Derek McMillan, Brighton Socialist Party
Tombland is the latest novel in the Shardlake series by CJ Sansom. It is a murder mystery set in the 16th century. There are no spoilers in this review about who the murderer was. The story is set against the real historical background of the Kett rebellion in 1549.
In the reign of Edward VI (when real power resided with his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, who reigned in his name) the gentry and yeoman farmers had taken to enclosing land and giving it over to sheep. They forced small farmers off the land which was also given over to sheep farming.
Not only did people lose the use of common land for their own sheep but agriculture was devastated.
As a result of a disastrous war with Scotland and the debasement of the currency, prices rose out of control while wages stagnated.
One Norfolk yeoman farmer, Robert Kett, was approached by rebellious commoners who demanded he remove the enclosures he had made.
Not only did he do so but he ended up leading the rebellion in Norfolk which became the largest of its kind in the country.
An estimated force of 16,000 rebels set up a massive camp on Mousehold Heath to the north of Norwich. Under Kett’s leadership, the rebels stormed Norwich and took the city.
The workers in the city sympathised with the rebels and assisted the takeover. The forces of the aristocracy thought the rebels would be a walkover and sent an army against them under the Marquess of Northampton. He was comprehensively defeated.
The rebels, however, had faith that the government genuinely intended to deliver on its promise to end illegal enclosures. That is a bit like expecting the 1% to act in the interests of the 99%. Instead, the king’s army under the Earl of Warwick was sent to massacre the rebels with the aid of 1,200 mercenaries.
The story is a useful antidote to books and TV series about the pomp and ceremony of the Tudor court and the intrigues of the aristocracy.
The flip side of that coin was the unimaginable brutality with which aristocrats like Warwick treated the commoners. He only stopped because the gentlemen did not fancy putting their own hands to the plough – so repentant commoners were spared.
The book has a valuable lesson. Not only does it show the power of common people to fight for justice but also the perfidious nature of the upper classes.
- Tombland, part of the Shardlake series, by CJ Sansom is available from Pan Macmillan