In 1537, having divorced his first wife and marrying a second, Henry VIII proceeded to close down the monasteries, which were a symbol of the power of the Catholic Church. This move was instrumental in the shaping of English society and politics during the 16th century. Although Henry had caused the Reformation in England to take place merely because he wanted an heir, he soon found that, like Martin Luther, there were problems with Catholicism- not the least of which was that the clergy were living much better than they ought to have. Their standard of living was so much higher than the average laypersons' that monks and their servants were living very long lives- sometimes into their eighties and nineties, uncommonly long for anyone to live in the 16th century. Dissolution refers to not only the process by which the monasteries were dissolved, but the process by which lives in England were irrevocably changed by the reformation. The dissolution of the monasteries left monks without a home, severed from the life most had known their entire lives.
A commissioner working in the name of Thomas Cromwell goes to oversee the closing of the monastery at Scarnsea- and is mysteriously murdered, his head cleanly sliced off with a sword. Matthew Shardlake, hunchback lawyer at Chancery in London and deputy to Cromwell, is sent to investigate the murder. He believes that the murderer is someone within the monastic community. Before leaving London, however, Shardlake encounters someone selling parrots, those bird which repeat things that are told to them. They are not unlike the political situation in England: people repeat back what the king wants to hear. Anything that is "wrong," however, can be viewed as treasonous.
Shardlake soon becomes involved in the various politics that shape up the monastery, and learns some very interesting pieces of information about the monks who live there. A young, attractive female servant, a homosexual, a stuttering monk, a converted Moor, and a mad Carthusian are some of the most interesting characters, all of which have a motive for murdering the commissioner. At the end of the day, however, three more people are dead, victims of an inevitable tragedy for the monastery.
This is an excellent, well-written book. If you enjoyed this, also try Dark Fire, the second book featuring the adventures of Matthew Shardlake.
Also reviewed by: Historical Tapestry