Shardlake returns in Lamentation
Any novel that opens with four people burnt alive at the stake is not for the faint-hearted but it does herald the return of Matthew Shardlake, our favourite hunchbacked Tudor lawyer. Sixth in the Shardlake series, The Independent describe Lamentation as "a triumph both as detective fiction and as a novel, and its 615 pages never drag."
Set in the Summer of 1546, King Henry VIII is slowly dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors are engaged in a power struggle to control the government of Henry's successor, eight-year-old Prince Edward. As heretics are hunted across London, the Catholic party focus their attack on Henry's sixth wife and Matthew Shardlake's old mentor, Queen Catherine Parr. Except she has a secret - Queen Catherine has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, a book so radical that if it came to the King's attention it could bring both her and her sympathizers crashing down. But the book has gone missing and only Shardlake can help. Read the opening pages below.
I did not want to attend the burning. I have never liked even such things as the bearbaiting, and this was to be the burning alive at the stake of four living people, one a woman, for denying that the body and blood of Christ were present in the Host at Mass. Such was the pitch we had come to in England during the great heresy hunt of 1546.
I had been called from my chambers at Lincoln’s Inn to see the Treasurer, Master Rowland. Despite my status as a serjeant, the most senior of barristers, Master Rowland disliked me. I think his pride had never recovered from the time three years before when I had been – justly – disrespectful to him. I crossed the Inn Square, the red brickwork mellow in the summer sunshine, exchanging greetings with other black-gowned lawyers going to and fro. I looked up at Stephen Bealknap’s rooms; he was my old foe both in and out of court. The shutters at his windows were closed. He had been ill since early in the year and had not been seen outside for many weeks. Some said he was near death.
I went to the Treasurer’s offices and knocked at his door. A sharp voice bade me enter. Rowland sat behind his desk in his spacious room, the walls lined with shelves of heavy legal books, a display of his status. He was old, past sixty, rail-thin but hard as oak, with a narrow, seamed, frowning face. He sported a white beard, grown long and forked in the current fashion, carefully combed and reaching halfway down his silken doublet. As I came in he looked up from cutting a new nib for his goose-feather quill. His fingers, like mine, were stained black from years of working with ink.
‘God give you good morrow, Serjeant Shardlake,’ he said in his sharp voice. He put down the knife.
I bowed. ‘And you, Master Treasurer.’
He waved me to a stool and looked at me sternly.
‘Your business goes well?’ he asked. ‘Many cases listed for the Michaelmas term?’
‘A good enough number, sir.’
‘I hear you no longer get work from the Queen’s solicitor.’ He spoke casually. ‘Not for this year past.’
‘I have plenty of other cases, sir. And my work at Common Pleas keeps me busy.’
He inclined his head. ‘I hear some of Queen Catherine’s officials have been questioned by the Privy Council. For heretical opinions.’
‘So rumour says. But so many have been interrogated these last few months.’
‘I have seen you more frequently at Mass at the Inn church recently.’ Rowland smiled sardonically. ‘Showing good conformity? A wise policy in these whirling days. Attend church, avoid the babble of controversy, follow the King’s wishes.’
He took his sharpened quill and spat to soften it, then rubbed it on a cloth. He looked up at me with a new keenness. ‘You have heard that Mistress Anne Askew is sentenced to burn with three others a week on Friday? The sixteenth of July?’
‘It is the talk of London. Some say she was tortured in the Tower after her sentence. A strange thing.’
Rowland shrugged. ‘Street gossip. But the woman made a sensation at the wrong time. Abandoning her husband and coming to London to preach opinions clear contrary to the Act of Six Articles. Refusing to recant, arguing in public with her judges.’ He shook his head, then leaned forward. ‘The burning is to be a great spectacle. There has been nothing like it for years. The King wants it to be seen where heresy leads. Half the Privy Council will be there.’
‘Not the King?’ There had been rumours he might attend.
I remembered Henry had been seriously ill in the spring; he had hardly been seen since.
‘His majesty wants representatives from all the London guilds.’ Rowland paused. ‘And the Inns of Court. I have decided you should go to represent Lincoln’s Inn.’
I stared at him. ‘Me, sir?’
