When and Where Does Shardlake Take Place?

With ‘Shardlake,’ Hulu brings a unique blend of historical fiction and murder mysteries employing the English royalty and their politics to present a story of puzzling intrigue. In lieu of a detective, Matthew Shardlake, Lord Cromwell’s trusted lawyer, takes center stage as the investigator. After the mysterious death of Cromwell’s previous commissioner, the Lord hires Matthew and his inquisitive skills to scrutinize the scene of the crime, the remote monastery of St Donatus. However, Cromwell seeks to gain something greater than simply the murderer’s identity. Instead, Matthew is tasked with the duty to expose any hidden corruption within Abbey Fabian’s community to bring about the dissolution of the monastery to appease King Henry VIII’s wishes.

As such, paired up with the cocky muscle, Jack Barak, for aid and protection, Matthew embarks on a journey ripe with mysteries to unravel. The series’ period setting and its whodunnit genre remain the storyline’s defining feature. For the same reason, as the viewers travel into an unknown land with Matthew and Jack at a historical point in time, curiosities may arise regarding the exact setting of the story.

Shardlake: Uncovering Mysteries in 16th Century Tudor England

The geographical and historical setting of ‘Shardlake’ presents one of the most instrumental aspects of its narratives. The show takes place in England during the 1530s when King Henry VIII was in the process of closing monasteries across his kingdom in pursuit of taking control as the Supreme Head of the Church. During this time, 1535 saw the appointment of official commissioners who were sent to carry out surveys at different churches, monasteries, and nunneries. These surveys, known as the Valor Ecclesiasticus, were a way for the King to analyze the financial standing of the church-owned lands and scrutinize various religious establishment’s loyalty to the crown.

At the time, Henry VIII argued that his perceived immoral livelihood of monks who were supposed to live simple, religious lives was the drive behind the crown’s decision to dissolve monasteries. However, the common understanding remains that the same was only a ploy for the royalty to secure further land and wealth. ‘Shardlake’ employs the same historical understanding of the time period, infusing nuance and ambiguity into its narrative. As a result, the socio-politically fraught setting becomes the perfect landscape for an intriguing mystery ripe with greed and conspiracy.

The central storyline that ‘Shardlake’ explores emerges within the era-defining event of the dissolution of monasteries. Robin Singleton, one of Lord Cromwell’s commissioners on a mission to examine the St. Donatus Monastery in the fictional town of Scarnsea, sparks the initial death, which sends Matthew down on his investigative path. Furthermore, the recent execution of Queen Anne Boleyn in 1536 remains a prevalent plot point that plays a crucial role in the narrative’s unfolding.

Therefore, the 16th-century setting of the show in England remains interwoven into most aspects of its storyline. In that aspect— alongside several others— the show remains authentic to its source material: the 2003 historical fiction novel, ‘Dissolution,’ by C.J. Sansom. The author penned numerous installations in the Matthew Shardlake mystery novel series and extensively researched England’s Tudor period for the protagonist’s various adventures. In an interview with On The Tudor Trail, the author spoke about the same and said, “Over the years, I have managed to get a good background knowledge of the [Tudor] period, which helps.”

“When I find a topic, an event, around which to center each book, I start by reading published books on the area, but often I have to dig much deeper,” Sansom further elaborated. “The amount of research work varies greatly from book to book. ‘Dissolution,’ for example, needed only published works.”

Furthermore, in another conversation with The Guardian, the author divulged that he felt a certain draw to England’s 16th-century setting, as it held fascinating complications that come with socio-political transformations. “[And] The more I read about it [the Tudor era], the more I realized how like the 20th century it was in its anxiety and uncertainty, even though people thought so differently then.” He also added, “That’s what’s so interesting about writing about the period: to comprehend it, you have to work your way into a totally different worldview.”

Thus, Hulu’s ‘Shardlake’ maintains the same nuanced exploration of England in the 1500s that Sansom presented in his work. With realistic set designs, costuming, and retained authenticity to the time period based on Sansom’s researched historical fiction world, the show efficiently transports the viewers into a time in England’s history.

Read More: Hulu’s Shardlake: All Filming Locations Explored