Dissolution, p.1C. J. Sansom
Table of Contents
C. J. Sansom earned a Ph.D. in history and, before becoming a full-time writer, was a lawyer. Dissolution is his first novel. He lives in Sussex, England, where he is working on his second novel.
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First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2003
Published in Penguin Books 2004
Copyright © C. J. Sansom, 2003
eISBN : 978-1-440-61851-2
1. Great Britain—History—Henry VIII, 1509-1547—Fiction. 2. Monasticism and
religious orders—Fiction. 3. Benedictine monasteries—Fiction. 4. Monks—Fiction. I. Title.
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To the writers’ group: Jan, Luke, Mary, Mike B, Mike H, Roz, William and especially Tony, our inspiration. The crucible.
And to Caroline
Senior Obedentiaries (Officials) of the Monastery of St Donatus the Ascendant at Scarnsea, Sussex, 1537
ABBOT FABIAN Abbot of the monastery, elected for life by the brethren.
BROTHER EDWIG Bursar. Responsible for all aspects of monastery finance.
BROTHER GABRIEL Sacrist and precentor; responsible for the maintenance and decoration of the monastic church, and for its music.
BROTHER GUY Infirmarian. Responsible for the monks’ health. Licensed to prescribe medicines.
BROTHER HUGH Chamberlain. Responsible for household matters within the monastery.
BROTHER JUDE Pittancer. Responsible for payment of monastery bills, wages to monks and servants, and distribution of the charitable doles.
BROTHER MORTIMUS Prior, second in command to Abbot Fabian; responsible for the discipline and welfare of the monks. Also novice master.
I WAS DOWN IN SURREY, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came. The lands of a dissolved monastery had been awarded to a Member of Parliament whose support he needed, and the title deeds to some woodlands had disappeared. Tracing them had not proved difficult and afterwards I had accepted the MP’s invitation to stay a few days with his family. I had been enjoying the brief rest, watching the last of the leaves fall, before returning to London and my practice. Sir Stephen had a fine new brick house of pleasing proportions and I had offered to draw it for him; but I had only made a couple of preliminary sketches when the rider arrived.
The young man had ridden through the night from Whitehall and arrived at dawn. I recognized him as one of Lord Cromwell’s private messengers and broke the chief minister’s seal on the letter with foreboding. It was from Secretary Grey and said Lord Cromwell required to see me, immediately, at Westminster.
Once the prospect of meeting my patron and talking with him, seeing him at the seat of power he now occupied, would have thrilled me, but this last year I had started to become weary; weary of politics and the law, men’s trickery and the endless tangle of their ways. And it distressed me that Lord Cromwell’s name, even more than that of the king, now evoked fear everywhere. It was said in London that the beggar gangs would melt away at the very word of his approach. This was not the world we young reformers had sought to create when we sat talking at those endless dinners in each other’s houses. We had once believed with Erasmus that faith and charity would be enough to settle religious differences between men; but by that early winter of 1537 it had come to rebellion, an ever-increasing number of executions and greedy scrabblings for the lands of the monks.
There had been little rain that autumn and the roads were still good, so that although my disability means I cannot ride fast it was only mid-afternoon when I reached Southwark. My good old horse, Chancery, was unsettled by the noise and smells after a month in the country and so was I. As I approached London Bridge I averted my eyes from the arch, where the heads of those executed for treason stood on their long poles, the gulls circling and pecking. I have ever been of a fastidious disposition and do not enjoy even the bear baiting.
The great bridge was thronged with people as usual; many of the merchant classes were in mourning black for Queen Jane, who had died of childbed fever two weeks before. Tradesfolk cried their wares from the shops on the ground floors of the buildings, built so closely upon it they looked as though they might topple into the river at any moment. On the upper storeys women were hauling in their washing, for clouds were now darkening the sky from the west. Gossiping and calling to each other, they put me in mind, in my melancholy humour, of crows cawing in a great tree.
I sighed, reminding myself I had duties to perform. It was largely due to Lord Cromwell’s patronage that at thirty-five I had a thriving legal practice and a fine new house. And work for him was work for Reform, worthy in the eyes of God; so then I still believed. And this must be important, for normally work from him came through Grey; I had not seen the chief secretary and vicar general, as he now was, for two years. I shook the reins and steered Chancery through the throng of travellers and traders, cutpurses and would-be courtiers, into the great stew of London.