‘You take on fewer social and ceremonial duties than you should, given your rank, Serjeant Shardlake. No one seems willing to volunteer for this, so I have had to decide. I think it time you took your turn.’ I sighed. ‘I know I have been lax in such duties. I will do more, if you wish.’ I took a deep breath. ‘But not this, I would ask you. It will be a horrible thing. I have never seen a burning, and do not wish to.’ Rowland waved a hand dismissively. ‘You are too squeamish. Strange in a farmer’s son. You have seen executions, I know that. Lord Cromwell had you attend Anne Boleyn’s beheading when you worked for him.’
‘That was bad. This will be worse.’
He tapped a paper on his desk. ‘This is the request for me to send someone to attend. Signed by the King’s secretary, Paget himself. I must despatch the name to him tonight. I am sorry, Serjeant, but I have decided you will go.’ He rose, indicating the interview was over. I stood and bowed again. ‘Thank you for offering to become more involved with the Inn’s duties,’ Rowland said, his voice smooth once more. ‘I will see what other – ’ he hesitated – ‘activities may be coming up.’
On the day of the burning I woke early. It was set for midday but I felt in too heavy and mopish a frame of mind to go into chambers. Punctual as ever, my new steward Martin Brocket brought linen cloths and a ewer of hot water to my bedroom at seven, and after bidding me good morning laid out my shirt, doublet and summer robe. As ever, his manner was serious, quiet, deferential. Since he and his wife Agnes had come to me in the winter my household had been run like clockwork. Through the half-open door I could hear Agnes asking the boy Timothy to be sure and fetch some fresh water later, and the girl Josephine to hurry with her breakfast that my table might be made ready. Her tone was light, friendly.
‘Another fine day, sir,’ Martin ventured. He was in his forties, with thinning fair hair and bland, unremarkable features.
I had told none of my household about my attendance at the burning. ‘It is, Martin,’ I replied. ‘I think I shall work in my study this morning, go in this afternoon.’
‘Very good, sir. Your breakfast will be ready shortly.’ He bowed and went out.
I got up, wincing at a spasm in my back. Fortunately I had fewer of those now, as I followed my doctor friend Guy’s exercises faithfully. I wished I could feel comfortable with Martin, yet although I liked his wife there was something in his cool, stiff formality that I had never felt easy with. As I washed my face and donned a clean linen shirt scented with rosemary, I chid myself for my unreasonableness: as the master it was for me to initiate a less formal relationship.
I examined my face in the steel mirror. More lines, I thought. I had turned forty-four that spring. A lined face, greying hair and a hunched back. As there was such a fashion for beards now – my assistant Barak had recently grown a neat brown one – I had tried a short beard myself a couple of months before, but like my hair it had come out streaked with grey, which I thought unbecoming.
I looked out from the mullioned window onto my garden, where I had allowed Agnes to install some beehives and cultivate a herb garden. They improved its look, and the herbs were sweet-smelling as well as useful. The birds were singing and the bees buzzed round the flowers, everything bright and colourful. What a day for a young woman and three men to die horribly.
My eye turned to a letter on my bedside table. It was from Antwerp, in the Spanish Netherlands, where my nineteen-year-old ward, Hugh Curteys, lived, working for the English merchants there. Hugh was happy now. Originally planning to study in Germany, Hugh had instead stayed in Antwerp and found an unexpected interest in the clothing trade, especially the finding and assessing of rare silks and new fabrics, such as the cotton that was coming in from the New World. Hugh’s letters were full of pleasure in work, and in the intellectual and social freedom of the great city; the fairs, debates and readings at the Chambers of Rhetoric. Although Antwerp was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Emperor Charles V did not interfere with the many Protestants who lived there – he did not dare imperil the Flanders banking trade, which financed his wars.
Hugh never spoke of the dark secret which we shared from the time of our meeting the year before; all his letters were cheerful in tone. In this one, though, was news of the arrival in Antwerp of a number of English refugees. ‘They are in a piteous state, appealing to the merchants for succour. They are reformers and radicals, afraid they will be caught up in the net of persecution they say Bishop Gardiner has cast over England.’
I sighed, donned my robe and went down to breakfast. I could delay no more; I must start this dreadful day.
