‘Shardlake’ Ending Explained & Series Summary: Who Killed Robin Singleton?


Shardlake is a new historical mystery series streaming on Disney+ that adapts the fascinating works of novelist C.J. Sansom to the screen. Based on the characters and the plot of Sansom’s novels, the four-episode series follows barrister Matthew Shardlake as he has to solve a murder mystery in England in 1537, all while struggling with the physical and societal difficulties due to his disability. Although Shardlake might be considered a little too short to have given the characters much space to develop, it still provides for an entertaining watch, even making one reflect on the many events of history.

Spoiler Alert

What is the series about?

Set in the Tudor period, Shardlake begins with a man walking through a monastery late one night in the hopes of finding something before he is swiftly killed by someone. This murder soon becomes the central point of the series, as an investigation into it is ordered by the royal counselor, Thomas Cromwell. As it turns out, the murdered man was an emissary of the King, named Robin Singleton, who had been representing the country’s ruler, Henry VIII, on a special mission. The King and his royal court wanted to disband monasteries and religious institutions in order to ensure that the wealth spent at such places could be used for the betterment of the public. Robin Singleton had been sent to the St. Donatus monastery in the port town of Scarnsea to inform the abbot of the royal decision and to oversee the closure of the facility. However, the emissary himself had been killed, apparently by invaders, as stated by the officials at the missionary, and his assistant, Dr. Goodhap, was still at the place, spending his days in fear that he, too, might be killed.

The fictional protagonist of this tale is introduced next, as the barrister Matthew Shardlake is summoned by Thomas Cromwell in London and informed about the shocking developments at Scarnsea. Shardlake has had physical disabilities since his birth, and he is used to facing much prejudice and ridicule because of it, despite the fact that he has been able to achieve the distinction of a barrister in the country. Despite the physical and societal struggles, he takes on the mission because there is really no way for him to neglect the orders of an important superior like Cromwell. Shardlake sails to the far-off port town of Scarnsea, together with one of Cromwell’s henchmen, Jack Barak, and reaches the St. Donatus monastery. While the exact grim details of how Singleton’s body had been found confirmed that he had been murdered, it seemed extremely unlikely that any intruder had done it. St. Donatus is located in the middle of nowhere, far away from any human civilization, meaning that any outsider hardly passes by it. Moreover, Shardlake realizes that Singleton had been expecting company when he was killed, meaning that he knew his murderer, who is most definitely still inside the monastery. As Shardlake and Barak start to investigate the case, they stumble across more than one mystery, trying to solve it one after another.

Why does Jack Barak kill Dr. Goodhap?

Dr. Goodhap, the associate who had accompanied the original emissary, Robin Singleton, to the monastery, is now terribly scared for his own life. The murder naturally upsets him, and considering it a vengeful act against the new law and representatives of the King, Goodhap wants to leave St. Donatus as soon as possible. However, the new emissaries, Shardlake and Barak, do not allow him to leave since his presence is also required for their investigation, but Goodhap grows frustrated because of it. Early one morning, he prepares his bags to leave the place secretly and even manages to walk up to his horse in the stable. However, the man is confronted by Barak, who had been following him after realizing his plan, and a tense situation plays out. Barak suspects that Goodhap is hiding something from him, while the other feels cornered and threatened by the henchman. Out of sheer desperation, Goodhap pulls out a knife and tries to attack Barak, which ultimately results in the latter stabbing and killing him with his sword.

Although Barak’s action initially seems like an act of self-defense, it is easy to understand that he would absolutely overpower the physically weaker Goodhap and could, therefore, take him captive for trying to flee. However, his decision to kill the man is intricately linked to the historical context of the show, along with the personal obligations of the character. As long as monarchy existed as the sole form of authority in England, or rather anywhere in the world, matters of one’s utter servitude towards the King/Queen and country were taken very seriously. To Jack Barak, who was technically not an official member of the government and had no direct contact with King Henry VIII, the royal advisor, Thomas Cromwell, was the highest form of authority. Cromwell’s direct order had been to find any evidence of wrongdoing at St. Donatus monastery that would easily help the authorities shut the place down and seize all its wealth. Even if anything unrelated to the murder of Singleton was found, Barak and Shardlake were to investigate it and help close the monastery. 

