As you can imagine, I have read my fair share of Tudor fiction over the years. For me the perfect Tudor fiction has enough intrigue, excitement and storytelling to engage the reader; but at the same time is factual, informative and historically correct (for the most part) to educate the reader. The author who I think does this the best, in fact he excels at it, is C.J. Sansom with his Shardlake Series.
C.J. Sansom has written 6 novels in the Shardlake series, the first published in 2003 and the latest in October 2018. The novels follow a Lawyer named Matthew Shardlake, distinguishable by his hunchback, which causes him much grief throughout the books, and is a source of ridicule and insult from other characters. The series can best be described as a tudor-crime novel, with each book providing a new mystery for Shardlake and his various assistants to uncover and solve. However at the same time as leading the reader down a path of murder, deceit and corruption, Sansom is also describing an intense, illustrative and vivid 16th century world. This is what, in my opinion, sets Sansom apart, and makes the Shardlake series, the best Tudor fiction.
This transportation to the Tudor world that Sansom takes his readers, is unlike any other I have experienced. The detail of his descriptions are marvellous; from the smells and sounds of Early Modern London, to the food and drink Shardlake consumes at dinner parties, the landscape he travels and the atmosphere of other towns and cities the hunchback lawyer visits. It is beyond clear, that Sansom has done extensive research on Tudor England, and the political, religious and social events of the century. C.J. Sansom actually completed both his BA and PhD at the same University that I attend – the University of Birmingham, which perhaps intensifies my affection for his writing. His education on Early Modern England, and his ability to research subjects intensely (both of which are heavily emphasised at Birmingham) allows for an incredibly descriptive, and informative setting for his novels.
The Shardlake series also includes many of my favourite historical figures from the period; Shardlake begins the series under the employment of the formidable Thomas Cromwell, before transferring to Cranmer’s service following Cromwell’s death in 1540. The lawyer also works for Catherine Parr on occasion, and most recently the Lady Elizabeth (future Elizabeth I). It covers crucial events throughout Henry and Edward’s reigns including the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry’s visit to York in 1541, the sinking of the Mary Rose in 1545 and Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. What is so brilliant about Sansom is that he drops the reader right in the middle of this world, every sensation, every touch is described and understood perfectly. It is as if you have time travelled back into 16th century. Samson goes above and beyond any other writer with his storytelling, he knows the Tudor period and it shows in his writing.
In the latest addition of the Shardlake series: Tombland, Matthew Shardlake is forced to solve a murder in Norfolk on the eve of Kett’s Rebellion, the lawyer finds himself sympathising with the rebels, and eventually joining their cause. There is an affinity with these characters that is inescapable. Samson makes these events seem, not like long ago stories told in history class, but real life events, gritty and dangerous and sad. Samson brings them to life. Samson writes each historical figure with the utmost clarity, and depicts them perfectly (in my opinion). He is unfavourable to some, and overly flattering to others but his opinions seem to align with mine quite nicely and thus his character assessments are satisfactory.
I urge anyway who enjoys the Tudor period to begin the Shardlake series today. It is an immense series, with each book spanning around 600 pages each, but it is full of a generous and fruitful plot, characters that you empathise with, characters you love and characters you will vehemently hate. It brings to life figures of the past in a way I cannot praise enough, it has taught me more about the every day life and logistics of Tudor London than any other book and it is drenched in historical accuracy and research. C.J. Samson clearly devoted himself to this series, and it is evident from the sheer excellence of the books. I for one cannot wait for the next instalment of the Shardlake series, and I am sure many agree with me.