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C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution


I was not aware of C.J. Sansom until I read his obituary in the New York Times. I immediately ordered his first novel, Dissolution, and read it pretty fast, because it was quite good. There are seven novels in the Shardlake series. Matthew Shardlake is a kind of Tudor-era detective and lawyer who (at least in the first book of the series) works for Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is in the process of dissolving England’s monasteries for King Henry VIII. The Shardlake character is one of Cromwell’s “commissioners” who go out to the monasteries and do Cromwell’s legal work (and dirty work).

Sansom died just a few days before a television series named “Shardlake” started streaming. According to every source I’ve seen, the series was made by Disney+, but I can’t for the life of me find it on Disney+. I did find it, though, on Hulu.

After the first few chapters of Dissolution I was a bit disappointed, because Sansom doesn’t write the snappiest dialogue in the history of fiction. But by the end of the novel I was impressed. The novel is beautifully constructed. Sansom, who was also a lawyer, had a Ph.D. in history. I am highly inclined to trust Sansom’s take on the history of the dissolution of the English monasteries under Henry VIII. In a historical note at the end of the book, Sansom comments on the scarcity of studies on the dissolution of the monasteries. He pretty much dismisses two fairly recent books — 1992 (Yale) and 1993 (Oxford) — and says that the last major study of the dissolution was published in 1959 — The Religious Orders in England: The Tudor Age, David Knowles, Cambridge University Press, 1959. I have ordered a copy of the 1959 Knowles book on eBay and will probably write about it here later on. I am not the least interested in Catholicism in England, but as an unrepentant heathen I am very interested in the erasure of Catholicism in England.

So far I have watched only the first episode of the “Shardlake” television series. The television series is not, not, not faithful to Sansom’s novel. The television series removes one of Sansom’s key characters (Mark Poer) and replaces him with a character named Jack Barak. I do not, not, not approve. The writer of the TV series, Stephen Butchard, says that Sansom’s Mark Poer was too submissive for television and that a character was needed who would do more head-butting with Shardlake. That really irks me, because the television character is a snarky contemporary smart-ass like any number of cookie-cutter male characters that you’ll find on HBO or Netflix. Sansom’s Mark Poer character never snarks at Shardlake, but he certainly was man enough to think his own thoughts and go his own way. I also am skeptical of the television version of the Shardlake character, who sometimes seems mean and heartless in a way that Sansom’s Shardlake never was. It makes me wonder whether the actors have even read the books, the same way I have wondered whether the cast of the 2015 television version of Winston Graham’s Poldark had ever read the books, because they got their characters all wrong.

In any case, if you think you might be interested in C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels, I’d highly recommend reading the books first.

As for the dissolution of the monasteries, I hope to have a more informed view after I’ve read The Religious Orders in England: The Tudor Age. But based on what (admittedly little) I know at present, I have to wonder if the history of Western civilization wouldn’t be very different if Henry VIII had never shut down the monasteries (and reallocated the monasteries’ money and land). If Rome had continued to keep England barefoot and domesticated for five hundred more years, could Elizabeth I or the British Empire ever have happened? If not for the religious turmoil that so changed the church and transferred so much power downward from the pope and the bishops to literate commoners, could Edinburgh ever have led the Enlightenment? Could the American colonists have thrown off both a king and a pope?


Anthony Boyle as Jack Barak

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