1537. Henry VIII has just chopped off the head of Anne Bolyen on spurious charges of adultery, evidence for which was acquired by torturing the principal corespondant. Henry has long since broken with the Pope and instituted his own version of the Christian religion, now known as the Church of England.
Next come the monasteries. Parliament is giving Henry a tough time, as legislative bodies are wont to do with dictatorial autocrats, and he needs money. So he decides to destroy the religious houses, give their lands to his adherents so as to cement relationships with his favorites, and to gather in the wealth the monks have acquired over the centuries.
In a five-year period in the middle of the 16th century he achieved his goals. By 1540 the monasteries were all gone, their lands enriching the king's friends and their chalices and reliqueries melted down for Henry's treasury.
This novel, Dissolution, is the first in a mystery series the protagonist of which is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer. Cromwell sends him off to a monastery in the south of England to investigate the murder of another of Cromwell's commissioners, in the course of which Shardlake must face up to some unpleasant truths and solve some unsolveable problems.