Shardlake is undoubtedly the more intelligent and experienced one between the pair, and Barak mostly tries to justify his presence. It is revealed that Jack Barak actually comes from a very lowly background, with no familial wealth or social stature, as he used to spend his days on the streets. It is most likely that Barak used to be a wastrel on the streets, getting involved in petty crimes and maybe some gang activities, which eventually highlighted his potential as a henchman to Cromwell. It was only after Cromwell technically adopted him that Barak had some position in society, along with the money to dress and behave like a nobleman. Therefore, he knows all too well that his life is greatly dependent on the royal advisor, for if Cromwell were to grow angry and remove support for him someday, Barak would have to be back on the streets.

Thus, Jack Barak saw Dr. Goodhap as an opportunity to help Cromwell’s plan succeed. Goodhap was really of no use to the investigators, and his nagging about wanting to leave did not help either. Barak believed that if Goodhap were also found murdered at the monastery, it would most definitely lead to the place shutting down. Although Barak’s murder was not extensively pre-planned, this was indeed the reason behind his act at the moment when he killed Goodhap. However, the murder does not actually help his cause, as Goodhap’s body is removed from the premises by the abbot and his men, who are desperate to avoid any more scandal at their monastery.

What is the mystery behind the dead body in the pond?

During Shardlake’s investigation into the murder of Singleton, a couple of other murders also took place at the monastery, starting with that of a young trainee monk named Simon. The monks and priests at the place, which is a reflection of the cruel and harsh society outside, are quite unruly on Simon because of his timid nature and his possible mental disabilities, all masked under the ruse of training him for the difficult life of a monk. Although Simon seemingly dies after falling from a considerable height, his body is found with traces of poison, meaning that he had actually been killed by someone at the place. A little while later, when another young monk, Brother Gabriel, wants to talk to Shardlake in private, stating that he has some confessions to make, he is also murdered, this time by a blowgun.

By the time Shardlake comes to an end, both of these murders are found to be unrelated to the primary killing of Robin Singleton. Before his death, Simon had guided Shardlake’s attention towards a small pond inside the monastery, and upon getting the water drained from it, a dead body was found, along with a sword with a specific sigil. The dead body is examined by the medic, Brother Guy, and a necklace found on its neck confirms that it belonged to a woman named Orphan Stonegarden. The woman used to live and work as Guy’s assistant until she disappeared one day, along with two golden chalices. While Stonegarden was believed to have been a thief who had run away from the monastery after stealing the chalices, the presence of her dead body found in the pond proves otherwise. Ultimately, Matthew Shardlake discovers that a different evil has been lurking at the monastery for all this time.

Brother Edwig, who is the official bookkeeper at St. Donatus, is actually a vile criminal with blood on his hands. Like many religious institutions, which knowingly or unknowingly housed criminals in those medieval times, St. Donatus monastery also gave a safe space to Edwig while he should have been tried for murder instead. Some time ago, Edwig approached Orphan Stonegarden because he wanted to get romantic and physically intimate with her, but the young woman turned down his request. Enraged by her audacity to do so, the lecherous man murdered her and dumped her body in the pond. He had then stolen the golden chalices and hidden them among his personal belongings in order to make Stonegarden seem like a thief. Simon had witnessed some part of this incident, possibly the dumping of the body, but could not tell anyone about it since nobody showed him any seriousness or respect. Finally, when he came across the understanding barrister, Shardlake, the young man wanted him to know the truth, and this made Edwig kill Simon as well. When Gabriel then wanted to speak privately with Shardlake, Edwig falsely believed that he, too, knew about his crimes and, therefore, murdered Gabriel with his blowgun.

Much like the novels, the Shardlake series also raises questions with regards to the complex relationship between religion, politics, and society that existed in the time period that it portrays. Although none of the residents at St. Donatus knew about the murderous nature of Brother Edwig, the lack of safety for women and even for men like Simon was acknowledged by many. But the abuse and harassment were all part of the very rules and customs, and therefore, nobody questioned them, at least in public. Edwig did not just kill out of impulse, but he tried his best to hide his crimes as well, even by tailing Shardlake and trying to stop his investigation. It is possible to wonder whether the decision to close down monasteries could be justified because of individuals like Edwig, who took advantage of such religious institutions.

Who was the real murderer of Robin Singleton?

