Shardlake in Norwich

30 May 2024

Shardlake in Norwich

If you’ve been keeping your eyes on your streaming services, you may have noticed the new series ‘Shardlake’ on Disney+, which was released earlier in May. The show itself is fantastic, but did you know that it’s based on the original series of novels by CJ Sansom? And further to that, did you know that one of the books in this series is set right here in the City of Stories?

While Norwich doesn’t feature in the first season of Shardlake (partially because it doesn’t actually appear until the last of the seven books!), we’re hopeful that one day the live-action version of the series’ hero, Matthew Shardlake, will one day visit our fine city to tell the story that takes place here in the written novel. To find out more about Shardlake, CJ Sansom, and the City of Stories’ involvement in-between, we’re hearing from City of Norwich Tour Guide, Paul Dickson of Paul Dickson Walking Tours to tell us more. And if you want to find out more about Shardlake, make sure you reserve a spot on his bespoke tour about these iconic books, which can be found on his website here.

A man is pictured with a novel.

Paul Dickson with CJ Sansom’s ‘Tombland’, which is set in Norwich.

Matthew Shardlake has been in the news. Shardlake arrived on Disney+ at the beginning of May, but sadly, just before the series aired, CJ Sansom, Shardlake’s creator, passed away following a long battle with cancer.

The Shardlake series of seven books, along with two 20th century novels, Dominion and Winter in Madrid, are CJ Sansom’s amazing legacy. The history is brilliant and you can almost feel and smell Tudor England emanating from the Shardlake pages. I am sure that new readers will continue to be drawn to his fabulous novels.

Disney has dramatised the first novel, Dissolution, which looks at the story of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, with Shardlake, who is a professional lawyer, tasked by Thomas Cromwell to close down a fictional monastery on the Sussex coast and solve a murder.

Tombland, which is primarily set in Norwich in 1549 and looks at the story of Kett’s Rebellion, is the seventh book in the series. The plot involves Shardlake being dispatched by Princess Elizabeth (eventually Queen Elizabeth I) to Norfolk to investigate the circumstances of a murder involving a fictional Boleyn character.  During his investigations he is captured by Robert Kett and becomes involved in the huge popular uprising, known at the time as the Great Commotion, but today is called Kett’s Rebellion.

When CJ Sansom was researching Tudor Norwich, I was asked to show him round the Maids Head Hotel and explain its history. He was very interested in the oldest sections of  the hotel, especially the restaurant, which was originally the courtyard of the 15th century Maids Head Inn, along with the former main entrance off Wensum Street and the Yard Bar, which has a 15th century fireplace.

It was with great anticipation that I waited for Tombland to be published in November 2018 and find out how the Maids Head and Norwich was represented. Unfortunately I was away when CJ Sansom launched the book in a packed Norwich Cathedral, so I missed the opportunity to hear him speak about his great creation.

In ‘Tombland’, Shardlake stays in The Maids Head Hotel, reputedly the oldest hotel in the country!

Tombland proved to be a fantastic showcase of Tudor Norwich, with the Market Place, Guildhall, Norwich Castle, Norwich Cathedral and Tombland all featuring prominently, along with the Maids Head, which CJ Sansom chose for Shardlake’s Norwich accommodation. His arrival scene features him riding down Elm Hill into the courtyard to be greeted by the innkeeper, Master Theobald, welcoming him to the ‘finest inn in Norfolk’.

What particularly impressed me was the way in which CJ Sansom blended fact and fiction and re-imagined Kett’s Rebellion, with the huge camp, comprising up to 15,000 people from all over North and South Norfolk, spreading out across Mousehold Heath. He portrays Robert Kett, who was a Wymondham-based yeoman farmer, landowner and leather maker, as a strong leader trying to do his best for the ordinary man, whose common rights in the countryside had taken a battering from the gentry who owned the land.

We know that Robert Kett had legal advice and, in captivity on Mousehold Heath, Shardlake provides advice to Kett, as the gathering moves from being a protest to a rebellion against the state.

