Shardlake: Is Scarnsea a Real Tudor-Era Town?

The Tudor-era murder mystery presented within the Hulu show ‘Shardlake,’ unravels in the remote town of Scarnsea, where a Benedictine monastery faces imminent dissolution under Henry VIII’s rule. As the King takes control of the Church, the Scarnsea-based abbey under Abbot Fabian’s control waits in line to be the first to be forced into surrender. That is, until Lord Cromwell’s commissioner, Robin Singleton, finds himself on the wrong end of a mysterious sword. Consequently, Lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his reluctant new assistant, Jack Barak, venture to the monks’ secluded community in the small town to investigate the dreadful murder.

Even though Scarnsea’s depiction remains limited to a few inquisitive trips to taverns, stables, and marshes, the show presents the town as a key figure in Tudor history as its monastery becomes the first to dissolve. For the same reason, viewers might wonder about whether or not there’s any realism behind the on-screen town. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Scarnsea: C.J. Sansom’s Fictional Town

Despite the historical setting of ‘Shardlake,’ the show’s central storyline revolving around Matthew Shardlake’s criminal investigation remains largely fictitious. The show adapts the 2003 novel, ‘Dissolution,’ by C.J. Sansom, in which the author essays a whodunnit set in 1500s England with the crown’s actions against the monastery as the driving narrative force. As such, the English town Scarnsea, situated alongside the Sussex Coast in the novel, finds its origins in Sansom’s historical fiction work. As the show adapts the same work, it retains close authenticity to the source material and brings Sansom’s fictional Scarnsea town to the screen.

The show depicts Scarnsea— in the midst of a cold winter— as any other non-descript English town from the 16th century. However, the town’s defining aspect remains the remote monastery that it houses, which brings Lord Cromwell’s emissaries to the locality in the first place. As a result, the secrets of the monastery’s recorded tax thefts from the town emerge under Matthew’s scrutinizing investigation, as well as the efforts of an opportunistic businessman. Thus, even though the town’s relevance to the plot fails to breach past its relationship to the much more narratively significant monastery, Scarnsea ultimately ends up playing an instrumental role in the storyline.

Nevertheless, in real life, no such town sporting a monastery existed under the rule of Henry VIII. Instead, the earliest real-life Benedictine monasteries that the King of England closed in 1538 belonged to the villages and towns of Abbotsbury, Abingdon, and Bardney. In the contemporary world, these locations are within the Dorset, Oxfordshire, and Lincolnshire counties, respectively. For the same reasons, the town of Scarnsea was a work of fabrication by Sansom. While ample research is likely to have gone into the town’s literary construction, it doesn’t share a real-life counterpart. Consequently, the town’s on-screen rendition within ‘Shardlake’ also shares a similar confinement to fictionality.

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