The hunt for heretics had begun in the spring. During the winter the tide of the King’s fickle religious policy had seemed to turn towards the reformers; he had persuaded Parliament to grant him power to dissolve the chantries, where priests were paid under the wills of deceased donors to say Masses for their souls. But, like many, I suspected his motive had been not religious but financial – the need to cover the gigantic costs of the French war; the English still remained besieged in Boulogne. His debasement of the coinage continued, prices rising as they never had at any time before in man’s memory. The newest ‘silver’ shillings were but a film of silver over copper; already wearing off at the highest point. The King had a new nickname: ‘Old Coppernose’. The discount which traders demanded on these coins made them worth less than sixpence now, though wages were still paid at the coins’ face value.
And then in March, Bishop Stephen Gardiner – the King’s most conservative adviser where religion was concerned – returned from negotiating a new treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor. From April onwards there was word of people high and low being taken in for questioning about their views on the Mass, and the possession of forbidden books. The questioning had reached into both the King’s household and the Queen’s; among the many rumours circulating the streets was that Anne Askew, the best known of those sentenced to death for heresy, had connections within the Queen’s court, and had preached and propagandized among her ladies. I had not seen Queen Catherine since involving her in a potentially dangerous matter the year before, and knew, much to my grief, that I was unlikely to see that sweet and noble lady again. But I had thought of her often and feared for her as the hunt for radicals intensified; last week a proclamation had been issued detailing a long list of books which it was forbidden to possess, and that very week the courtier George Blagge, a friend of the King’s, had been sentenced to burn for heresy.
I no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God’s very existence, but I had a history of association with reformers, and like most people this year I had kept my head down and my mouth shut.
I set out at eleven from my house, just up Chancery Lane from Lincoln’s Inn. Timothy had brought my good horse Genesis round to the front door and set out the mounting block. Timothy was thirteen now, growing taller, thin and gawky. I had sent my former servant boy, Simon, to be an apprentice in the spring, to give him a chance in life, and planned to do the same for Timothy when he reached fourteen.
‘Good morning, sir.’ He smiled his shy, gap-toothed grin, pushing a tangle of black hair from his forehead.
‘Good morning, lad. How goes it with you?’
‘You must be missing Simon.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He looked down, stirring a pebble with his foot. ‘But I manage.’
‘You manage well,’ I answered encouragingly. ‘But perhaps we should begin to think of an apprenticeship for you. Have you thought what you might wish to do in life?’
He stared at me, sudden alarm in his brown eyes. ‘No, sir – I – I thought I would stay here.’ He looked around, out at the roadway. He had always been a quiet boy, with none of Simon’s confidence, and I realized the thought of going out into the world scared him.
‘Well,’ I said soothingly, ‘there is no hurry.’ He looked relieved.
‘And now I must away – ’ I sighed – ‘to business.’
Many people were travelling in the same direction along the dusty way, some on horseback, most on foot, rich and poor, men, women and even a few children.
I rode under Temple Bar then turned up Gifford Street, which led to the open space of Smithfield. Many people were travelling in the same direction along the dusty way, some on horseback, most on foot, rich and poor, men, women and even a few children. Some, especially those in the dark clothes favoured by religious radicals, looked serious, others’ faces were blank, while some even wore the eager expression of people looking forward to a good entertainment. I had put on my white serjeant’s coif under my black cap, and began to sweat in the heat. I remembered with irritation that in the afternoon I had an appointment with my most difficult client, Isabel Slanning, whose case – a dispute with her brother over their mother’s Will – was among the silliest and costliest I had ever encountered.
I passed two young apprentices in their blue doublets and caps.
‘Why must they have it at midday?’ I overheard one grumble. ‘There won’t be any shade.’
‘Don’t know. Some rule, I suppose. The hotter for good Mistress Askew. She’ll have a warm arse before the day’s done, eh?’
Smithfield was crowded already. The open space where the twice-weekly cattle market was held was full of people, all facing a railed-off central area guarded by soldiers wearing metal helmets and white coats bearing the cross of St George. They carried halberds, their expressions stern. If there were any protests these would be dealt with sharply. I looked at the men sadly; whenever I saw soldiers now I thought of my friends who had died, as I nearly had myself, when the great ship Mary Rose foundered during the repelling of the attempted French invasion. A year, I thought, almost to the day. Last month news had come that the war was almost over, a settlement negotiated but for a few details, with France and Scotland, too. I remembered the soldiers’ fresh young faces, the bodies crashing into the water, and closed my eyes. Peace had come too late for them.
