Matthew Shardlake and Me

kinnon —  September 4, 2009 — 2 Comments

Ben Witherington III, a few posts back at his blog (which now appears @ Belief Net, shudder), wrote about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Hardlake series.

The real strength of Sansom’s writing is detailed historical description of the ordinary life of ordinary people in London and the surrounding areas during a tumultuous period in English history. This was the period of Cranmer and Cromwell and Coverdale when the memory of Sir Thomas More was still fresh, and those today who care about or are interested in the rise of the English Protestant Reformation under Henry’s instigation will find these novels fascinating. Sansom doesn’t gild the lily at all, and so we are regaled with Reforming preachers who are busy condemning every one to Hell (the so called ‘hot Gospelers’) and people who go on killing sprees, in the name of the Lord (the subject of the novel Revelation where a crazed Reformer uses the seven bowls judgments as a pattern for a series of seven murders). These were perilous days for Refomers who could be hauled off to jail by Bishop Bonner in a heartbeat for nothing more than preaching the Gospel on a street corner. Needless to say this is not your momma’s Sunday school literature about how pure the Puritans were.

When you read these novels you can certainly understand why, by the beginning of the 18th century when John Wesley was born (1703), England was sick and tired of religous wars and of killing each other in the name of Christ, and so the watchword of the age was ‘tolerance’. Does that sound familiar?

It does indeed.


At Ben’s blog recommendation, I ordered the series. They arrived on Friday and I began reading the books on Monday. I’m now on page 188 of the third book, Sovereign. (I obviously like the series.)

I find myself identifying with the series’ central character, the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. He’s a man who’s Protestant faith once burned white hot, but his working in close proximity to Thomas Cromwell, one of the Reform leaders, has seen Shardlake’s zeal cool. (Shardlake is fictional – Cromwell real.)

Lawyer Shardlake in conversation with Lady Honour, from the second book in the series, Dark Fire, (Pan Paperback Edition, Pg 228)

‘When I was young I was in thrall to the writings of Erasmus. I loved his picture of a peaceful commonwealth where men worshipped in good fellowship, the abuses of the old Church gone.’

‘I too was much taken with Erasmus once,’ she said. ‘Yet it did not turn out as he hoped, did it? Martin Luther began his violent attacks on the Church and Germany was flooded with anarchy.

I nodded. ‘Erasmus would never comment on Luther, for or against him. That always puzzled me.’

‘I think he was too shocked at what was happening. Poor Erasmus.’ She laughed sadly. ‘He as much given to quoting St. John chapter six, was he not? “The Spirit gives life, but the flesh is of no use.” But men are ruled by their passions and always will be.” (Emphasis and link added)

And later in the book, Shardlake in conversation with former monk/physician Guy, (Dark Fire – Page 535)

‘Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy?’ I blurted out. ‘How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?’

(Guy responds) ‘Man is an angry, savage being. Sometimes faith becomes an excuse for battle. It is not real faith then. In justifying their positions in the name of God, men silence God. But having the comfortable belief that, having read the Bible and prayed, they cannot be wrong.’ (Emphasis added)

I had someone comment this morning on one of my posts from much earlier this year, It’s All About Me, NPD and Church Leaders. I’d forgotten about this post, but I am struck once again how many leaders in the various manifestations of that living entity we call The Church – operate no differently than Thomas Cromwell – leaving a trail of bodies and virtual bloodshed in their wake – all to the glory of god – and would you please buy their latest book.

Whatever label they self-confess, whether conservative, progressive, emerging, reformed, missional – the story is the same. They have the answers. And we, the sheep, are fools if we don’t listen. Ah, but what a fool believes, eh.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

2 responses to Matthew Shardlake and Me

  1. The HBO series The Tudors doesn’t make Cromwell out to be very saintly either, nor the English Reformation.

  2. Congrats … you made the top 100 list: link to


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