C.J. Sansom

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Tombland, the latest in C.J. Sansom’s Tudor-era mystery series. The year is 1549, Henry VIII is recently deceased, and England is stewing in chaos when the murder of one of Henry’s daughters strokes the flames of a kingdom in upheaval.

Next morning, we rose early and, after breakfasting, rode the short distance to Hatfield Palace with Fowberry and his men. The weather had turned warmer, with a light wind and fleecy clouds high in the sky. Nicholas wore his short black robe, and I wore my hood, white serjeant’s coif, and dark silk summer gown, the breeze stirring the fur collar. My horse, Genesis, had been reluctant to set out that morning, and I realized he was getting too old for such long journeys.

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Hatfield Palace was modern and commodious, built in bright red brick around a central courtyard, with a park beyond enclosed by high walls. It was Elizabeth’s main residence now, containing her household of some hundred and fifty people. Standing in the main doorway to meet us was a middle-aged woman with a round face, keen eyes and an air of confident severity. She wore a black dress and old-fashioned gable hood. A large bunch of keys hung at her waist. I had met Blanche apHarry before; Welsh, like Thomas Parry, she had served Elizabeth since babyhood and controlled the running of the house and access to her mistress. We dismounted and bowed to her. With a nod and a wave of her hand she dismissed Fowberry and his men, who led our horses to the stables. She looked hard at Nicholas, who carried a folder containing paper for making notes, then turned to me with a brief smile.

‘God give you good morrow, Serjeant Shardlake. I fear you will have had a wet journey yesterday.’

‘We did, mistress, but made it safely.’

She nodded. ‘Good. Master Parry awaits you. The Lady Elizabeth will receive you later.’

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She led us into the building. It was decorated with tapestries and good furniture, but in a sober style very different from the colourful, rather overblown decoration the old king had favoured in his palaces. The servants, too, were dressed in blacks and browns; a Protestant style for a Protestant mistress.

We came to a corridor I recognized, and stopped outside Master Parry’s office. Turning to us, Mistress Blanche spoke quietly. ‘As Master Parry will tell you, I know about the matter on which he wishes to instruct you. Nobody else in the house does, and nothing –’ she looked sharply at Nicholas again – ‘nothing is to be said outside Master Parry’s office.’ Nicholas bowed his head in acknowledgement. Mistress Blanche knocked at the door. Within, Parry’s deep voice called us to enter. Mistress Blanche drew the door shut behind us, and I heard the chink of the keys at her waist fade as she walked away.

Within, Parry’s deep voice called us to enter. Mistress Blanche drew the door shut behind us, and I heard the chink of the keys at her waist fade as she walked away.

Thomas Parry was a tall man in his early forties, a once-powerful body now running to fat. His rubicund face was dominated by a large nose and small, penetrating blue eyes, his black hair cut fashionably short. Elizabeth’s Comptroller, her man of business. Like many in official positions he had cut his teeth working for Thomas Cromwell, helping him intimidate the monasteries into surrender the decade before. He came over to us, his manner bluff and cheerful as usual.

‘Matthew. Good morrow. I am sorry to bring you out here at such short notice. Good thinking to bring a change of clothes with that pissing rain. God knows what the harvest will be like, the barley is weeks behind.’

‘I was thinking the same yesterday, Master Parry.’

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‘Fowberry tells me you spotted some men camping not far from here. Turned out to be a crew of masterless men. Northampton shoe workers whose trade had gone under, making for London, according to their tale of woe. They had clubs and knives about them though, so I wonder. Anyway, the Hatfield Constable and Watch kicked their arses out of the parish.’

‘I see.’

‘Ah, don’t look so disapproving, Matthew. I know you Commonwealth men would have all the beggars given gold.’ He winked at Nicholas.

‘Work, at least.’

‘Ah, Matthew, if all were given jobs, wages would rise, prices even more, and then where would we be?’ Parry smiled again, the knowledgeable man of affairs arguing against the idealistic lawyer. Looking at his plump, cheerful face, though, I remembered what Rich had said in January; when he was shown the instruments in the Tower he had been happy to tell all he knew of Thomas Seymour. But who, in those circumstances, would not start talking? And nothing Parry confessed had implicated Elizabeth. He was shrewd, and loyal.

He turned to Nicholas, who had accompanied me on visits to his London office before. ‘What of you, lad, do you read all the pamphlets and sermons against the greedy rich men?’

