52 Books Challenge: #25 Tombland and The Norfolk Rebellion

Tombland by CJ Sansom is the 7th novel in the Matthew Shardlake series, set in England 1549. King Henry VIII is dead and his 11 year old  son Edward (VI) has inherited the throne with Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, acting as Lord Protector. Matthew, Sergeant at Law of Lincoln’s Inn is in the service of Lady Elizabeth, soon to be Elizabeth I, and is called to her palace at Hatfield for a new assignment. She wants him to investigate the imprisonment of one of her distant relatives, John Boleyn, who is accused of murdering his wife.

The investigation takes Matthew to the Tombland district of Norwich, England’s second largest city, where he meets Boleyn in the city jail and becomes convinced of his innocence. The trial is a farce and Boleyn is convicted on hearsay alone and sentenced to hang the next day, despite Matthew having exposed a probable conspiracy by several rich landowners to acquire Boleyn’s land and property.

The trial of John Boleyn occurs at a time when the illegal seizure of property, especially common land taken by the rich for enclosures to raise sheep, is causing poverty and unrest across the whole country. In Norwich the unrest turns into open rebellion and a huge “army” is raised in support of the outspoken Robert Kett, himself a yeoman landowner but with having strong sympathy with the oppressed common folk. The rebels take the city of Norwich then engages in two battles, one at Mousehold Heath against the forces led by the Duke of Northampton and a second against the army led by the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Dussindale. Matthew and his assistants, Barak and Nick, are caught up in the swelling ranks of the rebels and they witness the battles from within the rebel camp.

Overall another historically accurate description of these events as told through the eyes of lawyer Shardlake. Unlike earlier books there is a great deal more of the “human connection” between him and many of the characters in the book, some fictional and some in reality such as Robert Kett and his brother, as well as Simon the stable boy, Nathaniel the ex weavers apprentice, Josephine his earlier housekeeper. Also, at the end of the book there is a bibliography chapter, something I don’t  often read, but this was different. Apparently for 400 years after the Norwich rebellion most literature and accounts of the events of 1549 have been written portraying them as isolated and illegal acts of ignorant peasants. But since the beginning of the 21st Century a number of notable academics have written about how the Norfolk Rebellion was in fact connected to others in the South West of England, and how the grievances of the common folk were righteous and legal. Also, that they were promised redress by the Duke of Somerset the Lord Protector,  before betrayal by the Earl of Warwick. It seems that the close up account as portrayed by CJ Sansom through Matthew Shardlake has not only been scrupulously researched but is closer to the truth than we might think. Perhaps this is where the seeds of the English Civil War were sown for some 100+ years later? This was the final book in the 7 book series, published in 2018, and I wonder if CJ Sansom has more in store for us?


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