The key document to have survived from Kett’s Rebellion is the Twenty-Nine Requests, which was sent to the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, who as Protector Somerset was running the country on behalf of his nephew, Edward VI. The Twenty-Nine Requests mainly asks for an end to illegal enclosure of common land and the an end to the abuse of common rights. But it also asks that all bond men (slaves) be set free and that local communities should have a say in the appointment of their parish priest and that the priest should teach the young in the village to read, so they can understand the bible.

The response to the Twenty-Nine Requests was typical of the Tudor era, when those in the lower orders of society had no say in the government of the country – ‘go home you are all rabble and Robert Kett you are a traitor’.

The rebels controlled Norwich for long periods of the six-week ‘camping time’ and even managed to defeat a 1500-strong royal army led by the Marquis of Northampton, sent to Norwich to bring an end to the rebellion.

Kett’s Rebellion was finally crushed by the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Dussindale, with a much larger army believed to have been 11,000 strong, bolstered by 1500 German mercenaries.

Robert Kett and his brother William, Kett’s right hand man, were captured soon after the battle, sent to London for trial and were brought back to Norfolk in December for execution. Robert was hanged from the battlements of Norwich Castle and William from the west tower of Wymondham Abbey.

I won’t explain how the fictional story in Tombland  reaches it’s climax, as I don’t want to spoil the plot for future readers of the book. So, do read the book to find out how Shardlake manages to solve the Boleyn murder case, and how he survives the Battle of Dussindale.

Shardlake’s Norwich – the tour

I have been a City of Norwich tour guide for the last 10 years and have worked with the Maids Head Hotel on guided tours for 14 years. When Tombland came out, I agreed with the hotel that I would develop a Shardlake’s Norwich tour starting and finishing at the Maids Head.

The book covers a large area of Norwich, from Kett’s Heights, to Tombland and the Market Place and the sites of the St Benedict’s and St Stephen’s Gates, as well as parts of Norwich over the water.

I decided to focus on a manageable two-hour tour, which would take people up to Kett’s Heights via Tombland, the Cathedral Close, Bishopgate, and Bishop’s Bridge.

Kett’s Heights is a public open space, owned by the City Council and supported by the Friends of Kett’s Heights. It is home to the remains of St Michael’s Chapel, Robert Kett’s headquarters. Thanks to access work carried out by the Friends of Kett’s Heights, it is possible to walk into the remains of the chapel and enjoy what is undoubtedly the best view in Norwich. It is a key highlight on my tour and is a great location to explain the story of the Twenty-Nine Requests and the arrival of the Earl of Warwick, along with the fighting in Norwich.

The view from Kett’s Heights encapsulates virtually all of Tudor Norwich and is an atmospheric location for explaining the ups and downs of Kett’s Rebellion. The City Council will soon be completing a project to provide level access and parking for visitors with disabilities, so everyone can enjoy the view.

A panoramic shot of a city.

The view from Kett’s Heights, perfect for taking in the view of Norwich.

The return leg of my tour goes along the north bank of the River Wensum, stopping opposite Cow Tower to discuss it’s ‘walk-on’ part in the rebellion, before crossing the river at the Jarrold Bridge, where I talk about the possible sites of the Battle of Dussindale. The last stop on the tour is near the Law Courts, where I consider what happened at the Battle of Palace Plain.

The tour ends in the Maids Head Hotel bar with tea or coffee and biscuits, right next to where Matthew Shardlake arrives in Tombland.

Tombland and CJ Sansom have done a great job raising the profile of Kett’s Rebellion. The book has brought many people to Norwich for the first time. I have had visitors on the tour from all over the United Kingdom, along with Shardlake fans from the USA and Europe, as well as many local people wanting to learn about the story of Kett’s Rebellion.

For more information about the Shardlake’s Norwich tour, along with tour dates see I do a series of public bookable tour, but also do tours for private groups. For information about my other tours in Norwich, the Broads and Cromer see