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My poignant journey in search of the martyrs

When Nancy Bilyeau began writing an historical thriller she got up close to the horror of the Reformation

By on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The tomb of St Thomas More is seen in the crypt of the St Peter ad Vincula chapel in the Tower of London (Photo: CNS photo/Marcin Mazur)

The tomb of St Thomas More is seen in the crypt of the St Peter ad Vincula chapel in the Tower of London (Photo: CNS photo/Marcin Mazur)

When I decided to create a 16th-century Dominican novice as the main character of my debut novel The Crown, my motive was to find a new way into the era. Queens, princesses and ladies-in-waiting, living in royal palaces, dominated Tudor fiction. For my planned thriller, I wanted to open the door to a different world and a new sort of female protagonist. Eight years of research and two books later, I feel a complex tumble of emotions – intrigued, humbled, exhilarated, saddened and outraged – over what I learned about England’s lost monastic life.

I began my journey as a life-long Tudor history addict but fairly ignorant of the specifics of the religious orders. I had no spiritual agenda; I was raised by agnostic parents in the American Midwest. But after I learned a family secret when I was 19, I felt increasing curiosity about the Catholic Church. In the last month of her life, my grandmother told my mother that while she and my grandfather, Francis Aloysius O’Neill, babysat me as an infant, they took me to a priest in Chicago, Illinois, for baptism. The first priest they approached for baptism without the parents being present said no; the second one said yes. I was baptised in the Catholic Church but for nearly 20 years did not know it.

After university, I moved to New York City to work in the magazine business. Occasionally I found myself on Fifth Avenue in midtown and would slow down as I approached St Patrick’s Cathedral. I’d walk up the steps, push open the heavy doors, and slide inside to look at the magnificent 330ft-tall space. “Do I belong here?” I’d ask myself as I watched people light candles and pray.

Now, with a plan to write a historical thriller, I dived into my research of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In most books on the reign of Henry VIII the refrain is the same: the numbers of monks, priests and nuns had dwindled by the 16th century, and many questions had already been raised about the abbeys’ financial and moral soundness. After the monasteries were closed and their occupants evicted, no one much cared, except for some rebels in a failed uprising in the north known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Two books that went deeper into the topic made me start to question that conventional wisdom: G W Bernard’s The King’s Reformation described the extreme brutality the king doled out to those who opposed him. It went beyond the executions of Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher – monks and friars who did not want to forsake the pope and swear an oath to Henry VIII as the head of the church were imprisoned, starved, hanged, beheaded and even carved into pieces. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England made a convincing argument that the Catholic faith was a vibrant and essential part of daily life when Henry VIII broke from Rome because he could not get an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Most significantly, by dissolving the monasteries the king was able to seize a colossal amount of money.

As troubling as this was, it was not until I moved from the general to the specific that the fate of the nuns of England began to haunt me. I chose the sole house of Dominican Sisters in England, Dartford Priory, as the home of my protagonist, the fictional Sister Joanna Stafford. A priory of “strict discipline and plain living,” it was founded with great care by Edward III in the 1350s. The women who took vows at Dartford were from the gentry or nobility. There was even one princess: Bridget of York, the youngest daughter of Edward IV. Daily life was spent praying, singing, studying, gardening, sewing and teaching local girls to read. Twice a week the Sisters distributed alms to the local poor. The prioresses were learned and formidable women. Elizabeth Cressner, who died in 1537, oversaw her house of nuns with tremendous vigour for 50 years.

When the king’s commissioners visited Dartford Priory they did not find a house in decay. In 1535, the Valor Ecclesiasticus put the net annual revenue of the monastery at a robust £380 9s ½d. The number of nuns had not declined over the last century, but held at a steady number. I have not been able to find any contemporary reports finding fault with Dartford.

Yet in 1539 Prioress Joan Vane “surrendered” the priory to the king and it was demolished. Why? Most likely because closure was inevitable – by that time almost every other abbey had been dissolved – and those who resisted faced royal savagery. Abbot Richard Whiting, 81, refused to surrender Glastonbury in 1539. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London, convicted of treason and dragged on a hurdle to the top of Glastonbury Tor. There, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, his severed head nailed to the gate of the deserted abbey. You can certainly see why most of the monastics submitted to the will of the king.

After the nuns of Dartford were evicted from their home, they received small pensions. Although the stereotype of a medieval nun is someone who is pressured to take vows, some of the Dominican Sisters continued to live together in groups because they did not want to abandon their vocations.

When Henry VIII’s oldest daughter, Mary, took the throne, she granted the Dominican nuns’ request to re-establish their order in Dartford and seven nuns moved back in. But this restoration only lasted as long as Mary lived. Elizabeth’s officials ordered the nuns to leave. They did so, joining some of the last remaining Sisters of Syon Abbey. Mary’s widower, King Philip, quietly paid for the group to leave England for the Netherlands. They went from convent to convent, suffering poverty and ill health. In Paul Lee’s book, Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society, a letter from someone who saw the Dartford nuns in 1561 in a convent on the island of Zeeland says: “These are the most elderly of all the religious and the most infirm, and it seems that they are more than half dead.” But they hung on for quite a bit longer. The last of the Dartford nuns died in Bruges in 1585.