AS I PASSED DOWN Ludgate Hill, I noticed a stall brimming with apples and pears and, feeling hungry, dismounted to buy some. As I stood feeding an apple to Chancery, I noticed down a side street a crowd of perhaps thirty standing outside a tavern, murmuring excitedly. I wond
There were one or two better-dressed people on the fringe of the crowd and I recognized William Pepper, a Court of Augmentations lawyer, standing with a young man wearing a gaudy slashed doublet. Curious, I led Chancery down the cobbles towards them, avoiding the piss-filled sewer channel. Pepper turned as I reached him.
‘Why, Shardlake! I have missed the sight of you scuttling about the courts this term. Where have you been?’ He turned to his companion. ‘Allow me to introduce Jonathan Mintling, newly qualified from the Inns and yet another happy recruit to Augmentations. Jonathan, I present Master Matthew Shardlake, the sharpest hunchback in the courts of England.’
I bowed to the young man, ignoring Pepper’s ill-mannered reference to my condition. I had bested him at the bar not long before and lawyers’ tongues are ever ready to seek revenge.
‘What is passing here?’ I asked.
Pepper laughed. ‘There is a woman within, said to have a bird from the Indies that can converse as freely as an Englishman. She is going to bring it out.’
The street sloped downwards to the tavern so that despite my lack of inches I had a good enough view. A fat old woman in a greasy dress appeared in the doorway, holding an iron pole set on three legs. Balanced on a crosspiece was the strangest bird I had ever seen. Larger than the biggest crow, it had a short beak ending in a fearsome hook, and red and gold plumage so bright that against the dirty grey of the street it almost dazzled the eye. The crowd moved closer.
‘Keep back,’ the old woman called in shrill tones. ‘I have brought Tabitha out, but she will not speak if you jostle round her.’
‘Let’s hear it talk!’ someone called out.
‘I want paying for my trouble!’ the beldame shouted boldly. ‘If you all throw a farthing at her feet, Tabitha will speak!’
‘I wonder what trickery this is,’ Pepper scoffed, but joined others in hurling coins at the foot of the pole. The old woman scooped them up from the mud, then turned to the bird. ‘Tabitha,’ she called out, ‘say, “God save King Harry! A Mass for poor Queen Jane!” ’
The creature seemed to ignore her, shifting on its scaly feet and eyeing the crowd with a glassy stare. Then suddenly it called out, in a voice very like the woman’s own, ‘God save King Harry! Mass for Queen Jane!’ Those at the front took an involuntary step back, and there was a flurry of arms as people crossed themselves. Pepper whistled.
‘What do you say to that, Shardlake?’
‘I don’t know. Trickery somewhere.’
‘Again,’ one of the bolder spirits called out. ‘More!’
‘Tabitha! Say, “Death to the pope! Death to the Bishop of Rome!” ’
‘Death to the pope! Bishop of Rome! God save King Harry!’ The creature spread its wings, causing people to gasp with alarm. I saw that they had been cut cruelly short halfway down their length; it would never fly again. The bird buried its hooked beak in its breast and began preening itself.
‘Come to the steps of St Paul’s tomorrow,’ the crone shouted, ‘and hear more! Tell everyone you know that Tabitha, the talking bird from the Indies, will be there at twelve. Brought from Peru-land, where hundreds of these birds sit conversing in a great nest city in the trees!’ And with that, pausing only to scoop up a couple of coins she had missed earlier, the old woman picked up the perch and disappeared inside, the bird fluttering its broken wings wildly to keep its balance.
The crowd dispersed, muttering excitedly. I led Chancery back up the lane, Pepper and his friend by my side.
Pepper’s usual arrogance was humbled. ‘I have heard of many wonders from this Peru the Spaniards have conquered. I have always thought you cannot believe half the fables that come from the Indies - but that - by Our Lady!’
‘It is a trick,’ I said. ‘Did you not see the bird’s eyes? There was no intelligence in them. And the way it stopped talking to preen itself.’
‘But it spoke, sir,’ Mintling said. ‘We heard it.’
‘One can speak without understanding. What if the bird just responds to the crone’s words by repeating them, as a dog comes to its master’s call? I have heard of jays doing such things.’
