Shardlake episode 1 recap: Murder at the monastery

Shardlake episode 1 recap: Murder at the monastery
Shardlake episode 1 recap: Murder at the monastery

This article contains spoilers for Shardlake episode 1. The Disney Plus and Hulu adaptation of CJ Sansom’s historical mystery saga about the titular lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, has arrived!

Based on Sansom’s first book, “Dissolution”, this four-part adaptation sees Matthew Shardlake being dispatched to the remote town of Scarnsea to investigate the death of one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners at a monastery… one of many which Cromwell intends to close as part of the dissolution of the monasteries throughout Britain.

Shardlake‘s first episode introduces us to our new sleuth and sees him being summoned before Cromwell. He informs Shardlake of the plans to dissolve the faith, before being sent off on his mission, accompanied by another of Cromwell’s underlings, Jack Barak.

Upon their arrival at Scarnsea, there’s an awkward atmosphere in the air. As the murder investigation gets underway, Shardlake soon discovers that the brothers of St. Donatus look to be keeping more secrets than he first thought… Here’s a full recap of Shardlake episode 1.

Lord Cromwell’s mission

Shardlake‘s season premiere opens with a scene showing Robin Singleton (the murdered commissioner) picking his way through Scarnsea in the middle of the night. Singleton meets his untimely demise when a cloaked figure emerges from the shadows in the kitchen, taking Singleton’s head from his shoulders with a slash of their sword.

Elsewhere, Matthew Shardlake washes and dresses for the day, while a swift messenger rides to town on horseback, delivering a letter that details Singleton’s death to Cromwell. Lord Cromwell is furious and insists that the murderer be found and punished. Shardlake heads off for court, to deliver some papers, but Jack Barak intercepts him. He’s already sent word to court and insists that Shardlake sees Cromwell right away. Shardlake seems unwilling until Barak informs him that he knew the victim. At the mention of Robin Singleton, Shardlake agrees to come along.

After some bluster about holy relics, Cromwell quickly moves to business and invites Shardlake to read the letter, concerning the murder. We see its events play out: members of the monastery summoned Dr. Goodhap (who accompanied Singleton to Scarnsea, and who wrote the letter) in the night and brought him to bear witness to the body. Goodhap finds Singleton’s decapitated body and immediately fears that he’s to be the next victim.

After that, Cromwell informs Shardlake that plans for the dissolution are going ahead. He and King Henry VIII have agreed on a list of 12 monasteries to be closed, with St. Donatus being the first on the chopping block. Shardlake is to travel to the monastery and identify the guilty party. If the murderer is a Benedictine monk, he will only lend credence to Cromwell’s cause; If not, the Brothers must be proven to be criminal in one way or another.

Before they leave, he informs Shardlake that Barak will be accompanying him, even though Shardlake insists he would be happy to travel alone. Barak, in turn, jests that Shardlake would have to take this up with Lord Cromwell. Shardlake then heads back home to prepare for his journey… but as he crosses town, his path is blocked by a man who orders him inside a nearby building.

In a private room, the Lord of Norfolk demands to know why Shardlake was summoned to see Cromwell. Shardlake informs him of his journey to the monastery, but not the specifics of his mission. Norfolk reasons he is to obtain the monastery’s surrender, and states that the people won’t benefit from the monastery’s wealth whatsoever. He views the dissolution of Donatus as theft from God, and tells Shardlake to write to him the minute his work in Scarnsea is over.

Arrival at Scarnsea

Barak and Shardlake make the two-day journey on horseback to Scarnsea. The pair of commissioners are let in through the gates and greeted by the Abbot’s assistant, Brother Mortimus. Mortimus tells them the Abbot is engaged and blames Singleton’s death on “invaders”. Shardlake insists on seeing the body, but only after they are fed, and have met with Dr. Goodhap. Barak sarcastically inquires about Goodhap’s health, prompting a nervous-looking Brother Whelplay to drop and smash a jar of wine, earning the boy a harsh scolding and the threat of another beating from Mortimus. Shardlake intervenes on the boy’s behalf, ordering Mortimus to be calm with the lad.

