Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom

Source of Book: borrowed from the library

I am always a sucker for a book written by a lawyer. In this case, C. J. Sansom was an English solicitor prior to his literary career, and his prior experience contributes to the virtues of this book, which is apparently the beginning of the series. I am also a sucker for a good murder mystery, particularly if I am looking for light reading while camping. This book fit both categories.

This particular murder mystery is set during the reign of Henry VIII, in 1537. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, has recently been beheaded for alleged adultery. Henry already broke with the Catholic Church over his divorce of his first wife, and is now carrying out his holy war against Catholicism. To that end, he has been shutting down monasteries, often on trumped-up charges. Although, to tell the truth, the monasteries have been bastions of fat living, sexual misconduct, and fraud for centuries. So there isn’t really a white hat, if you will.

In charge of the “transition” to Protestantism is Thomas Cromwell. He was one of the most intriguing historical figures in Tudor England. Most historians these days believe he, even more than Henry, masterminded the break with Rome, and the (in)famous annulment of Henry’s first marriage. A commoner, Cromwell rose from his humble beginnings - via the legal profession, not coincidentally - to become the second most powerful man in England. The Cromwells were destined to play an important part in the history of England. Thomas’ grand-nephew Oliver would eventually rule England for a time.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532

It is against this background that the story is set.

Matthew Shardlake is a talented lawyer, but crippled from a spinal deformity dating to his infancy. He is a bit of an idealist, longing for a world that combines the hope for religious and political freedom as envisioned by Sir Thomas More (Utopia) and Erasmus (The Praise of Folly, and On Free Will). At the time the story opens, Shardlake genuinely believes in the goodness of the English Reformation. After all, the Catholic church is corrupt, and many of its doctrines abusive. (The selling of indulgences and the worship of relics play a key role in this book.) But, as is usual in human affairs, no one is truly good. The monasteries are shut down and their land seized. And then the land is given to cronies of the king. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
C’mon. You know you want to see Moon, Entwisle, Daltrey, and Townshend show how it is done. 
(Yeah, I have done a windmill in church. I'm a rebel.) 

In any case, Cromwell has sent an emissary to a (fictional) monastery in southern England. In a disturbing development, the emissary, rather than negotiating the surrender of the monastery, finds himself neatly separated from his head. Clearly this is unacceptable. Cromwell is outraged, and the monks are terrified that this will be used as a pretext against them.

So, Shardlake’s services are retained by Cromwell. He and his assistant Mark need to sort out this mystery and report back.

Sansom brings the era to life, including the hardships, and particularly the smells. He has a way with the olfactory, shall we say. He also makes the terror of the times real. We tend to forget, in our modern era, that the purges of the Communist regimes of the 20th Century are not anomalies, but just the latest in an endless string of political and religious purges dating to the dawn of human history. (More on this below.)

The monastery turns out to be filled with interesting - and realistic - characters. The abbot, more fond of fox hunting with the local nobility than in running his monastery. The prior, who, along with the bursar, actually runs the place. The bursar, who pinches every penny - except for the lavish expenditures on food and wine. Brother Gabriel, the homosexual musician, who longs for transcendence. Brother Jerome, the monk of a different order, who has been broken on the rack, and who is tormented by the oath of loyalty to Henry VIII he swore while in extreme pain. Brother Guy, the African physician, an outcast due to his race, and now his Catholic faith; but who nonetheless seeks to show compassion to all. And Alice, the doctor’s servant, bereaved by the death of her fiancĂ©, disrespected because of her gender and class, and with secrets of her own.

As is usual in a good mystery, everyone has secrets, even Shardlake. Throughout the book, secrets are teased out, but not in enough time to prevent further murders. And not just these contemporary murders, but past murders come to light, as the secrets of the monastery - and Cromwell’s office itself - are laid bare.

In keeping with my usual policy, I am not going to reveal any more of the plot. In my opinion, the novel is well plotted, although it isn’t the very best mystery I have read. (Ah, the travails of being a mystery aficionado…) However, the period accuracy and color is outstanding, both bringing the past to life, and putting a recognizably modern gloss on the past. In this sense, Shardlake is the perfect narrator. He, like his heroes, looks forward to the modern world, with its freedom of thought and religion, and an end to violence as a means of resolution of political and religious conflict. As a cripple, he is also a cultural outsider, and thus more sympathetic toward the plight of the downtrodden. Thus, he is not blinded (as much) by the sexism of the times, or the acceptance of violence toward the poor. And his epiphany when he realizes the full horror of what Cromwell has done in order to appease Henry is palpable.

A few lines stood out. One is spoken by Alice:

“You are both the same, reformers and papists, you fashion beliefs which you force the people to follow on pain of death, while you struggle for power and lands and money, which are all any of you truly want.”

This was certainly true of the English Reformation. And of the religious wars of that time. And of the English Civil War. And really, it is true about pretty much every war with religious overtones past and present. Or pretty much any war ever. Whatever the average person thinks it is about, for those at the top, it is and has always been about power and money. Maybe I am just cynical, but I don’t see clean hands much of anywhere. Religion has ever been used as a tool by those who would rise to power and seek their own glory and wealth. Shardlake comes to realize that even the cause he genuinely believes in has devolved into oppression and greed.

As Shardlake says at the end, speaking to Brother Guy, his fellow outcast from society:

“[T]here is nowhere safe in the world now, no thing certain….Perhaps we are all a little mad. The Bible says God made man in his image but I think we make and remake him, in whatever image happens to suit our shifting needs. I wonder if he knows or cares. All is dissolving, Brother Guy, all is dissolution.”