We had reached the top of the lane and paused. Pepper grinned.
‘Well, ’tis true that the people in church respond to the priests’ Latin mummings without understanding them.’
I shrugged. Such sentiments about the Latin Mass were not yet orthodox, and I was not going to be drawn into religious debate.
I bowed. ‘Well, I fear I must leave you. I have an appointment with Lord Cromwell at Westminster.’
The boy looked impressed, and Pepper tried not to, as I mounted Chancery and headed back into the crowd, smiling wryly. Lawyers are the greatest gossips God ever placed in the world, and it would do business no harm to have Pepper mentioning it about the courts that I had had a personal audience with the chief secretary. But my pleasure did not last, for as I passed down Fleet Street fat drops began to splash in the dusty road, and by the time I passed under Temple Bar a heavy rain was falling, driven into my face by a sharp wind. I turned up the hood of my coat and held it tightly as I rode into the storm.
BY THE TIME I reached Westminster Palace the rain had become torrential, gusting against me in sheets. The few horsemen who passed were, like me, hunched inside their coats, and we exclaimed to each other at the drenching we were getting.
The king had abandoned Westminster for his great new palace at Whitehall some years before, and nowadays Westminster was used mainly to house the courts. Pepper’s Court of Augmentations was a new addition, set up to deal with the assets of the small religious houses dissolved the year before. Lord Cromwell and his burgeoning retinue of officials had their offices there too, so it was a crowded place.
Usually the courtyard was thronged with black-clad lawyers debating over parchments and state officials arguing or plotting in quiet corners. But today the rain had driven all indoors and it was almost empty. Only a few bedraggled, poorly dressed men stood huddled, soaked, in the doorway of Augmentations: ex-monks from the dissolved houses, come to plead for the lay parishes the Act had promised them. The official on duty must be away somewhere - perhaps it was Master Mintling. One proud-faced old man was still dressed in the habit of a Cistercian, rain dripping from his cowl. Wearing that apparel around Lord Cromwell’s offices would do him little good.
Ex-monks usually had a hangdog air, but this group were looking with horrified expressions over to where some carriers were unloading two large wagons and stacking the contents against the walls, cursing at the water dripping into their eyes and mouths. At first glance I thought they were bringing wood for the officials’ fires, but when I brought Chancery to a halt I saw they were unloading glass-fronted caskets, wooden and plaster statues, and great wooden crosses, richly carved and decorated. These must be the relics and images from the dissolved monasteries, whose worship all of us who believed in Reform sought to end. Brought from their places of honour and piled up in the rain, they were at last stripped of power. I suppressed a stab of pity and nodded grimly at the little group of monks before steering Chancery through the inner arch.
IN THE STABLES I dried myself as best I could on a towel the ostler gave me, then entered the palace. I showed Lord Cromwell’s letter to a guard, who led me from the public area into the labyrinth of inner corridors, his brightly polished pike held aloft.
He took me through a large door where two more guards stood, and I found myself in a long, narrow hall, brightly lit with candles. Once it had been a banqueting hall, but now it was filled from end to end with rows of desks at which black-clad clerks sat sifting mountains of correspondence. A senior clerk, a short plump man with fingers black from years of ink, bustled across to me.
‘Master Shardlake? You are early.’ I wondered how he knew me and then realized he would have b
‘The weather was kind - until just now.’ I looked down at my soaked hose.
‘The vicar general told me to bring you in as soon as you arrived.’
He led me on down the hall, past the rustling clerks, the wind created by our passage making their candles flicker. I realized just how extensive was the web of control that my master had created. The church commissioners and the local magistracy, each with their own network of informers, were under orders to report all rumours of discontent or treason; each was investigated with the full rigour of the law, its penalties harsher every year. There had already been one rebellion against the religious changes; another might topple the realm.
The clerk halted before a large door at the end of the hall. He bade me stop, then knocked and entered, bowing low.
‘Master Shardlake, my lord.’
IN CONTRAST to the antechamber, Lord Cromwell’s room was gloomy, only one small sconce of candles by the desk lit against the dark afternoon. While most men in high office would have had their walls adorned with the richest tapestries, his were lined from floor to ceiling with cupboards divided into hundreds of drawers. Tables and chests stood everywhere, covered with reports and lists. A great log fire roared in a wide grate.
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