The Reformation of the 16th and early 17th Century had a profound and lasting impact on Christianity, especially (but not exclusively) in Europe. Whether you have religious beliefs or not, and no matter what those beliefs are, it’s hard to deny the influence of the Reformation on politics, culture, economics and much more.
It’s not surprising that such a significant change would also find its way into crime fiction. The Reformation affected (still does) everyday life in so many ways that it seems natural that we would see it in the genre.
C.J. Sansom’s Mathew Shardlake, for instance, is a London attorney who lives and works in Tudor London, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The Church of England has been established as the official religion of the kingdom, and the king is determined to remove ‘popery’ – allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, that’s one of the main themes of Dissolution, the first in this series. In it, Shardlake is commissioned to travel to a monastery in Swansea to investigate the murder of a man named Robin Singleton. He’d been sent to oversee the dissolution of that monastery, and the delivery of its property and money to the king. The first and most likely explanation is that someone at the monastery killed Singleton to prevent his completing his mission. But, as Shardlake finds out, there are certainly other possibilities. As the series goes on, we see just how important and controversial a topic religion and the Church of England are in Henry VIII’s England.
We see that also in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which also takes place during Henry VIII’s reign. This is the fictional retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s most trusted advisors. Mostly through his eyes, we see how the king consolidated power and declared England free of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Cromwell acquired a great deal of power and authority, but it was a very dangerous time. If you know your history, you know that not even the king’s ‘inner circle’ was safe. Among other things, this novel takes an interesting look at the controversy surrounding religion, and the impact the Reformation was having on society. It’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel. Even so, several crimes are committed in the course of the story.
Shona MacLean (now writing as S.G. MacLean) also provides an interesting perspective on the Reformation in her Alexander Seaton novels. Beginning with The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, the series tells the story of Seaton, who is a teacher in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. It’s a fiercely Protestant place, and there’s quite a lot of concern, even fear, of Roman Catholic plots to take over the country. All of this figures into The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, in which the local apothecary’s assistant, Patrick Davidson, is poisoned. The music master, Charles Thom, is accused of the murder and even imprisoned. He says that he is innocent, and he asks his friend Seaton to clear his name. As Seaton starts to ask questions, he learns that Davidson might have been supplying maps to Scotland’s enemy, Spain. And Spain’s king would like nothing more than to bring Scotland back to the Catholic Church. If Davidson did provide aid to Spain, and anyone found out about it, that would be more than sufficient motive for killing him. Seaton finds that there are other possibilities, too. This isn’t an easy mystery to solve, and Seaton runs into danger as he investigates.
Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest, published in 1976, is the story of a large Irish family led by a tyrannical matriarch known as Mam. The real action in the story begins when the oldest daughter, Bridget ‘Bridie,’ returns from the convent where she’s been for ten years. She tells the family she had to leave because the convent was closing, and Mam’s prepared to accept that story. But there’s more to the story than that. Meanwhile, Bridie’s brothers, Kevin and Patrick, have both married Protestant women (Eleanor and Carmel, respectively). The fact that they’re not Catholic makes them, in a very real sense, outsiders. And it certainly doesn’t do much to ease tension. Against this backdrop, another sister, DeeDee, also returns to the ‘family fold’ to introduce her new fiancé, James. That fact adds even more tension, since she divorced her first husband, Terence. He doesn’t accept the fact of their divorce, and still considers them married. So does Mam. One evening, DeeDee is killed by a fall (or push?) down a staircase. As it happens, several members of the family were on hand at the time, so there is more than one suspect and motive. As we slowly learn the truth, it’s interesting to see how the fact of the Catholic/Protestant divide plays out at the so-called micro level.
The Reformation is also one of the factors that has impacted relations between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The Troubles of the last few decades of the 20th Century had several underlying causes, political, economic, religious, and more. But one critical factor was the schism between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Even today, there are echoes of the tragedy of the Troubles. And we see that in several crime fiction novels and series. Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Adrian McKinty, and Claire McGowan are just a few of the authors who have placed their novels in Northern Ireland or at the border. In those novels, we see the powerful loyalties people have to one or another group, and we see how the Reformation has impacted lives, even centuries later.
When you think of the Reformation, you might not automatically think of its impact today. But it still has one. And it’s not a surprise to see that such a major event also impacts crime fiction. These are a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tommy Sands’ There Were Roses.