Mounted on my horse I had a better view than most, better than I would have wished for, and close by the railings, for the crowd pressed those on horseback forward. In the centre of the railed-off area three oaken poles, seven feet tall, had been secured in the dusty earth. Each had metal hoops in the side through which London constables were sliding iron chains. They inserted padlocks in the links and checked the keys worked. Their air was calm and businesslike. A little way off more constables stood around an enormous pile of faggots – thick bunches of small branches. I was glad the weather had been dry; I had heard that if the wood was wet it took longer to burn, and the victims’ suffering was horribly prolonged. Facing the stakes was a tall wooden lectern, painted white. Here, before the burning, there would be a preaching, a last appeal to the heretics to repent. The preacher was to be Nicholas Shaxton, the former Bishop of Salisbury, a radical reformer who had been sentenced to burn with the others but who had recanted to save his own life.
On the eastern side of the square I saw, behind a row of fine, brightly painted new houses, the high old tower of St Bartholomew’s Church. When the monastery was dissolved seven years before, its lands had passed to the Privy Councillor, Sir Richard Rich, who had built these new houses. Their windows were crowded with people. A high wooden stage covered with a canopy in the royal colours of green and white had been erected in front of the old monastic gatehouse. A long bench was scattered with thick, brightly coloured cushions. This would be where the Lord Mayor and Privy Councillors would watch the burning. Among those on horseback in the crowd I recognized many city officials; I nodded to those I knew. A little way off a small group of middle-aged men stood together, looking solemn and disturbed. I heard a few words in a foreign tongue, identifying them as Flemish merchants.
There was a babble of voices all round me, as well as the sharp stink of a London crowd in summer.
‘They say she was racked till the strings of her arms and legs perished – ’
‘They couldn’t torture her legally after she was convicted – ’
‘And John Lassells is to be burned too. He was the one who told the King of Catherine Howard’s dalliances – ’
‘They say Catherine Parr’s in trouble as well. He could have a seventh wife before this is done – ’
‘Will they let them off if they recant?’
‘Too late for that – ’
There was a stir by the canopy, and heads turned as a group of men in silk robes and caps, many wearing thick gold chains around their necks, appeared from the gatehouse accompanied by soldiers. They slowly mounted the steps to the stage, the soldiers taking places in front of them, and sat in a long row, adjusting their caps and chains, staring over the crowd with set, stern expressions. I recognized many of them: Mayor Bowes of London in his red robes; the Duke of Norfolk, older and thinner than when I had encountered him six years before, an expression of contemptuous arrogance on his haughty, severe face. To Norfolk’s side sat a cleric in a white silk cassock with a black alb over it, whom I did not recognize but I guessed must be Bishop Gardiner. He was around sixty, stocky and swarthy, with a proud beak of a nose and large, dark eyes that swivelled over the crowd. He leaned across and murmured to Norfolk, who nodded and smiled sardonically. These two, many said, would have England back under Rome if they could.
Next to them three men sat together. Each had risen under Thomas Cromwell but shifted towards the conservative faction on the Privy Council when Cromwell fell, bending and twisting before the wind, ever with two faces under one hood. First I saw William Paget, the King’s Secretary, who had sent the letter to Rowland. He had a wide, hard slab of a face above a bushy brown beard, his thin-lipped mouth turned down sharply at one corner, making a narrow slash. It was said Paget was closer to the King than anyone now; his nickname was ‘The Master of Practices’.
Beside Paget sat Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, head of the legal profession, tall and thin with a jutting little russet beard. Finally Sir Richard Rich completed the trio, still a senior Privy Councillor despite accusations of corruption two years before, his name associated with all the nastiest pieces of business these last fifteen years, a murderer to my certain knowledge, and my old enemy. I was safe from him only because of the things I knew about him, and because I still had the Queen’s protection – whatever, I wondered uneasily, that might be worth now. I looked at Rich. Despite the heat, he was wearing a green robe with a fur collar. To my surprise I read anxiety on his thin, neat features. The long hair under his jewelled cap was quite grey now. He fiddled with his gold chain. Then, looking over the crowd, he met my gaze. His face flushed and his lips set. He stared back at me a moment, then turned away as Wriothesley bent to speak to him. I shuddered. My anxiety communicated itself to Genesis, who stirred uneasily. I steadied him with a pat.
