recognized, and stopped outside Master Parry’s office. Turning to us, Mistress Blanche spoke quietly. ‘As Master Parry will tell you, I know about the matter on which he wishes to instruct you. Nobody else in the house does, and nothing–’ she looked sharply at Nicholas again–‘nothing is to be said outside Master Parry’s office.’ Nicholas bowed his head in acknowledgement. Mistress Blanche knocked at the door. Within, Parry’s deep voice called us to enter. Mistress Blanche drew the door shut behind us, and I heard the chink of the keys at her waist fade as she walked away.
Thomas Parry was a tall man in his early forties, a once-powerful body now running to fat. His rubicund face was dominated by a large nose and small, penetrating blue eyes, his black hair cut fashionably short. Elizabeth’s Comptroller, her man of business. Like many in official positions he had cut his teeth working for Thomas Cromwell, helping him intimidate the monasteries into surrender the decade before. He came over to us, his manner bluff and cheerful as usual.
‘Matthew. Good morrow. I am sorry to bring you out here at such short notice. Good thinking to bring a change of clothes with that pissing rain. God knows what the harvest will be like, the barley is weeks behind.’
‘I was thinking the same yesterday, Master Parry.’
‘Fowberry tells me you spotted some men camping not far from here. Turned out to be a crew of masterless men. Northampton shoe workers whose trade had gone under, making for London, according to their tale of woe. They had clubs and knives about them though, so I wonder. Anyway, the Hatfield Constable and Watch kicked their arses out of the parish.’
‘Ah, don’t look so disapproving, Matthew. I know you Commonwealth men would have all the beggars given gold.’ He winked at Nicholas.
‘Work, at least.’
‘Ah, Matthew, if all were given jobs, wages would rise, prices even more, and then where would we be?’ Parry smiled again, the knowledgeable man of affairs arguing against the idealistic lawyer. Looking at his plump, cheerful face, though, I remembered what Rich had said in January; when he was shown the instruments in the Tower he had been happy to tell all he knew of Thomas Seymour. But who, in those circumstances, would not start talking? And nothing Parry confessed had implicated Elizabeth. He was shrewd, and loyal.
He turned to Nicholas, who had accompanied me on visits to his London office before. ‘What of you, lad, do you read all the pamphlets and sermons against the greedy rich men?’
‘No, sir,’ Nicholas replied. ‘I think such talk threatens the right social order.’
‘Good lad.’ Parry nodded approval. ‘How far on with your studies are you now? Called to the bar yet?’
‘Before long, I hope. I began my studies late.’
‘Well, your work has always seemed conscientiously done.’ His face changed suddenly and, like Mistress Blanche, he gave Nicholas a hard look. ‘Can you be trusted with confidential matters? With depraved, revolting details that would titillate all the gossiping lawyers?’
‘Depraved, sir?’ Nicholas’s eyes widened. He had not expected that. Neither had I. But Parry’s face remained set.
‘Yes, about as nasty as you can get.’
‘I have never broken a client’s confidence, Master Parry.’
The Comptroller turned to me, his voice suddenly hard. ‘Can he be fully trusted, Matthew, in all matters? This thing is out of the common run.’
‘Master Overton has kept serious confidences before. When I worked for the late queen.’
Parry nodded, then smiled, all bonhomie again, and clapped Nicholas on the shoulder. ‘I had to be certain.’ He went behind his desk and sat down, motioning us to chairs set in front. ‘Then we had best begin. There is none too much time.’ He slid an inkpot across the desk towards Nicholas. ‘Take notes, Overton, but only of names and places, and keep them safe. What I am about to tell you is known only to myself, Mistress Blanche, and the Lady Elizabeth, who has personally requested that you undertake this investigation.’ He frowned, as though doubtful of her wisdom, then continued, ‘She will speak with you afterwards, Matthew. But do not mention the more gruesome aspects of the story. We had to tell her, but I fear it near turned her stomach.’
Nicholas and I looked at each other. This was indeed no query about land ownership.
‘Have either of you been to Norfolk?’ Parry asked.
‘No, sir,’ Nicholas answered. ‘I come from Lincolnshire, but over by the Trent.’
‘And I have never been,’ I replied. ‘Though I had a goodly number of clients from the county in the days when I represented poor folk at the Court of Requests.’
‘Ah yes.’ Parry smiled cynically. ‘You’ll know the saying, then, “Norfolk wiles, many men beguiles”. I’ve heard the commons there are the most litigious in the country, forever suing gentlemen over rents and enclosure of common land. What’s that other saying? “Every Norfolk man carries Lyttelton’s Tenures at the plough’s tail”.’
‘Certainly Norfolk people have good knowledge of their rights. And are ready to club together to obtain representation in Requests where the common law won’t help them.’
‘Did you win many cases for these oppressed Norfolk commons?’
‘Some. Despite the law’s delays and the landlords’ own wiles.’
- "The tale is enthralling. . . . Sansom describes 16th-century events in the crisply realistic style of someone watching them transpire right outside his window. . . . Don't believe those tapestries of pretty lords and ladies happily hunting unicorns: The Middle Ages were murder."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
- "Longtime readers of this superb series will know what to expect on every level: sharply drawn characters, particularly Shardlake himself, who has grown into one of the most well-textured leading characters in the entire genre... Tombland is the latest in what is easily one of the best ongoing mystery series currently being published."—Christian Science Monitor
- "Outstanding . . . Non-mystery readers interested in Tudor England will be equally enthralled."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- PRAISE FOR THE SHARDLAKE SERIES
- On Sale
- Jan 29, 2019
- Page Count
- 880 pages
- Mulholland Books