New entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

by Nick

Shardlake, Matthew (b. c. 1500), lawyer, was the son of a yeoman farmer from Lichfield. Early in his childhood he developed severe kyphosis, a disability that would go on to have a significant impact on his adult life. In 1518 he moved to London to attend Lincoln’s Inn, going on to practice as a lawyer. In the late 1520s he was introduced to Thomas Cromwell, at the time a lawyer associated with Cardinal Wolsey. In 1533 Shardlake was able to use these connections to find a post under Cromwell for Mark Poer, son of his father’s steward William Poer.

In the winter of 1537 Shardlake was sent by Cromwell to investigate allegations of corruption at the Benedictine monastery of St Donatus the Ascendant of Scarnsea. The visit became a criminal investigation after another of Cromwell’s officials was found dead. While at Scarnsea, Shardlake was introduced to Guy Elakbar (known by his monastic name of Guy of Malton), a Spanish Muslim and apothecary who had fled Spain after the reconquista. Shardlake appears to have maintained an association with Malton after this meeting. Meanwhile Shardlake’s links with Poer seem to have ended after Scarnsea. After 1537 Poer disappears from the historical record, although correspondence recently unearthed suggests he may have eloped to France. In 1538 the monastery at Scarnsea was razed to the ground by Giovanni Portinari, Cromwell’s engineer.

The Scarnsea incident appears to have established Shardlake’s reputation as a fixer, particularly where crimes were involved. In 1540 Shardlake was asked by Cromwell to recover what was rumoured to be a recipe for ‘Greek fire’, the liquid weapon used by the Byzantine army. At the same time he was also involved in defending a young girl against a false charge of murder. It was during this time that Shardlake also met Jack Barak, a servant of Cromwell’s with whom he would go on to have a long association.

In 1541 Shardlake rose to prominence due to his involvement in the Progress by Henry VIII to York. By this time Sharlake had become associated with Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who sent Shardlake to York to handle petitions to the king from the citizens of York. However, there are suggestions that while there, Shardlake was also involved in trying to bring an important prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, safely to London for questioning. In 1543 Shardlake again acted on Cranmer’s behalf in investigating a series of murders that included the brutal killing of Shardlake’s friend Roger Elliard.

Throughout what is known of his career, Shardlake continued to practice law. No evidence survives of him having been married. He maintained a substantial London household and appears to have been close to his servants. He was also a horse enthusiast, holding particular affection for his first horse called Chancery.

Other events in Shardlake’s life and the date of his death remain unknown, although it is to be hoped that ongoing research by his biographer, C.J. Sansom, will uncover more details.

Sources C.J. Sansom, Dissolution (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2003); Dark Fire (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2004); Sovereign (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2006); Revelation (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2008).

(All of which is a roundabout way of saying how much I’ve been enjoying working my way through the Shardlake series recently. I hope I haven’t given away any of the plots).