Near to me a soldier passed, carefully carrying a basket. ‘Make way, make way! ’Tis the gunpowder!’
I was glad to hear the words. At least there would be some mercy. The sentence for heresy was burning to death, but sometimes the authorities allowed a packet of gunpowder to be placed around each victim’s neck so that when the flames reached it, the packet would explode, bringing instantaneous death.
‘Should let them burn to the end,’ someone protested.
‘Ay,’ another agreed. ‘The kiss of fire, so light and agonizing.’ A horrible giggle.
I looked round as another horseman, dressed like me in a lawyer’s silken summer robe and dark cap, made his way through the crowd and came to a halt beside me. He was a few years my junior, with a handsome though slightly stern face, a short dark beard and blue eyes that were penetratingly honest and direct.
‘Good day, Serjeant Shardlake.’
‘And to you, Brother Coleswyn.’
Philip Coleswyn was a barrister of Gray’s Inn, and my opponent in the wretched case of the Slanning Will. He represented my client’s brother, who was as cantankerous and difficult as his sister, but though, as their lawyers, we had had to cross swords I had found Coleswyn himself civil and honest, not one of those lawyers who will enthusiastically argue the worst of cases for enough silver. I guessed he found his client as irritating as I did mine. I had heard he was a reformer – gossip these days was usually about people’s religion – though for myself I did not care a fig.
‘Are you here to represent Lincoln’s Inn?’ Coleswyn asked.
‘Ay. Have you been chosen for Gray’s Inn?’
‘I have. Not willingly.’
‘It is a cruel business.’ He looked at me directly.
‘It is. Cruel and horrible.’
‘Soon they will make it illegal to worship God.’ He spoke with a slight tremor in his voice.
I replied, my words noncommittal but my tone sardonic, ‘It is our duty to worship as King Henry decrees.’
‘And here is his decree,’ Coleswyn answered quietly. He shook his head, then said, ‘I am sorry, Brother, I should watch my words.’
‘Yes. In these days we must.’
The soldier had laid the basket of gunpowder down carefully in a corner of the railed-off area. He stepped over the rail and now stood with the other soldiers facing outwards at the crowd, quite close to us. Then I saw Wriothesley lean forwards and beckon the man with a finger. He ran across to the canopied stage and I saw Wriothesley gesture at the gunpowder basket. The soldier answered him and Wriothesley sat back, apparently satisfied. The man returned to his position.
‘What was that about?’ I heard the soldier next to him say.
‘He asked how much gunpowder there was. He was frightened that when it blew up it might send burning faggots flying towards the stage. I told him it’ll be round their necks, well above the faggots.’
His fellow laughed. ‘The radicals would love it if Gardiner and half the Privy Council ended up burning, too. John Bale could write one of his plays about it.’
I felt eyes on me. I saw, a little to my left, a black-robed lawyer standing with two young gentlemen in doublets bright with expensive dye, pearls in their caps. The lawyer was young, in his twenties, a short thin fellow with a narrow, clever face, protuberant eyes and a wispy beard. He had been staring at me hard. He met my gaze then looked away.
I turned to Coleswyn. ‘Do you know that lawyer, standing with the two young popinjays?’
He shook his head. ‘I think I’ve seen him round the courts once or twice, but I don’t know him.’
There was a fresh ripple of excitement through the crowd as a procession approached from Little Britain Street. More soldiers, surrounding three men dressed in long white shifts, one young and two middle-aged. All had set faces but wild, fearful eyes. And behind them, carried on a chair by two soldiers, an attractive, fair-haired young woman in her twenties. As the chair swayed slightly she gripped the sides, her face twitching with pain. So this was Anne Askew, who had left her husband in Lincolnshire to come and preach in London, and said the consecrated wafer was no more than a piece of bread, which would go mouldy like any other if left in a box.
‘I had not known she was so young,’ Coleswyn whispered.
