An Interview with Author Nancy Bilyeau
I recently read a magnificent novel, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau, which deals with the fate of some English Dominican nuns during Henry VIII's "reform." I was delighted and honored when Nancy agreed to be interviewed. I will be reviewing the book as well in a future post. To quote from the book description:
An aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. The year is 1537. . .
EMV: Nancy, welcome! Congratulations on your magnificent novel, The Crown, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was especially impressed by the research that went into making it one of the most authentic novels of the Tudor era that I have ever read. You bring to life the beauty and peace of the cloister even as it is about to be destroyed. Can you tell us a little about how you began your journey into the past, and where you found the best sources on such a turbulent, controversial epoch?
NB: I’ve been interested in English history since I was 11 years old and saw a re-broadcast of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on television with my parents. Ever since that time, the Tudor period was my particular passion, and I read the major books about the time. I pored through the major biographies, from J.J. Scarisbricke’s Henry VIII to Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon. Every time a new biography on Anne Boleyn was published, I bought it. I do think I have all of them. When I began the research for The Crown, I dove into all books and sources on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was the 1536-1537 rebellion in the North against the Protestant reforms. I found some of the most helpful books written almost a century ago: F.A. Gasquet’s English Monastic Life (1906) and Cranage’s The Home of the Monk: An Account of English Monastic Life and Buildings in the Middle Ages (1926). On the other end of the spectrum, British History Online is an amazing Internet source of contemporary and secondary source documents.
EMV: There are very few novels that tell the story of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII from the point of view of an insider. The only other novels in a similar vein that I have read are The King’s Achievement by R.H. Benson and Miracle at St. Bruno’s by Philippa Carr. What inspired you to have a nun as your heroine? And why a Dominican nun in particular?
NB: I wanted to write my book from a woman’s point of view but it took me a while to decide which woman. I wanted to write a mystery thriller because I enjoy reading them so much myself. I fused two of my favorite genres: the historical novel and the thriller. So would I have a “real” woman—a queen or princess or lady-in-waiting—as the protagonist? I decided no, that would be too difficult and possibly contrived to have, say, Queen Catherine Parr solving murders when she’s not fending off conspiracies to drive her off the throne. I wanted a fictional heroine, someone who is doing interesting things in a turbulent time. I have always been intrigued by nuns, and so I thought it could yield high drama, to write a nun’s story at the most fraught moment of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I picked the Dominicans because I’d read a little bit about Saint Catherine of Siena and she interests me. And Dartford Priory was where I wanted to set the book, and that was the only house of Dominican sisters in England pre-Reformation.
EMV: Your heroine, Joanna Stafford, is a zealous soul, in love with God and ready to serve Him with all her heart. However, she sometimes has trouble with obedience which make some of the nuns question her vocation. The upheavals of era disturb the course of her novitiate as well. Do you think, under normal circumstance, that Joanna would have been happy being a nun?
NB: Yes I do. In my conception of her, Joanna finds a peace and a sense of fulfillment in Dartford Priory that she’d known nowhere else in her life. And she has the intelligence and resilience to succeed at it. I thought a lot about the spirituality of my heroine. I didn’t want to make her a nun forced to enter a priory. For one thing, my research yielded the fact that that didn’t happen very often in late medieval England. The image of the wild and restless girl imprisoned in a convent—it’s not too accurate. When Henry VIII’s commissioners seeking to “reform” the monasteries made their visits across the country, the nuns were asked, together and sometimes separately, if they wanted to leave, and very few did. And after the dissolution, some nuns continued to live in small groups and try to carry out their vocations for the rest of their lives. In Dartford, a half-dozen of the real nuns ended up leaving England after the reign of Queen Mary and lived in near-poverty in Holland.
EMV: I thought that your portrayal of Katherine of Aragon was especially powerful. She knew Henry better than anyone, having been married to him the longest, and the pieces of information that slip out when she makes her brief appearances in the novel are tantalizing. What made you focus on Katherine rather than the other wives?