‘No, sir,’ Nicholas replied. ‘I think such talk threatens the right social order.’

‘Good lad.’ Parry nodded approval. ‘How far on with your studies are you now? Called to the bar yet?’

‘Before long, I hope. I began my studies late.’

‘Well, your work has always seemed conscientiously done.’ His face changed suddenly and, like Mistress Blanche, he gave Nicholas a hard look. ‘Can you be trusted with confidential matters? With depraved, revolting details that would titillate all the gossiping lawyers?’

‘Depraved, sir?’ Nicholas’s eyes widened. He had not expected that. Neither had I. But Parry’s face remained set.

‘Yes, about as nasty as you can get.’

‘I have never broken a client’s confidence, Master Parry.’

The Comptroller turned to me, his voice suddenly hard. ‘Can he be fully trusted, Matthew, in all matters? This thing is out of the common run.’

‘Master Overton has kept serious confidences before. When I worked for the late queen.’

Parry nodded, then smiled, all bonhomie again, and clapped Nicholas on the shoulder. ‘I had to be certain.’ He went behind his desk and sat down, motioning us to chairs set in front. ‘Then we had best begin. There is none too much time.’ He slid an inkpot across the desk towards Nicholas. ‘Take notes, Overton, but only of names and places, and keep them safe. What I am about to tell you is known only to myself, Mistress Blanche, and the Lady Elizabeth, who has personally requested that you undertake this investigation.’ He frowned, as though doubtful of her wisdom, then continued, ‘She will speak with you afterwards, Matthew. But do not mention the more gruesome aspects of the story. We had to tell her, but I fear it near turned her stomach.’

‘What I am about to tell you is known only to myself, Mistress Blanche, and the Lady Elizabeth, who has personally requested that you undertake this investigation.’

Nicholas and I looked at each other. This was indeed no query about land ownership.

‘Have either of you been to Norfolk?’ Parry asked.

‘No, sir,’ Nicholas answered. ‘I come from Lincolnshire, but over by the Trent.’

‘And I have never been,’ I replied. ‘Though I had a goodly number of clients from the county in the days when I represented poor folk at the Court of Requests.’

‘Ah yes.’ Parry smiled cynically. ‘You’ll know the saying, then, “Norfolk wiles, many men beguiles.” I’ve heard the commons there are the most litigious in the country, forever suing gentlemen over rents and enclosure of common land. What’s that other saying? “Every Norfolk man carries Lyttelton’s Tenures at the plough’s tail.”’

‘Certainly Norfolk people have good knowledge of their rights. And are ready to club together to obtain representation in Requests where the common law won’t help them.’

‘Did you win many cases for these oppressed Norfolk commons?’

‘Some. Despite the law’s delays and the landlords’ own wiles.’

Parry grunted. ‘Well, the people this matter concerns are gentry; I would say as little as possible about your old days at Requests.’

I observed, ‘The gentlemen of Norfolk have a reputation for being as quarrelsome with each other as with their tenants. Particularly since the old king destroyed the Howards and stripped them of their lands. They used to be masters there.’

Parry nodded. ‘I know. The old Duke of Norfolk kept a certain rough order. Now he sits in the Tower year after year, under that sentence of treason trumped up by the old king. The Protector hasn’t the balls to execute him; he’s waiting for him to die. He won’t, though, from sheer obstinacy, though he’s past seventy-five.’ Parry laughed brusquely, raising his eyebrows. ‘As you know, his lands have mostly been sold to the Lady Mary, and she is building up a landed interest in East Anglia. She has taken up residence at Kenninghall, the Duke’s Norfolk palace. I believe she is there now.’

‘The Lady Elizabeth wanted to build an estate in Norfolk, did she not?’

‘I know several proposed purchases there fell through,’ Nicholas said. ‘I wondered at the Lady Elizabeth’s interest in that county.’

‘The Boleyn family are from Norfolk,’ I explained.

‘I thought their home was Hever, in Kent,’ Nicholas said.

Parry shook his head. ‘They were Norfolk gentry originally. I have wondered if Mary has looked to build up an affinity there to spite her sister. She hates her enough. She truly believes Elizabeth isn’t Henry’s daughter at all, that Anne Boleyn had her by her lover Mark Smeaton. Pentwyr o cachu.

Nicholas looked puzzled.

‘Pile of shit,’ Parry translated.

I looked at him in surprise. ‘I’ve not heard that story.’