As part of researching my novels, I travelled to Dartford. I met the curators of the Dartford Borough Museum and I walked the same ground as the Sisters did more than five centuries ago. All that remains of their priory are sections of the stone wall running along the boundary between convent and town. When Henry VIII had the priory demolished, a grand royal manor house was raised. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, lived there after the king divorced her. Part of the brick gatehouse still stands and, somewhat ironically, wedding receptions are held there.

Dartford was the only house of nuns, but there were several friaries in England before the Dissolution. The most famous was Blackfriars, established in 1280, a massive complex of buildings in London that extended from the Thames River to Ludgate. Parliament was convened in the Great Hall of Blackfriars. The divorce hearing of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon immortalised by Shakespeare took place there. Like Dartford, this religious house surrendered to the king and the occupants left quietly, in search of new lives.

In my second novel, The Chalice, my characters travel to Blackfriars. I wanted to re-create their journey. It seemed impossible to me that nothing remained of the imposing friary, and so, armed with historic maps from the bookstore of the Museum of London, I headed for the area near the underground stop late one summer afternoon. I couldn’t find a sign, a wall, a remnant… anything.

After hours of this, I was ready to give up when I heard beautiful singing coming from a quiet side street. Intrigued, I followed the sound of the hymn up a set of stairs to a small leafy park. There, some 20 men and women were gathered singing, with a priest standing by.

I sat on a bench and listened to them sing. It turned out that July 26 was St Anne’s Day and they sang to honour the mother of the Virgin Mary. When, at twilight, I got up to leave I spotted a piece of stone wall and some faded tombstones on the edge of the park. They were the graves of several friars of the Dominican order. Long ago, the Church of St Anne had gathered and protected some of the graves. This was all that remained of Blackfriars.

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Chalice and The Crown, published by Orion. The Crown was on the short list for the 2012 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 19/4/13

  • Jose

    Thanks, Nancy, excelent piece…!

  • James M

    “…monks and friars who did not want to forsake the pope and swear an oath to Henry VIII as the head of the church were imprisoned, starved, hanged, beheaded and even carved into pieces”

    ## That was the penalty for treason that was paid by men not of aristocratic birth.

    Sir Thomas More was fortunate enough to have his sentence altered; he was spared the hanging, castration, & disembowelling, but not the decapitation and (posthumous) quartering of the corpse. The purpose of sending quarters of the corpse of traitors was to deter others from doing likewise. Londoners had the advantage of being able to see the heads of traitors on spikes at Tower Bridge, where they could be picked clean by the crows. More, though only a knight, had been Lord Chancellor, and the King’s friend. When Bishop Fisher’s cook tried in 1532 to poison him – two other people died in the process – he was exceptionally unfortunate, for he was boiled alive.

    Henry VIII has a reputation for cruelty, but the DP for male traitors of low birth was not his invention: Edward I used it for Daffydd, the last native Welsh prince, in 1283. So its employment in the reign of Henry VIII was in no way remarkable: it is a great mistake to think of him as inventing it in order to vent his spleen on those Catholics courageous enough to withstand him for religious reasons. He was no kinder to Protestants. Women were not usually racked – but in 1546, a Protestant woman was racked so severely that she had to be carried to the stake when she was burned.

    It is also a great mistake to criticise him or his age for not being humane – that may be an ideal for men today, but in that period, and before and long after, it was not: far from it. Juries were frequently “packed”, in order to ensure a conviction – the accused had no defending counsel, but had to defend himself as best he could. The presumption was that the accused was guilty – just as in Inquisitorial procedure; the reasoning went that unless the accused was suspect for very good reason, he would not be facing trial in the first place. Unless we have the historical imagination to understand how very different from our own the legal culture of that time was, our ideas of Henry VIII & his offspring are going to be little more than caricatures. By way of comparison, the assassin of Henri IV of France in 1610 was pulled to pieces by horses – as was the man who in 1757 wounded Louis XV. Neither Catholic nor Protestant countries were humane – both kinds used torture, and the difference of religion did not affect the severity of the DP.

    FWIW, the headline is unfair – the Reformation can no more be defined by the brutalities that accompanied it, than Christianity can be defined by the persecution of paganism that made its victory possible. Whether man is saved by grace alone through faith alone through Christ has to be considered on its own grounds, and not by totting up deeds of violence that can plausibly be ascribed to peasant unrest or princely restiveness. The value of the claims of the Church is not logically related to the spoliation of pagan shrines – so why should the religion of the Reformers be logically related to royal or other violence ?

  • Molly

    A wonderful article on an important period of history. I’m looking forward to reading both novels now.

  • Faustina Robinson

    I find your research fascinating and it has definitely stimulated my interest to read your novels. Thank you so much for sharing this with your audience.

