Sovereign is the third in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series set in Tudor England and I found it every bit as good as the first two. The front cover states that it is “So compulsive that, until you reach its final page, you’ll have to be almost physically prised away from it”. Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was certainly a gripping story and while I’m not sure that it really needed to be over 600 pages long, I never found myself getting bored.
The novel opens in 1541, as Henry VIII embarks on his Progress to the North, a state visit with the aim of allowing those who rebelled during the recent Pilgrimage of Grace to make their formal apologies to the king. The royal progress is heading for York – and so are lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak. Officially, Shardlake will be dealing with petitions to the king made by the people of York, but he has also been given another task to carry out. An important prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, is due to be brought from York to London, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, has asked Shardlake to take responsibility for Broderick’s welfare as he doesn’t want the prisoner to die before he can be questioned in the Tower.
Shortly after arriving in York, the murder of a glazier leaves Shardlake in possession of a chest of documents which, if they fall into the wrong hands, could be used to destroy the king. Shardlake barely has time to look at the documents before they are stolen again, but the little bit of knowledge he has gained puts his own life at risk. To make matters worse, he and Barak stumble upon a liaison between the king’s wife, Catherine Howard, and one of her courtiers, Thomas Culpeper; it seems that danger is closing in on them from all sides.
The first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, was set in a monastery, and the next, Dark Fire, took us into the heart of Tudor London; Sansom did a wonderful job of bringing those settings to life and he does the same here with York, capturing the mood of the people in the aftermath of a failed rebellion – people whose political and religious beliefs are not necessarily in alignment with the king’s. I enjoyed reading about the preparations for the arrival of the Progress and what was involved in providing food, accommodation and other amenities for not just the king and queen, but also their entourage of hundreds of courtiers, attendants and servants.
If you haven’t read the previous two books, I don’t think it’s completely necessary as this one does work as a standalone mystery with a beginning, middle and end, but I think I would still recommend reading them in order. There are some recurring characters in the series and it would be best to get to know them from their first appearance.
Barak came into the series in the second book, Dark Fire, and his relationship with Shardlake continues to develop in this book, but it also becomes strained after he falls in love with Tamasin Reedbourne, a servant in Queen Catherine’s household. There is no woman in Shardlake’s life and it does seem that he is jealous of Barak’s relationship with Tamasin – not because he’s attracted to Tamasin himself but because he resents his friend having another attachment. Shardlake comes across as quite a lonely person, I think, which is understandable as he has spent a lifetime being shunned for having a hunched back. He suffers a lot of cruel jibes and ridicule during his time in York, including a humiliation at the hands of the king, which completes the disillusionment with Henry which has been growing in him since Dissolution.
I have barely mentioned the actual mystery yet, but I can assure you that Shardlake does have a mystery to solve in this novel. It centres around a conspiracy dating back to the days of Edward IV and Richard III and I found this element of the story interesting as it showed the extent to which information relating to the Plantagenets was suppressed and covered up by the Tudors. For me, though, the mystery was secondary to the characters and the vivid Tudor setting.
I think this was probably my favourite of the Shardlake novels so far, but I still have another three to read and am planning to continue soon with the fourth one, Revelation.