While the murders of Stonegarden, Simon, and Gabriel somewhat justified the royal decision to shut down monasteries, the main murder that began the investigation, that of the emissary Robin Singleton, presents the horrific nature of the monarchy. It is in this nature that Shardlake becomes a satisfying representation of the political and social complexities of the time, despite its plot being mostly fictional. Only some time before King Henry VIII called for the dissolution of the monasteries, he had officially ordered the execution of his erstwhile queen, Anne Boleyn. The execution of Queen Anne was carried out after she was found guilty of adultery, for she had supposedly gotten romantic with a man named Mark Smeaton, behind the back of her lawful husband, the King. But through his investigations at St. Donatus, Shardlake finds out about a different political conspiracy, which is ultimately directly linked with his case as well.

One of the elderly monks at the monastery, Brother Jerome, is believed to be mentally unstable by most, but he has much knowledge about a different matter. In reality, Queen Anne had been framed for adultery, as the only official confession made by the supposed lover, Mark Smeaton, was fake. Because of certain circumstances, King Henry VIII had grown distant from his wife and instead found a new lover in a woman named Jane Seymour. Soon, he wanted to get rid of his wife and came up with the cruel plan of executing her under the lie of being an adulterer. The King’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell, had helped him with the plan, and he later sort of admits to Shardlake that Smeaton had been chosen by him and other associates as the scapegoat of this conspiracy. Mark Smeaton, who was no lover of Queen Anne, was imprisoned and tortured for days before his determination broke, and he agreed to falsely confess his crime. As a result, both Smeaton and Anne were executed officially.

While these events are historically true, Shardlake adds a layer of fiction over them in its plot. When Matthew Shardlake investigates the sword found in the pond at the monastery, which he believes to be the murder weapon, the official sigil is revealed to be that of the Smeaton family. When Mark Smeaton was chosen to be staged as the perpetrator, it was the erstwhile government official, Robin Singleton, who had decided to put the blame on him. Smeaton’s family members had found out about this, but his father also died before he could take any step. The slain young man had only one remaining living family member, a cousin’s sister who was also supposed to marry him before he was arrested. This woman actually turns out to be Alice, one of the workers at the monastery, and she had also sneaked in the Smeaton family sword, which had been forged by her betrothed’s father. Alice had seemingly lied to Singleton about some clues she could give to help his investigation and managed to bring him down to the kitchen alone. She then murdered the man with the family sword, exacting revenge for what he had done to Mark, and then dumped the sword in the pool.

What happens to the St. Donatus monastery?

Although most of the characters and events in Shardlake are fictional, the historical backdrop to it is quite accurate, and the dissolution of the monasteries was indeed an official administrative rule made by King Henry VIII. During his rule, the King decided to shut off Catholic monasteries, convents, and other such religious institutions to gather all the rich wealth that these places possessed and to help the masses with it instead. However, the actual purpose is debated, as it is widely believed that Henry VIII technically kept much of the wealth from the monasteries for his own personal use after they were transferred to the royal treasury. The “Shardlake” series also chooses to present the corruption involved with the matter, as Thomas Cromwell is seen making business dealings with the Duke of Norfolk over the wealth that would soon be brought over from St. Donatus. Despite Norfolk’s political perspective being very different from Cromwell’s, the two men were conspiring to make use of the riches to better their relationship. After all, matters of politics and religion fail in front of money and wealth, and Shardlake realizes this all too well.

In Shardlake‘s ending, the two investigators are unable to find any substantial evidence of the murders at the monastery that would be considered serious in England of 1536. While the murder committed by Alice could be used, Shardlake chooses not to, both out of sympathy for her cause and also because of Barak’s romantic relationship with her. Instead, they are able to find proof of the bookkeeper, Brother Edwig, having siphoned funds from the royal government by hiding taxes, and this is used to shut down the St. Donatus monastery. Barak lets Alice escape through the secret underground network, while Edwig attacks Shardlake, so the protagonist has to kill the murderer. Although Shardlake reports Alice’s crime to his superiors, he also helps her escape by stating that she drowned and died in the swamps while fleeing. With all the wealth from the monastery safely transferred to King Henry’s treasury, the royal authorities would surely not bother much about the woman since the money was all they targeted. While Shardlake and Barak finally return to London, Shardlake‘s ending scene reveals that Brother Jerome had removed the holy relic of the Hand of the Penitent Thief from among the monastery’s treasures out of sheer respect for it. It was Jerome who had kept the relic hidden for all this while, and he continues to keep it with him, unwilling to give it over to the corrupt Cromwell or his unjust King, Henry VIII.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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