No novice to the subversive plotting that surrounds the throne of King Henry VIII, attorney Matthew Shardlake returns in a mystery that stands on its own, a conspiracy against the throne: “These matters be King’s games… and for the most part played upon scaffolds.” A great progress travels from London to York, where the king, having recently put down yet another rebellion, will claim the obeisance of the northerners as well as their pledge of peace.
With his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, at his side, Henry includes a great number of armed guards in the entourage against any hint of violence from the northern upstarts. Matthew is to meet his York counterpart and review the petitions to be presented to the king at York but is first summoned by Archbishop Cranmer and charged with a secret mission: guarding the safety of a dangerous conspirator, Sir Edward Broderick, whose information is so inflammatory he must be shielded from contact until returned to the Tower of London for torture.
Unhappy about the archbishop’s task but in dire financial straits after the death of his father, Shardlake has no choice. With his able assistant, Jack Barak, the hunchbacked lawyer proceeds to York where, in an effort to place the boot of the Reformation on the necks of true believers, the king has commanded the destruction of all papist images. Arriving in York, Shardlake stumbles upon an importunate murder of an elderly glazier, the man impaled by shards of glass he is removing from the stained glass windows of St. Mary’s.
After the murder, one catastrophe after another is visited upon the unwary Shardlake. When the attorney and his assistant search the home of the glazier for clues, they uncover evidence of a conspiracy against Henry. Soon after, Shardlake is knocked unconscious for his trouble, the documents stolen. Thereafter, a series of attempts are made on his life. Reporting the theft to Sir William Maleverer, Shardlake is viewed with rancor as a nuisance and troublemaker.
The lawyer is faced with yet another source of conflict when he visits Broderick’s cell: in the hands of a reformist fanatic, the conspirator has been tortured, his body emaciated by lack of rations. Meanwhile, Barak romances a comely young woman in the queen’s household, Tamasin Reedbourne, while Shardlake consults with his contact in York, Giles Wrenne. To his dismay, the lawyer discovers validation of the looming conspiracy that threatens Henry’s throne in Wrenne’s antiquarian library. Ratcheting up the suspense, Tamasin and Barak witness an act that potentially endangers them all should it come to light.
Through the narrow, winding streets of York and the rain-soaked tent city, Shardlake is pursued by his assailant, mortified by the powerful, cruel king and tormented by those who view his handicap as a bad omen, avoiding villains, malcontents and a royal scandal that will see Matthew in the tower for interrogation. Against the chaos of Henry’s volatile reign, the conscientious Shardlake proves his mettle against the odds.