He smiled tightly. ‘Oh, I have one or two – shall we say observers – in Mary’s household at Kenninghall, as, no doubt, the Lady Mary does here.’ He leaned forward, clasping his plump hands together. ‘Which is one reason I stressed the importance of keeping this matter close. I know the Lady Mary was mighty sore when Elizabeth escaped charges in January.’ He frowned again and shook his head. ‘Having Mary at Kenninghall now is a complication. The story is not widely known yet, but when the Norfolk assizes start, it will be.’ He looked at me hard. ‘It concerns members of the Boleyn family; distant relatives, but relatives of the Lady Elizabeth nonetheless. That is why it is delicate.’

‘And you said, depraved –’

Parry leaned back. He said quietly, ‘The Boleyns have been minor Norfolk gentry time out of mind. Living on their estates, collecting their rents, occasionally sending a clever son to make his way in London, like Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather. But they were never big fish until the old king set his cap at the Lady Elizabeth’s mother. When Anne Boleyn and her immediate family fell, the Norfolk Boleyns continued as out-of-the-way landowners, keeping quiet. The family name had acquired a certain notoriety.’

‘The Boleyns have been minor Norfolk gentry time out of mind. Living on their estates, collecting their rents, occasionally sending a clever son to make his way in London, like Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather. But they were never big fish until the old king set his cap at the Lady Elizabeth’s mother.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed quietly. ‘Which it still has.’ Thirteen years after Anne Boleyn’s execution, some people, especially religious traditionalists, still screwed up their faces at mention of her name. I had been present at her execution and for a moment saw again in my mind’s eye that grey spring morning, the silent crowd, the sword flashing through the air and the spray of blood as the Queen’s head was severed. I suppressed a shudder.

Parry continued, ‘But the Lady Elizabeth is rich now, and occasionally people come here asking favours, claiming to be poor kin from Norfolk fallen on hard times.’

‘As always happens when people come into much money, and have a large household full of positions.’

‘Exactly. Mistress Blanche and I have always discouraged such visitors. The Lady Elizabeth has sometimes wanted to meet one of these so-called relatives, but we have always advised against. Even now, Boleyn associations are best avoided.’ He raised his bushy eyebrows. ‘Frankly, we usually do not tell her when someone turns up claiming distant kinship.’ He gave a short, barking laugh. ‘A couple of times she has found out from other servants that we have turned people away. Then Mistress Blanche gets the sharp end of her tongue. And I get the inkpot thrown at me if I’m lucky, the paperweight if not.’ He rubbed one cheekbone reminiscently, then continued. ‘I always investigate these people afterwards, and they have nearly always turned out to be fraudulent. I have a barrister who acts for me on such matters, Aymeric Copuldyke, together with a Norfolk man in his employ, Toby Lockswood.’

I said, ‘I met Copuldyke at your office last summer. He had called to see you. We only exchanged a few words.’ I remembered a short, fat man, perspiring and irritable in the heat.

Parry grunted. ‘Toby Lockswood is more useful than his master. You will need to speak to both when you return to London.’

Nicholas said quietly, ‘It must be hard for the Lady Elizabeth, to have no close family.’ I glanced at him. He knew better than most.

Parry answered sharply, ‘In the Lady Elizabeth’s case, it is politic to keep Boleyn relatives at a distance –’ He hesitated. ‘Mistress Blanche tells me she wears a locket round her neck containing her mother’s image. Such loyalty could be exploited by some fraud. Make another scandal.’ Parry sighed deeply, and I realized he was under strain. He paused, then continued, ‘Just a month ago, on the fourth of May, Mistress Blanche brought me news of a woman who had turned up in the servants’ hall. She claimed to be a distant cousin by marriage to the Lady Elizabeth, who had fallen on hard times since her husband died and their landlord ended his tenancy. Normally Mistress Parry would have thrown her out, but there were things about this woman that led her to suggest we both see her.’

‘What things?’ I asked.

‘She was about fifty, to begin with, while most who try that game are young. She had blonde hair turning grey, cut short, against nits no doubt. And, though she was dressed in rags, she spoke in refined tones, not that incomprehensible Norfolk draunt, which showed she came of good stock. So Mistress Blanche brought her to me.’ Parry shook his head. ‘By Jesu, she was a poor-looking creature. She looked half starved. She had a thin face pinched with cold and hunger, hair dirty under her coif, and was wearing a cheap wadmol dress.’