Later, Shardlake waits for his meeting with Barak and Goodhap in a chapel. He spots a hooded figure spying on him from above in the gallery but gets no response when he calls out. Goodhap and Barak enter soon after; Goodhap wants nothing but to leave the monastery at once. He’s already been locking himself away and refusing to eat their meals, but Shardlake presses him to recall any pertinent information about his and Singleton’s investigations into the monastery’s wrongdoings first.

Unhelpfully, Goodhap says that Singleton kept his thoughts and discoveries to himself, and any discovery must have died with him. At that, two monks enter under the guise of carrying out evening prayer. The trio eventually gets rid of them, but when Shardlake asks about the figure above, Brother Gabriel informs Shardlake that the gallery and rooftop area were supposedly closed for repair.

Their conversation summarizes. Singleton had closely examined the monastery’s record of accounts but did not pass any findings on. Good luck further states that it’ll be difficult to prove any wrongdoing here, as it will be impossible to prove invaders were not responsible for Singleton’s death.

The commissioners then sit down for a meal with the members of St. Donatus. Shardlake questions the monastery’s bookkeeper, Brother Edwig, about the trade and accounts. Edwig says Singleton was satisfied with their records and Abbot Fabian is quick to note Edwig was away on business the night of the murder. What a convenient alibi!

The meal is soon interrupted by an outburst and threats of violence from Brother Jerome. He damns Cromwell and all his followers of him and even thrusts a knife in the commissioners’ direction, but Fabian orders his monks to drag Jerome out, explaining he does not belong to their order of him and they do not wish to keep him . But as he was so sure Cromwell’s men would be murdered, Shardlake insists they be allowed to question him.

a chilling secret

After the meal, Brother Guy and Mortimus take Shardlake and Barak to examine Singleton’s corpse, which they’d kept in a crypt. Shardlake deduces that the assailant must have been of medium height because of the angle of the cut. Furthermore, because the cut is clean, it must have been carried out by a skilled swordsman. It wasn’t just a murder, it was an execution. Mortimus is quick to insist that they have no swords or swordsmen here… even if some men among their ranks (including himself) were eleven soldiers.

Later, Shardlake finds himself watching Whelplay lighting candles, and remembers moments from his own past when he did the same job within his own church as a young boy. Despite his enthusiasm, Brother Andrew told the young Shardlake that he couldn’t possibly be a priest because of his disability. Shardlake then approaches Brother Whelplay, offering to protect him and inquiring about the boy’s dealings with Singleton.

Whelplay says they’ve been told to be careful with their words, and Shardlake’s unable to get anything useful out of him, but repeatedly offers to help. When he allows Whelplay to leave, he spies another figure in the gallery above. When that mystery person tries to flee, Shardlake gives chase, rushing up to the gallery and pursuing them through the monastery. The shadow evades Shardlake initially and then confronts him at the end of a narrow corridor. Their identity remains a secret, though, as the cloaked person rushes towards him, slamming Shardlake to the ground before disappearing.

Shardlake retires to his room for the night, although he doesn’t get much peace. He’s soon summoned to speak to Wheplay. The boy’s suffered a nasty blow to his head; Brother Guy is attending him and has administered some medicine, but Whelplay (revealing his forename to be Simon) insisted on speaking to Shardlake personally.

Distressed, Whelplay reveals that Singleton is not the first person to be killed. He further claims he tried to warn “her de ella” (Shardlake assumes he means Alice, the only woman in the monastery) to the danger here. Shardlake tries to get him to reveal the other victims, but Simon refuses to say anything else, and Guy intercepts their conversation, claiming the boy has to rest.

The episode ends with Shardlake returning to his room. He’d pulled Alice aside and asked whether she felt in any danger here (not particularly), and if she could recall any of Simon’s warnings from her (she couldn’t). In his room, he gives himself a hard time for being distracted by a woman. While he does so, a cloaked figure can be seen spying into his room from a hidden chamber…

Shardlake is now streaming on Hulu and Disney Plus.

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