Happy New Year everyone and much hope for 2015, but a special toast today to the writer CJ Sansom and his wonderful Shardlake detective stories. Set under Henry VIII and covering the exploits of the hunchback lawyer, Mathew Shardlake, that sane, compassionate practitioner in the Court of Request at Lincoln’s Inn and ever dealing with the harm of religion, Sansom’s books are utterly convincing and totally compelling too, with all the skill of a good detective yarn, mixed in with a very serious attempt to recreate the living history of the period, with a serious approach to the vicious realities of Tudor politics. Hence his books are most fascinating for his meticulous recreation of Tudor London, both in terms of topography and social structures.
It was something Phoenix Ark had to try to do engaging in the unique work here on William Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund, who died in the freezing winter of 1607, at the age of only 27, and in obviously tragic circumstances too, only four months after his infant son had died, on the edges of the city. It was in the same year that successful Shakespeare, now a ‘gentlemen’ from a grant of arms that had caused a little fracas at The College of Heralds, had married his favorite daughter Suzanna to the herbalist John Hall in his home town of Stratford. It was also the year of the suppression of ale drives in Bath and Wells by the Puritans, the performing of Hamlet by the sailors on the East Indian ship The Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone, and of the Midland Riots against the enclosures of common land too, that came close to Stratford in the month of Suzanna’s wedding.
There are many potential clues to the effect that year had on Shakespeare, not least in the play Pericles, where the hero, dealing with the riddle of incest that haunts the play, presents a crest represented by a branch that only flowers at the top. It is very hard not to see that as a clue to the dilemma Shakespeare faced about his own status, especially in relation to that family tragedy, since his youngest brother’s infant baby was marked down in the records by a church hand as ‘baseborn’. Many of Shakespeare’s ‘romances’ after that are concerned with themes of art’s power to achieve restoration and reconciliation, much involved with the theme of families. Edmund was buried in the dominating Southwark Church, St Saviours, now Southwark Cathedral, at a hefty cost of twenty shillings and with ‘a forenoon toll of the great bell”.
The joy of reading Sansom, although it is only in HeartStone that he begins to touch on the theme of players and the theatres, and the first permanent wooden theatre, ‘The Theatre’ in the Shoreditch, did not go up until 1575 in the reign of Elizabeth I, is his scholarly mapping of both time and place, that echoes the difficulty of seeing into that period through the records. Sansom is meticulous, although never letting it swamp the thrilling narrative, and it’s wonderful to retake a journey with him, even if discoveries here happened 50 years later. Those discoveries, although not including the place Edmund was probably staying in the Winter of 1607, The Vine tavern in Southwark, revealed that tavern was owned by Edward Hunte esquire and had once been part of the land rights, granted under Henry VI, of a local religious fraternity called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption. Their church was St Margaret’s, right on Long Southwark, effectively today’s Borough High Street, that crossed old London bridge and was the major Southern gateway into the City of London. It’s highly Catholic traditions, and the Church itself, were suppressed at the Reformation, it became a Comptor prison, a tavern that features in Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair and then it became the town hall. Today it is a Slug and Lettuce bar and only a little plaque on the wall remembers the Norman church that had such an astonishing history.
Part of that history was the betrayal inside the church of the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, despite the promise of pardon, under Henry VI, by the King’s chancellor and Bishop of Winchester William Waynfleete, whose huge tomb still decks Winchester Cathedral, alongside that ‘great’ Prince of The Church pilloried in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Henry Beaufort. I am sure it would thrill CJ Sansom to pour over the Tudor records of St Margaret’s in The London Metropolitan Archives, much as they are just effectively accounts, and find proof of payments to ‘pleyers’ as far back as the mid fifteen century, both on St Margaret’s and St Lucy’s days, as well as Hoe and then Hop Mondays, in a vital beer making district. St Margaret was of course the patron Saint of the little Church, but St Lucy’s day is now a festival honoured by Catholics on, I think, the 13th December. The problem being that it was then the shortest day of the year, as John Donne’s poem ‘A Nocturnal on St Lucy’ proves. Namely the Winter Solstice, and an especially Northern European festival, in an area of a great influx of ‘aliens, foreigners and strangers’ according to the antiquarian John Stowe, especially Flemings and Dutch. The Soltice now falls on the 21/22nd of December, we celebrated this year with dinner, but it was the new Gregorian Calendar that had been instituted by the Pope (and though more accurate was not taken up in Reformation England for another two hundred years) that made a mismatch in day calculations by as much as ten days. That ten day gap would explain the difference between the modern dating of St Lucy’s day and John Donne’s appreciation of his own times and a celebration that has deeply pagan roots and in Sweden is marked by maidens were wreath’s of flaming candles on their heads. Remember of course that Hamlet’s great spiritual and intellectual dilemma and struggle, in the murderous court of Denmark and Elsinore, is marked with the line ‘the time is out of joint, of cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.’ Sansom’s books superbly capture how seismic those times were for the modern world, so much made out of Tudor London, and how much they put the human out of joint.
St Lucy’s day was one of the little clues that lit the magic lantern of the past then, in such a fascinating and troubled time, and such an intimate London district too. London was of course tiny in comparison to now and very rural too. Sansom’s masterful sense of fact and history does it even more, bringing an entire world to life and with a deep sense for real history. The work on Edmund Shakespeare and London here has never been properly set down, though pinched by someone without an accreditation, who got their book into the Huffington Post bestseller lists. It sits in the posts here and in eight notebooks now in Hampshire. Even better then that the crackling novel now underway, HeartStone, takes Shardlake to Hampshire and Portsmouth during possible French invasion. There has been no great revelation about what Edmund Shakespeare, a player in London too, although in none of the extant lists or the First Folio, was like. Nor about the woman he sired a doomed child with up in the Morefields and buried in Cripplegate, near Shakespeare’s temporary lodgings on Silver Street. Yet there have both been many significant echoes of Shakespeare the man and writer, from Pericles to that crucial year in his own family life, as well as important links in the historical topography of Southwark. Sansom’s mastery only gets the juices flowing to try again then. So a toast to him and a huge recommendation to follow the adventures of the Shardlake books. Happy New Year.