  • acero aspiro

    It is interesting to rediscover Tudor times. Henry VIII was not interested in the “Reformation”. We only need to see his will in which he asked the monastery of Walsingham to say masses for him after his death. His Six Articles were not at all what we would define a “Protestant” confession of faith. Serious historians, from both sides of the fence, have identified the beginning of the English Reformation with Edward VI and Archbishop Cranmer. The dissolution of monastery was in reality a economical and political move by Henry VIII to assert his royal authority in the “political and economical” aspects which the Church had so far controlled in England. Henry VIII did not became “Protestant” but he was a very separated “Catholic” in his theology and understanding. He was Henry VIII to have Tyndale burnt at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible into English. The contributions, however of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation cannot be ignored, from the Reformation we had historically the birth of national monarchies as opposed to the Holy Roman Empire, the idea, sealed with the sufferings of many, of religious freedom and freedom of thought. The Counter-reformation forced the Church to “clean” her house, at the expense of further post-renaissance development which limited itself in the Baroque, form as opposed to contents. Let us not forget that of all those who suffered most at the time at the hands of both sides of the conflict were the Anabaptists and the Jews. It is possible to trace in European history that every time there was a Jewish progrom there was an intense persecution of Anabaptists. I hope one day someone will write a novel on them too. In any case all the best wishes for your literary career.

  • mburns

    Nancy, thanks so much for this great article! As a born and raised Catholic (i took a little ‘time off’ in college!), i’ve always been intrigued and saddened by the horrific destruction of the great medieval monasteries and abbeys, including Glastonbury (as you say). I look forward to seeing you in St. Petersburg for the HNS conference — and to reading your books! mary burns

  • chiaramonti

    There is a wonderful moment in the 1953 film about Elizabeth I (Young Bess) in which Charles Laughton has a cameo role as the dying Henry VIII ( reprising his Oscar winning performance as Henry in The Private Life of Henry VIII). Henry is on his death bed with his courtiers fawning about him. ‘Remember to pray for the release of my soul from purgatory,’ he orders. The Courtier replies, ‘But Sire, you have abolished purgatory!’ Henry looks him in the eye and says ‘Do as I say.’ He was, indeed, no reformer of doctrine. He just wanted to have his own way.

  • Gordon Carter

    Nancy your article has just appeared in CathNews here in Australia. Your attempt to find the remains of Blackfriars reminds me of a similar journey about 5 years ago. I was trying to find the News of the World building in Fleet Street as I knew it was built over the remains of the Whitefriars (Carmelite) monastery which until the Suppression ran from Fleet St/ Whitefriars St and beyond. On a former visit to the 1984 I had been able to visit the (very underground) small crypt of the monastery church which was open to the public. There was a little historical display which I remember was quite well done. Sadly though in 2008 I could find no trace of the News of the World building on that site .. I suppose the crypt is also long filled in …
    Gordon Carter. Adelaide. South Australia.

  • Mike Bennett

    Actually it was London Bridge where heads were put on spikes to focus people’s minds. Tower Bridge was built in the 19th Century and is a very modern contraption. But otherwise well observed.

  • Luisa Navarro

    Your idea of the Counter-Reformation (i.e. the real Reformation of the Church) and the Baroque culture is dismal, to put it mildly.

  • Mariella We

    i shld hv downvoted this post. I mistakenly pressed the like button.

  • linda fullagar

    Very interesting facts I learnt something today you talk about black friars there are to streets in chester that are named black friars and one is named white friares .

  • acero aspiro

    Dear Luisa, have you read a book on history of art? Have you ever compared Botticelli and the Baroque art? The differences of subject matter between the two kinds of arts? My idea of the Counter-Reformation actually comes from Roman Catholic historians it is not based on my judgment nor on Protestant based historical books. The Counter-Reformation was necessary to clean the “house”, you only need to study the life of San Carlo Borromeo, Philip Neri and those giants of Catholicism of that time to see their efforts in defeating the moral inheritance of the Borgia which flowed at least until Paul III.The idea of Baroque I have presented is what Catholic teachers will tell you in a Catholic school in Catholic Italy and it is part of the curriculum. If it dismal I am pleased – this comment shows me that there is an alternative interpretation.

  • acero aspiro

    Dear Mariella, down voting me on the basis of what I was taught in a Catholic school is very little. However toidentify Henry VIII with the Protestant Reformation in England shows very little historical knowledge of the Tudor. Henry VIII was not a Protestant at all just search for his Six Articles of Faith and compare them with the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church and you will spot the reasons why.

  • Nancy Bilyeau

    Gordon, thank you for your comment, isn’t that intriguing, to find that crypt. And so frustrating to never find it again! It’s sad that so little remains of these friaries.

  • Nancy Bilyeau

    Thank you

  • Nancy Bilyeau

    Thank you for your thoughtful and informed comment.. It is very true that in this period treason was punished with a severity that we find frightening today. But even in his own period, Henry VIII was regarded with some alarm in Europe. The execution of Cardinal Fisher and Sir Thomas More and the sacking of the shrine of Becket were what pushed the pope to publish the bull of excommunication.

  • Nancy Bilyeau

    Thank you, Mary

  • Nancy Bilyeau

    When I see references to Henry VIII as a Protestant, I shake my head. He wasn’t.

  • Nancy Bilyeau

    Thank you Molly

  • Cliftonensis

    Of course he was. He protested against the papacy – that makes him a protestant.