There is one more book from last year that I haven't mentioned yet, but that really made a lasting impression on me. It's Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. It is set in Tudor England during the time of Henry the 8th, and as the title suggests, it was during the period of dissolution of the Catholic Churches as Henry set himself up as the head of the Church of England. All of this is 'dry' history, in that it's done and dusted long ago. Why this book made such an impression on me is because we are at an abbey - Scarnsea in Sussex - where a murder of the king's commissioner has occurred, and the chief suspect is related to the king's new wife Jane. Matthew Shardlake is a trusted lawyer and works for Thomas Cromwell, who is responsible for ensuring the surrender of all the monasteries to the king. Cromwell assigns him to go sort out the case and clear the kinsman's name.
Almost the entirety of the novel is set at Scarnsea Abbey. It's a very good mystery, the characters are well-drawn, and the remote setting at the abbey in the middle of a long winter adds to an element of isolation and fear. It's 1537, and the surrender of the abbeys and monasteries to the king has begun. Everything revolves around politics, even there far from the center of London, because Matthew is also sent as a replacement commissioner for the dead man, to continue to examine any sign that there is heresy (adhering to the old ways) at the church, which would mean surrender of the abbey to the king and dissolution. It is a fascinating way to explore religion and the meaning of a life dedicated to God, and what the monasteries were really like, how wealthy and how they justified it. Matthew supports the Reformation, as anyone who survived had to. So he is looking in on the abbey and asking how the monks got so far away from the edicts of Benedict. It's sounds boring, but it's not, because it's set under the 'wish' that Henry the 8th wanted it solved quickly, so Matthew must solve it, and fast, and because there is death and fear all around the monastery.
What so affected me about this mystery wasn't something I paid attention to at first, because I was busy watching (catching up) on the final series of The Tudors, which ended on CBC in November here. I was thinking of King Henry one day on the bus, and what an enormous change he created by breaking with the Roman Church in order to divorce Catherine of Aragorn. So I saw the political reasons and games and all the fascinating power from The Tudor court perspective. Then I thought of the Abbey in Dissolution, and even though it was fiction, I thought, that's what it would have been like back then. The monks would suddenly have had their world turned upside down. Whether or not they were too wealthy, too far from their origins of serving God by being away from the world, what the real result of Henry's decision to leave the Church, was that hundreds and thousands of men and women who served God in their way, could suddenly not do it any more. The churches were dismantled of all their wealth, taken for Henry himself and the Treasury of the kingdom. The monks, Dissolution makes clear, were dependent on charity then, either family or a charitable stipend from Henry. Matthew tries to find out what will happen to the monks at this abbey and discovers there is little he can do. And so a whole way of life is dispersed, not because God ceased to exist, but because one man wanted to do things his way. I"m not going to get into a political debate about the wrongs of the Church, the rise of Protestantism, Martin Luther, any of that. What interests me is that Dissolution was able to bring home in an immediate way to me what happened in the abbeys and churches as they were dissolved.
From a historical perspective of course, many of the greater abbeys still stand whole and complete in England, and some became mansions and great houses, some disappeared as their stones were used in the neighborhood for repairs and building, and some stand as haunted ruins. The landscape of Britain is littered with empty churches and abbeys, the wind blowing through stone, all that is left of once superb craftsmen.
One of my favourite abbeys is Whitby Abbey. My husband and I have visited it often on our trips to Whitby, and it is still a presence overlooking the bay and town. Once, long ago, an old religious house stood here that was the scene of the synod that decided to bring Christianity to England, the Synod of Whitby in 664 (destroyed by Vikings later). The Abbey is the remains of an 11th century Benedictine Monastery, just like in Dissolution. Already in ruins a little over a 100 years ago, Bram Stoker wandered around it and thought up the vampire story that began a whole new literature: Dracula.
I was privileged to also get to Lindisfarne in Northumberland and walk among the old castle ruins and monastery at Holy Island, which at high tide is cut off from the mainland. The monastery was one of Christianity's first monasteries in England, built in 635 Ad. A priory was built in 1070 but 'abandoned' in 1541. Then a castle was built in 1543 with stones from the priory, to protect the harbour, and was destroyed in the civil war, and eventually the remaining parts of the castle became a home in the early 1900s. It is one of the most remote and fascinating locations in England for me. I thought what a wonderful place it would be to be close to the land and the sky, to be close to the sacred of the world, and how restful the location was. There is something about how Dissolution was written, now, that when I think of Lindisfarne, and Whitby Abbey, I add the laments of the monks now as their way of life dissolved right before them. How frightening and unknowable it all must have been for them. Dissolution makes that change real, in a powerful and sad way.
It's also a very good mystery, and I like the main character Matthew Shardlake very much. He is intelligent, and a good judge of character, and not always a nice person although he tries very hard, as a lawyer, to be fair. This book would have to counted among my notable mysteries for 2010. I have already Book 2, Dark Fire, on my shelf to be read.
Have you read Dissolution? What did you think of it? Have you read a mystery, or a novel recently, that made you understand something in our world a little more?