Three years later and I've finally finished Tombland and the previous six books. Many are large tomes, but this one is the biggest yet and concludes with a lengthy historical essay. As with the earlier books Sansom has Shardlake involve a complex crime while being buffeted by wider social events. By this book readers will have learnt a great deal about Shardlake, his life and friends. Tired, more cynical and more angry now than in earlier works, Shardlake has weathered the years of Henry VIII and finds himself now in the tumultuous years of the minority of Edward VI.
For the English ruling class, 1549 was one of the worst years since the Peasant Uprising of 1381. Economic crisis, disastrous wars, religious changes and some of the worst weather in decades combined to create enormous discontent. In many parts of the kingdom rebellion broke out with large scale protest camps being established. In the south-west and Norfolk, two major rebellions exploded. The one in Norfolk being known to history by the surname of its leaders Robert and William Kett.
Kett's rebellion was triggered by rural discontent and enclosure and the poverty it caused. However its context was much wider discontent with society, and one of the great strengths of Tombland is how Sansom shows this discontent emerging almost unnoticed from the seats of power. Shardlake, arriving in Norfolk to investigate an awful crime, gradually becomes aware of simmering discontent towards "gentlemen" like himself. He is surprised by this, in his charmingly naïve way. When rebellion does break out, his natural sympathy with the underdog makes him useful to the rebels, who need a lawyer to run Kett's state within the state. Others are not so lucky and are imprisoned and treated badly.
By placing Shardlake at the heart of the rebellion Sansom is exploring a conundrum at the heart of many Early Modern Revolts - the active participation of the gentry in those revolts, sometimes in leading roles. He is also only slightly rewriting real history, as a gentleman lawyer did help Robert Kett at his tree of Reformation on Mousehold Heath during the rebellion. Why the gentry helped is not easy to explain, and I devote some pages in Kill all the Gentlemen to exploring this aspect of events like the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sansom shows how it arose in part because of the importance of personal oaths in the era. Having made a commitment to help, people could not simply break their promises. This is Shardlake's initial motivation, though the is drawn much deeper in than he expects.
Sansom describes the mass nature of the rebellion and the scale of the protest camps. He also explains how they are well run and managed by the protesters themselves. Some of this is conjecture, but Sansom does draw on all the studies and sources for 1549. At the time, and for centuries after, establishment figures in Norfolk liked to portray the rebels as anarchic and violent. The truth was different and Sansom explores this carefully.
By placing Shardlake at the heart of the rebellion, he is able to witness key events that we know about. Students of Kett's Rebellion may find themselves able to anticipate certain plot points, though few liberties are taken with the real history.
As such this is an excellent work of historical fiction set during a major event of the 16th century. However it didn't quite work as a Shardlake story for me. The problem was that the crime that Shardlake is trying to solve doesn't really work in the context of wider events. It felt like an excuse to have Shardlake in Norfolk, rather than an integral part of the plot. In part I suspect this is why the book is so long - it is some 250 pages before we get mention of Kett himself.
Ultimately I was left a little unsatisfied by Tombland. I began reading all of the series because I wanted to read this novel about Kett's Rebellion. By the time I got to number seven, I wanted to read a Shardlake story and I didn't feel that I got that. Nonetheless this is a great read and an excellent evocation of Early Modern Rebellion. Few novels of the period have got that right, and even if its not as tight as the early books, Shardlake fans must read it.