The hindsight of history shows too that Shardlake is in a sense right. England would remain “Protestant” (however you define that) only until the death of Henry’s son Edward. After that, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, “Bloody” Mary, would attempt to re-Catholicize England. (Despite her name, she actually murdered far fewer than her father.) Then, Elizabeth I would return England to Protestantism, then James I and Charles I would so irritate the nation that we ended up with Oliver Cromwell, and the English Civil war, and on and on. In fact, there would continue to be religious and political slaughter and strife in England until 160 years later, after religious tolerance was finally accepted during the Glorious Revolution. (And that is just in England. In most of the world, things would remain worse for a few more centuries…)

Shardlake is also right about something else. The dissolution of the monasteries was in some sense necessary and maybe even good. However, for many, the breakdown of long standing institutions caused nothing but hardship and an unmooring from all that gave their lives security. Certainly, the transfer of wealth from one greedy institution to another wasn’t exactly an improvement, and the loss of the institutional charity of the Catholic Church did in fact cause many poor to suffer. But as much as that, one cannot escape the fact that for most people, their religious observances and beliefs were violently and somewhat senselessly rearranged. And not just because of genuine beliefs. In fact, the reason for the change was mostly the fact that Henry wanted to marry his mistress. The “official” view of God, imposed from above on pain of death, torture, and forfeiture of property, was in fact dictated by the shifting needs of those in power. And, for a century and a half, all was in fact dissolved, and the average person would be required to shift his religious “beliefs” at the whim of the ever-changing will of an ever-shifting ruling class.

In the end, Alice and Shardlake can agree that the dream of most of us - to be left alone to believe as we wish, as long as we grant others the same right - is what truly matters to us common folk. It is those with the power and wealth that manipulate, oppress, and even kill, so that their own power and wealth can be maintained.

I am looking forward to reading the other books in this series. This one is promising for its careful plotting, believable characters, period color, and deeper themes.

Note on the violence of the past:

I have written a good bit lately on the violence of the past, and the way we seem to have forgotten it. Some of this was from my own thinking and exploration, but a good bit was bolstered by reading The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.

We tend to glorify the past. In other words, Mark Antony had it exactly backwards. To correct him: “The good that men do lives after them. The evil is oft interred with their bones.”

During the reign of Henry VIII, who is generally liked as a politician, although that whole “beheading the wives” thing isn’t quite kosher, he killed at least 57,000 people for political or religious “treason.” The range is 57,000 to 70,000.

So, if we use the lower of the numbers, how bad is this?

Well, the population of England during the middle of his reign (the time the book is set, for what that is worth), was about 2,500,000 people. (2.5 million)

Thus, he killed about 2 ¼% of his subjects for disagreeing with him or political or religious grounds. That’s about one in every 40 people. Murdered for “disloyalty.”

What would this look like today?

Well, the United States, as of 2015, had about 320 million residents.

If you were to kill off 2 ¼%, that would mean about 7.2 million people. Can you imagine if this happened today?

That’s more than the population of Washington State. That’s more than double the population of Los Angeles. That’s nearly three times the population of Chicago.

All killed for disagreeing with the king on religion or politics.

Anyone want to return to the past?

Note on Thomas Cromwell:

Cromwell did eventually lose his favor with Henry VIII. It’s kind of amusing that he both orchestrated the divorce (thus currying favor with Anne Boleyn and her family) and orchestrated her death. In fact, as the book points out in painful detail, Cromwell knew the king wished to “eliminate” Anne, so he found a way. A lower class musician, Mark Smeaton, was arrested because he was convenient. He was tortured on the rack until he confessed an affair with the queen (which was physically and chronologically impossible.) This “confession” was used to ensure her death - and his. Basically, two innocent lives were destroyed to please the king. Mark’s death was, perhaps, less excusable. Anne at least aspired to be queen. Mark was an innocent bystander, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and suffered torture and execution as a result.

Again, anyone want to return to the past?

So, Cromwell. He lost the king’s favor when he advocated that Henry marry Anne of Cleves. This was more a political than a romantic marriage, and Henry was decidedly not attracted to her. (She may well have been a bit plain, poor girl.) The subsequent annulment lawsut involved medical testimony of “wet dreams” among other things. Ah, the glory of being a lawyer in high profile cases.

Anyway, Henry was pissed at Cromwell as a result of this whole thing, so he trumped up some charges against him, and Thomas lost his head.

In an ironic twist, Anne of Cleves came out of things reasonably well. Henry may have found her to be a turn-off, but he gave her a generous settlement (she got lands that used to belong to Anne Boleyn’s family), and treated her like a sister. She ended up outliving Henry all his other wives, dying at the ripe age of 41 (good for the time for a woman - and nearly a decade longer than Henry). And whatever Henry may have thought, she hardly seems to be all that unattractive.

Portrait of Anne of Cleves
by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539


  1. "Wait a minute, you mean I am older than Henry VIII was when he died? "

    Ummm...according to wikipedia, Henry VIII lived from 28 June 1491 – 28 January 1547, making him 55 when he died. I'm sure you're not older than that.

    Anne of Cleves certainly did outlive Henry by about 10 years. She was 41 when she died.

    1. I see what I did. A date range on my source wasn't clear about the lifespan versus the reign, and I missed the difference. I'll correct that bit.

  2. The Tudors have been my favorite royal family since adolescence. They make for a fascinating backdrop as well as case study in history

  3. This kind of thing is why I always laugh when Christians get in a huff about graphic violence and sex in literature and say Christians shouldn't read or write anything that explicit. History is worse by far, and the Bible has quite a few…er, let's just say R-rated moments of its own. It doesn't do anyone any good to sanitize and romanticize everything, esp. human nature.

  4. I predict you will enjoy the whole series. I have, so far.