When one thinks about a royal Progress, we often think about the glitz and glam of the royal family traversing the entire country at a leisurely rate to inspire awe for their subjects. However, the Progress of 1541, when Henry VIII and his fifth wife Catherine Howard traveled to the hostile northern part of England, was anything but a casual visit. It was very political as Henry was trying to make the North submit to him after the Pilgrimage of Grace while at the same time he was waiting for a meeting with King James V of Scotland. It is the city of York and during this important Progress that C.J. Sansom shapes his latest adventure with his hunchback lawyer and part-time detective, Matthew Shardlake, in book three of the delightful Shardlake series, “Sovereign”.
We join Matthew Shardlake and his dedicated assistant Jack Barak on the road to York to join the Progress to take care of local petitions for the King. They have received another complicated mission from their new boss, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, to look after the wellbeing of a suspected conspirator in a plot to overthrow Henry VIII’s government, so that he can make it to London for further questioning. Things seem to run as smoothly as it could until a master glazer’s mysterious death reveals secrets that will send Shardlake and Barak into a deadly collision course with some of the most powerful men and women in England during this time.
Sansom has done it again. He has expanded Shardlake’s world outside of London to show that England was not all united for the Tudors. As someone who knows about the Wars of the Roses, to read Sansom’s description of the treacherous and rebellious city of York makes sense completely. It is dark and edgy while the glory of the court is on full display. To add more intrigue to this amazing novel, he adds the mystery of a certain member of the Yorkist family’s origins that could change England forever. I personally do not agree with this theory about this particular person’s origins, but it did not take away from my enjoyment of this book. It just added another layer to this enthralling tale.
Of course, since this novel touches on the relationship between Henry VIII and Catherine Howard, Sansom had to include a way for Shardlake to meet these two, as well as confront figures like Lady Rochford, Culpepper, Dereham, and of course Sir Richard Rich. The way he does this is ingenious. Sansom’s attention to details of the Progress is nothing short of extraordinary. Compared to the first two books, this one is much darker as you are unsure how Shardlake and Barak will ever get out of their dangerous situations, but that is what makes it so remarkable.
It is actually difficult for me to write this review without spoiling the ending so I will keep this short. I thought that “Dark Fire” was my favorite in the series, but now “Sovereign” reigns supreme. That might change as I read the rest of this absorbing series. I will say that if you enjoyed the first two books, you have to continue the journey with Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak in “Sovereign” by C.J. Sansom.