Nicholas observed, ‘A real gentlewoman would surely have had clothes of fine material, even if they were worn with use.’

Nicholas observed, ‘A real gentlewoman would surely have had clothes of fine material, even if they were worn with use.’

Parry nodded. ‘Well observed.’ He paused. ‘But this woman’s accent sounded genuine. And she seemed worn out, truly desperate. She said she was sorry to trouble us, she was only distant kin by marriage, but had nowhere else to turn. Those who come here with such claims usually gawp at the house with awe, or at least interest, but this woman hardly seemed to notice anything. So I invited her to sit down and tell me her story. She did so, and it sounded plausible. At first,’ he added grimly.

‘She said her name was Mistress Edith Boleyn, and that until the death of her husband last November she had been mistress of a goodly farm near Blickling, fifteen miles north of Norwich. That’s where Anne Boleyn’s family came from, though there are other Boleyns scattered around Norfolk. I asked for details about the farm and she said it was a large one, but the lease ended with her husband’s death and the lord of the manor would not renew it. He was turning his lands over to sheep. She was given three months to quit.’ He smiled sardonically. ‘Just the sort of thing your friends the Commonwealth men rail against, though it can happen to wealthy tenants as well as poor ones.’

‘Did she not have children, relatives?’

‘She said she had no children and both her parents were dead.’ A flicker of compassion crossed his heavy features. The plight of Edith Boleyn had evidently moved Parry, hard man of affairs though he was. ‘If I had known then –’ he said, quietly, then lapsed into uncharacteristic silence.

‘Did she say exactly how her late husband was related to the Lady Elizabeth?’ I asked.

Parry nodded. ‘She said he shared a common great-great-grandfather with Anne Boleyn.’

In my work I dealt often with matters of family descent, and made a quick calculation. ‘Making him third cousin once removed to Elizabeth.’

‘She had the family tree off pat. Wrote it down for me on a sheet of paper, all the way back to Geoffrey Boleyn, who came to London in the 1420s and became Lord Mayor. It was obviously painful for her to write, her fingers were bent and the knuckles of both hands badly swollen. She wrote in a good hand, though, which showed she was educated. I noticed she wore no wedding ring, and asked her about that. She said that when her fingers became swollen she had to have it cut off as it was pressing painfully into the skin. I was starting to believe her.’ Parry raised his bushy eyebrows again, and his voice hardened. ‘But then I asked for some more details, and her story began to fall apart.’


‘When I asked the name of the lord of the manor who had dispossessed her, the details of the tenancy, the name of the nearest town and the local families, she came out with a list of sheer fictions. She had rehearsed them well but had not taken into account that my past experiences have given me, with lawyer Copuldyke’s help, a detailed knowledge of Norfolk geography. When I challenged her she began to stammer and trip over her words. Mistress Blanche and I were both looking at her hard by then, and she saw she was in trouble. In the end she blurted out that her husband was truly kin, and she asked for no more than the humblest place in the household – a maid, a cook’s assistant, anything the Lady Elizabeth could give her. She was red in the face by now. I noticed then that her fingers were calloused as well as swollen. This woman had known hard manual labour.’ Parry shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘Well, after her lies about where she came from, there was nothing to do but turn her out. I thought, whoever she is, she came of gentle stock once, and had fallen on bad times, but that can happen to the best of people these days and does not justify telling such lies. I told her to leave.’

‘And did she?’

‘I expected her to burst out crying and weeping but she didn’t; she only slumped in her chair. I asked Mistress Blanche to show her out. As she led her to the door I put my hand to my purse – I was going to give her a few coins – but Mistress Blanche shook her head. She was right, we cannot encourage liars. The woman left the house as she came, by the back door.’ He paused, then looked at me. ‘Yet, as I was to discover, though Edith Boleyn was a liar where her personal circumstances were concerned, what she said about being related by marriage to the Lady Elizabeth was quite true. And that is why, Master Shardlake, we are in trouble.’

‘Trouble made by her?’ I asked.

Parry gave a humourless laugh. ‘Only if you consider getting yourself murdered in the foulest way imaginable to be making trouble.’

I said quietly, ‘So it is a murder you wish me to investigate?’

‘It is, I fear.’ He looked me in the eye.


From TOMBLAND. Used with the permission of the publisher, Little, Brown And Company, New York. Copyright © 2019 by C.J. Sansom.

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