Sunday, July 1, 2018

Sovereign by C. J. Sansom

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is book number three of Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series of murder mysteries set in the days of Henry VIII. As with the previous ones, they are filled with political intrigue, exhaustively researched, and full of authentic detail. The previous installments are:

I was introduced to these books by a legal colleague for obvious reasons: we both write for our local Bar Association magazine, we both read interesting books, and Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who lives a much more exciting and terrifying life than we ever wish to. More recently, a friend and fellow blogger took my suggestion and wrote about them herself.

This third book centers around several real-life events, specifically Henry’s Northern Progress, his marriage to Catherine Howard, and her subsequent execution for adultery. Shardlake is manipulated by Archbishop Cramner into accepting a rather unpleasant job: making sure an accused traitor is kept alive until he can be transported to the Tower of London and tortured. This is in addition to his more pleasant job of sorting through the local justice petitions to be presented to the king, along with a respected local lawyer. Come to think of it, this last job IS kind of a dream job in a way. Kind of like the 16th Century version of clerking for a judge...a really powerful one...but with small claims cases. Yeah, I think that would be great. Except for the chance of getting whacked that came with about any job back then. Oh well.

So, what was the Northern Progress? Heck, what even IS a “Royal Progress?” I’ll admit my knowledge was a bit sketchy here, despite my early exposure to John Bunyan’s most famous work. A “Progress” is certainly not a minor affair. More like a tour by a king and a few thousand of his followers, servants, and soldiers. In this case, the Northern Progress was intended to awe and cow the mostly Catholic northern provinces in England out of their plans to rebel. Henry packed up a huge hoard, and went north, visiting York, among other places. The bulk of the book is set in York, and concerns a nascent rebellion and its fallout.

A couple of interesting things come to mind in this connection. First, I hadn’t really connected the idea of the Royal Progress with Pilgrim’s Progress. Now, I have to wonder if Bunyan wasn’t making an interesting point. A king touring his realm is a Progress. But for Bunyan, who was too radical even for the Puritans, the idea of an everyman’s journey to paradise warranting the term “Progress” must have been part and parcel of his anti establishment beliefs. Pretty radical. Which might have contributed to his unpopularity with the powers that were.  

Secondly, the nightmare of logistics surrounding celebrities apparently have always been a problem. This rock star could behead you, obviously, but other than that...this had a lot in common with Woodstock. Insufficient provisions for sanitation, problems with food supply, threatening weather, prostitution, and so on.

Sansom is at his best describing the reality of these conditions. Like a good lawyer (and Samson was one before hitting it big with his writing), he envisions the downsides of everything. As with his descriptions of London, he unfailingly finds the stink.

Set in this crazy setting is a real-life controversy. As anyone who knows his or her history (or his or her Shakespeare), knows: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The number one cause of death for royalty often seems to be assassination, and deposition is always just one error away. Henry had managed to quash one Northern rebellion, and didn’t want to risk another. It didn’t help, of course, that his father (Henry VII), had a rather tenuous claim to the crown in the first place. After Richard III was killed, the succession was kind of up for grabs until Henry VII enforced his claim with violence. (And murder of most of his competition. There is some evidence that it was Henry, not Richard, who murdered the princes in the tower. It would certainly help his case.) But, it should not be forgotten, Henry VII was most directly descended from the previous dynasty not in his own right, but because he married into the line. So, in a just world, his wife should have been queen. Henry’s claim was as the heir of an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt (see Richard II…) on the Lancaster side of the War of the Roses. Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth, was on the York side. So he could claim to unite them. And he had a really big, badass army. Which was pretty much the deciding factor.

Then add in this: there was a claim that Henry’s wife’s father was actually illegitimate, the son of a no-name archer, and Richard of York’s wife Cecily. This theory is what drives the book.

I mention all this, not just because it is key to the plot, but because we lawyers find the whole inheritance rules fascinating. (You have insomnia? Ask a lawyer to explain the Rule Against Perpetuities…)

Anyway, the would-be rebels have documentation of the alleged truth of this claim, which would arguably render Henry VIII an illegitimate king, and install a rival from another branch of the family, who happens to be...strongly Catholic. You can guess where this is going.

Shardlake and his able (and part Jewish - in an era when the Jews had been evicted from England) assistant, Jack Barak, are asked to investigate a suspicious death, find a box with this documentation, which is then stolen from them by an unknown personage, and they are embroiled in a political maelstrom once again.

In this world, politics and religion have become inseparable. To be in favor of protestantism, one must support Henry. To oppose him is to embrace Catholicism. Unless one is a true dissenter, in which case, expect to be tortured and executed by both sides. Oh, and the strange bedfellows. The Northerners attempted an alliance with Scotland, which was torn between the Catholics and the Presbyterians (which hated the Church of England), so even making an alliance was a political decision for Scotland…

In our own era too, religion has become bound up with politics, which is why I, like Shardlake, find myself outside of any one camp these days. At least in our days, so far, this isn’t a life or death situation. What seems more likely is that the branch of religion that has aligned itself with Donald Trump is going to lose the next generation or two for the most part.

Which leads me to this: in this book, we see the old, obese, vindictive Henry VIII. Not the young, handsome, and politically astute. His political skills, like his physical (and sexual) prowess, have faded, and all he has left is power and brutality. There is some historical truth here. Certainly, Henry was bloody. As I pointed out regarding the first book in the series, over the course of his reign, Henry VIII killed one in forty of his subjects for political reasons. In our modern US, that would mean a murder of 7.2 million people. More than the population of a majority of our states. I’m glad not to live in those times.

But what does strike me here is the unpleasant parallels between our current political era. Trump is no Henry VIII. But he would certainly fit in to the Tudor Era as an egotistical, petty, vindictive narcissistic sociopath. The sort of people kings tend to be. Although I believe he is far too incompetent at anything other than demagoguery to actually succeed in those times, you can tell he craves it. He craves the fawning. He craves the power to silence those who disagree. And he governs based on patronage just like the old kings. This doesn’t work so well in the 21st Century

This leads me to what I think is the central quote of the book. Shardlake and Barak are discussing the political (and religious) implications if the king were proven to be illegitimate.

“God speaking through the King’s voice,” Barak shook his head. “That has always seemed to me as stupid an idea as that he speaks through the Pope’s”

And thus we have much of human history. The insistence that God speaks through certain privileged humans. Not just in Catholicism. Not just in the days of Church and State being combined. We see it today in the way that particular interpretations are used as weapons against vulnerable people around the world - and to remove dissenters who point out the evil that is being done.

I won’t get into the plot any further than this. I will say that I smoked out the major plot twist at the end about halfway through the book. But it was satisfying when it finally came to full light. (Hey, I was raised on Agatha Christie. And I’m still not as good as my wife at this…)

A thoroughly satisfying book, well above average in both the historical fiction and murder mystery genres.

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