Some of the constables ran to the faggots and piled several bundles round the stakes, a foot high. We watched as the three men were led there. The branches crunched under the constables’ feet as they chained two of the men – back-to-back – to one stake, the third to another. There was a rattle as the chains were secured round their ankles, waists and necks. Then Anne Askew was carried in her chair to the third stake. The soldiers set her down and the constables chained her to the post by the neck and waist.
‘So it’s true,’ Coleswyn said. ‘She was racked in the Tower. See, she can no longer stand.’
‘But why do that to the poor creature after she was convicted?’
‘Jesu only knows.’
A soldier brought four brown bags, each the size of a large fist, from the basket and carefully tied one round the neck of each victim. They flinched instinctively. A constable came out of the old gatehouse carrying a lit torch and stood beside the railing, impassive. Everyone’s eyes turned to the torch’s flame. The crowd fell silent.
A man in clerical robes was mounting the steps to the lectern. He was elderly, white-haired and red-faced, trying to compose features distorted with fear. Nicholas Shaxton. But for his recantation he would have been tied to a stake as well. There were hostile murmurs from some in the crowd, then a shout of, ‘Shame on you that would burn Christ’s members!’ There was a brief commotion and someone hit the man who had spoken; two soldiers hurried across to separate them.
Shaxton began to preach, a long disquisition justifying the ancient doctrine of the Mass. The three condemned men listened in silence, one trembling uncontrollably. Sweat formed on their faces and on their white shifts. Anne Askew, though, periodically interrupted Shaxton with cries of, ‘He misses the point, and speaks without the Book!’ Her face looked cheerful and composed now, almost as though she were enjoying the spectacle. I wondered if the poor woman was mad. Someone in the crowd called out, ‘Get on with it! Light the fire!’
At length Shaxton finished. He slowly descended and was led back to the gatehouse. He started to go in but the soldiers seized his arms, forcing him to turn and stand in the doorway. He was to be made to watch.
More kindling was laid round the prisoners; it reached now to their thighs. Then the constable with the torch came over and, one by one, lit the faggots. There was a crackling, then a gasping that soon turned to screaming as the flames licked the victims’ legs. One of the men yelled out, ‘Christ receive me! Christ receive me!’ over and over again. I heard a moaning wail from Anne Askew and closed my eyes. All around the crowd was silent, watching.
The screaming, and the crackling of the faggots, seemed to go on forever. Genesis stirred uneasily again and for a moment I experienced that awful feeling I had known frequently in the months since the Mary Rose sank, of everything swaying and tilting beneath me, and I had to open my eyes. Coleswyn was staring grimly, fixedly ahead, and I could not help but follow his gaze. The flames were rising fast, light and transparent in the bright July day. The three men were still yelling and writhing; the flames had reached their arms and lower bodies and burned the skin away; blood trickled down into the inferno. Two of the men were leaning forward in a frantic attempt to ignite the gunpowder, but the flames were not yet high enough. Anne Askew sat slumped in her chair; she seemed to have lost consciousness. I felt sick. I looked across at the row of faces under the canopy; all were set in stern, frowning expressions. Then I saw the thin young lawyer looking at me again from the crowd. I thought uneasily, Who is he? What does he want?
Coleswyn groaned suddenly and slumped in his saddle. I reached out a hand to steady him. He took a deep breath and sat upright.
‘Courage, Brother,’ I said gently.
He looked at me, his face pale and beaded with sweat. ‘You realize any of us may come to this now?’ he whispered.
I saw that some of the crowd had turned away; one or two children were crying, overcome by the horrific scene. I noticed that one of the Dutch merchants had pulled out a tiny prayer book and was holding it open in his hands, reciting quietly. But other people were laughing and joking. There was a smell of smoke round Smithfield now as well as the stink of the crowd, and something else, familiar from the kitchen: the smell of roasting meat. Against my will I looked again at the stakes. The flames had reached higher; the victims’ lower bodies were blackened, white bone showing through here and there, their upper parts red with blood as the flames licked at them. I saw with horror that Anne Askew had regained consciousness; making piteous groans as her shift burned away.
She began to shout something but then the flames reached the gunpowder bag and her head exploded, blood and bone and brains flying and falling, hissing, into the fire.