Review: The verdict on Tombland, CJ Sansom’s long-awaited Norfolk novel
PUBLISHED: 09:33 02 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:18 02 November 2018
When it comes to revolting peasants, Wat Tyler is surely the big dog, the chief, the most revolting in England.
That’s what high school history lessons taught me. But, over 850 remarkable pages of his novel Tombland, the author CJ Sansom has re-educated me.
For one of our own, Robert Kett, took revolting to another level (literally, when he and his men camped on Mousehold Heath and looked down on Norwich) – and he has made me say “who?” to Wat.
How shameful for a son of the Norfolk soil to admit that he knew so little about a man who jostles with Lord Nelson and Edith Cavell to be our county’s greatest hero.
Thankfully, Sansom is on Kett’s case, and has produced a novel/history book that should fascinate hundreds of thousands of readers.
I love history and love mystery, so have long been a Sansom fan, following the adventures of the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake as he is dragged into danger through his work with Henry VIII, Catherine Parr, Thomas Cromwell and others.
In Tombland, he adds a sprinkle of stardust – local (to us) history.
For Shardlake finds himself in Norfolk, embroiled in a plot that involves the Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), the Lady Mary (later Queen “Bloody” Mary), the Lord Protector Edward Seymour and the young King Edward VI.
The wife of John Boleyn – a distant relative of Lady Elizabeth – is horrifically murdered and her body dumped in a stream on the edge of Boleyn’s land, close to Aylsham.
Shardlake is despatched to make discreet enquiries, accompanied by his assistant Nicholas and soon joined by another long-time companion, Jack Barak.
No plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that they all manage to become swept up in what became known as Kett’s Rebellion.
Landowners were at the time – 1549 – enclosing land for sheep, making it inaccessible to the local peasantry, who were unable to eke a living and were in danger of starving.
Uprisings happened all over England, but the largest was led by Robert Kett, a landowner who was so persuaded by locals about the injustice of enclosure that he tore down his fences and joined the revolt – as its leader.
Absorbing more and more men – including gentlemen prisoners - as it progressed, Kett’s crowd eventually settled at Mousehold Heath numbering over 10,000.
You might know what happened next. If not, I’m not going to tell you – read Tombland.
A beauty of this book is the intricate yet coherent way in which Sansom weaves together the story of Kett’s Rebellion with the murder-intrigue plot around the death of Edith Boleyn.
Kett’s tale beats like a relentless bass drum, while Shardlake’s story is the subtle ticking of a clock. They converge to a devastating and surprising climax.
Sansom is a remarkable storyteller, but his greatest gift is that he links all of his plots with real history – social, political, religious and agricultural.
It’s learning without studying: enrichment while being entertained.
It’s also thoroughly researched local history. As Shardlake spends time in Norwich, it feels as though you’re walking with him, seeing the sights of a 16th-century city.
He stays at the Maid’s Head Hotel, sees the soaring Cathedral, describes the hubbub and smells of the market, sees trials (and hangings) at The Guildhall, visits Ber Street and namechecks the gates and the walls of what was then England’s second city.
It’s intoxicating to be so transported to another era of our Fine City. You can feel the cloying fingers of poverty and the gradual growth of the class enmity that threatened to herald civil war.
You can also see the places – many of which still stand. For Norwich is a living history lesson, and Tombland is a book that honours that.
It also honours Robert Kett, the man from Wymondham who epitomised the indomitable Norfolk spirit.
He deserves to be better known. Now, perhaps, he will be.