Thursday, May 07, 2015

Guest Post: The "Tudor Scribe" writes about a lost world

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the TV series "Wolf Hall" and its inaccurate presentation of St Thomas More, recommending a series of novels set in the same time frame that offer a very different (and more true to life) perspective. Today NunBlog is honored to welcome author Nancy Bilyeau, Twitter's @TudorScribe, as a guest blogger:

When, ten years ago, I began to work on a series of novels set in Tudor England, I decided to create a Dominican novice as the protagonist. I wanted to write something different than the usual stories of kings and queens, princesses and ladies of the court. I was excited about writing a suspense story with a woman at the center of it all, and I thought that a nun living through the Dissolution of the Monasteries would be very dramatic.

I knew quite a bit about 16th century history but not a great deal about the ordinary nuns, or monks or friars or priests, who lived through the trauma of Henry VIII’s reign, when he broke with Rome. I soon discovered that there isn’t a great deal of information readily available. “History is written by the winners,” goes the saying, whether you attribute it to Winston Churchill or Niccolò Machiavelli.

But I didn’t give up. I found books, and contemporary documents, that helped me learn about the lost sisters of Dartford Priory, the sole Dominican house for women in England that I chose to set The Crown in.  I traveled to England to learn more. All that remains of the priory now are pieces of stone wall along a busy road. The handsome brick gatehouse that was raised on the rubble of the priory is today a popular setting for wedding receptions—which I find ironic. I did receive valuable assistance from the two men who run a small museum in Dartford, sharing the town’s rich religious history.

At the end of The Crown, the priory is demolished, despite everything my main character, Joanna Stafford, does to prevent it. In the second book, The Chalice, Joanna is drawn into a shadowy conspiracy against Henry VIII and must choose between fighting for her way of life and holding true to her values. In the third book, The Tapestry, published this spring, Joanna, who has a talent for tapestry weaving, reluctantly answers a summons to Whitehall from a tapestry-obsessed king, and is soon fighting for her life.

Thomas More's daughter Meg would have
been not that much older than the fictional
Joanna Stafford.
While my main character and some of the supporting characters are fictional, I worked hard to place them in a detailed world based on diligent research. The Historical Novel Society review said about The Tapestry, “Joanna is a force of nature. Smart, persevering, yet true to herself and her beliefs, she gets better in each incarnation. Up to her ears in court intrigues, religious persecutions, beheadings galore and Henry’s erratic and volatile nature, Joanna shines – remaining ever vigilant. Bilyeau’s rendering of the court and its diverse personalities, the palpable tension between Protestant and Catholic, and the very smells and sounds of the streets are intensely evoked. A lot of fun, and highly recommended.” My first novel, The Crown, made it on to the short list of the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award, and The Chalice won the award for Best Historical Mystery from the RT Reviewers. These acknowledgements are very encouraging.
 This is why the TV series Wolf Hall on Masterpiece Theatre, based on the Hilary Mantel books, although it is well written and stars some fine actors, has me shaking my head. The protagonist of the series is Thomas Cromwell, who was the mastermind of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and many of the other religious upheavals of that era. His treatment of those who resisted the reformation was famously brutal. Yet in this series, Cromwell is humane and empathetic, a family man –literally cuddling kitten-- who is disgusted by torture. This would come as news to the group of Carthusian martyrs who died, horribly, after being starved and tormented on Cromwell’s watch. They refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy that meant acknowledging Henry VIII was the spiritual head of the kingdom.

The real Ambassador Chapuys (above)
also figures in Bilyeau's trilogy.
Instead, Wolf Hall creates an alternative reality. In Episode Five, Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, says disapprovingly to Cromwell, “I heard you’re going to put all the monks and nuns out on the road.” This prompts a self-righteous response from Cromwell of “Wherever my commissioners go, they meet nuns and monks begging for their liberty and after the scandals I’ve heard, I’m not surprised.” 

But this is not what I learned in my research into the monastic world of the early 16th century. After the nuns were ejected from their homes with small pensions, they often banded together to live in community, trying to stay true to their vows. When Mary I ascended the throne, they joyfully returned to their priories, only to be thrown out a last time when she died and her half sister Elizabeth I succeeded. There were instances of fraud and corruption in the abbeys, but nowhere near the level that Wolf Hall assumes. A growing number of historians believe that the “corruption” found in Cromwell’s investigation was a foregone conclusion—and a pretext for the legal seizure of the vast amount of land owned by the abbeys. After all, most were endowed by pious kings going back centuries.

Wolf Hall is not alone. The C.J. Sansom Tudor mystery series also takes the position of Catholic decay and corruption, with a main character who is a Protestant lawyer (who initially works for Cromwell). When I attended the play Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2011, I felt uncomfortable when all around me, the audience laughed at a joke about debauched monks or nodded approvingly when a heroic Tyndale entered the story, to be opposed by dimwitted enemies.  

There are historians such as Eamon Duffy who’ve written brilliant books challenging the accepted wisdom that Protestantism replaced a dying and corrupt system, and thanks to them, perceptions are changing.  In the English media, there was a storm of protest—small but loud—over the distortions in the story of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall.

My hope is that my series of books will find readers who are open and willing to see this tumultuous time in English history with new eyes. And that the stories of the brave women and men who were indeed “put out on the road” in the 1530s will at last be heard.

To learn more, go to


Sister Anne here: I found Nancy's historical novels quite hard to put down. If you enjoy historical fiction (and romance so clean and normal a nun can read it without blushing), look them up!


Celticlady's Reviews said...

Wonderful article about a very talented author. I have read the series and learned a lot. Thank you!

Dave said...

Great post, Nancy. But I wonder if we can really ever know the extent of the alleged corruption in the monasteries. Certainly throughout Europe members of the Church at all levels were straying from the path of righteousness giving the Protestants fuel for reformation. I would say the driving force behind the destruction of the monasteries was their property; they had it and Henry wanted it. Cromwell was happy to discharge his king's policies.