NB: Oh her image has suffered so badly. Today people seem to feel that the middle-aged, stout woman should have stepped aside for the young, sexy lady-in-waiting. Just give up your husband, throne—and your dignity. I think you’ll agree that very few women today would feel that way about a friend who had been married to a man for 20 years. Katherine of Aragon was a very, very popular and beloved woman with the commoners, the nobility, and the monastic orders of her country. There was a reason for this! She was kind, generous, highly intelligent, gracious, decisive, and devout. She was fierce in time of war; when Henry was in France she defended the country capably against Scottish invasion. In her youth Katherine was beautiful. Katherine supported what we would consider today a feminist position: She believed her daughter Mary could rule the kingdom as a queen. Katherine’s mother, Isabella, ruled in her own right, and that family had a history of very strong and capable female rulers: Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary spring to mind. But Anne Boleyn has such a fix on our collective imaginations that readers today often root against Katherine and Mary—and for Anne to become queen and have that son Henry wanted. It’s rather bizarre.
EMV: I also loved your depiction of Katherine’s daughter, Mary. So often she is shown as being dour, bitter and depressed, but in The Crown she is every inch the granddaughter of Isabella of Castile, determined, savvy and authoritative. What are your thoughts on Mary’s complicated psyche?
NB: I feel Mary’s reputation has suffered enormously too, in this case in comparison to Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth. Mary is seen as weak and vindictive and cruel. Yet how strong she was! She defied her father’s tyranny for so long and supported her mother in exile. She only submitted to him when it was a question of her survival and she was urged to sign the papers by Eustace Chapuys, the Emperor’s ambassador. She stood up to constant pressure from her younger half-brother to forsake her religion. Edward and his minsters would certainly have taken harsh measures against her if not for Mary’s Hapsburg relatives. And then very few people expected her to raise an army and take the country when Edward died—to fight for her right to succeed. But she did it and with amazing courage. And Mary brought forth the same loyalty among friends and servants as her mother did—more than Elizabeth did later. Mary never minded when her ladies got married and had children—she gave them presents and stood as godmother over and over. Now Mary suffered psychologically through all of this. Her naturally kind and generous nature did darken in some respects, though not as much as people think today. “Bloody Mary” is such a tragic legacy.
EMV: In the novel, Joanna and the other nuns have taken the Oath, and yet they admire the courage of those who died rather than take it, such as the Carthusians and Thomas More and Bishop Fisher. I never realized that so many nuns did take the Oath and yet they were dissolved anyway. Why was Cromwell so determined to destroy consecrated life in England, especially when the monks, nuns and friars did so much good work in health care, education, and feeding the hungry?
NB: It was a financial imperative. The country was approaching bankruptcy. The land grab of the monasteries—that is what it was—poured more than a million pounds into the royal treasury. The King and Cromwell assured people that hospitals and schools would replace the abbeys and monasteries that were emptied and often destroyed but that rarely happened. The money went to building new palaces and to war, mostly. Also the property was turned over to courtiers so that they would be more bound to the king than ever. There are social problems in the late 16th century that some historians attribute to the loss of the safety net provided by the Catholic orders. And there were other sorts of losses. For example, at Dartford Priory the sisters educated the girls from local families. After the priory was destroyed, no one else taught the Dartford girls to read in an organized way for many, many years—centuries, actually. A grammar school was formed in the town in 1576, but that was just for the boys.
NB: Cromwell was also someone who supported Martin Luther’s ideas and so he had that motivation. Henry VIII had an extremely complicated and ambivalent attitude toward the monastic orders. He tried in the beginning to personally persuade some of the leading friars—the men who became the Carthusian martyrs—to see the divorce from his point of view and agree to support him as head of the Church of England. But when they repeatedly refused, they were starved, tortured and then killed in the most painful way possible. Henry himself did not ever support Luther and many times tugged the religion of his country back. One of the other reasons besides need for money that Henry VIII pushed through the Dissolution of the Monasteries was that he did not want hotbeds of educated men and women loyal to the Pope thriving in his country. There was monastic support for Pilgrimage of Grace, and that strengthened his resolve to crush the abbeys. Once they were turned out from their homes and could not wear their habits or practice their faith in the same way, friars, monks and nuns were no threat.
EMV: One of the aspects of the book which most intrigue me are the Howard tapestries which contain messages and symbols woven into them. Did such tapestries really exist?
NB: These specific tapestries all come from my imagination. Tapestries were a beautiful and thriving art form in medieval and early modern England. One of the good things about Henry VIII is that he collected and appreciated tapestries. Nuns wove and embroidered tapestries during this time period, though the larger ones were woven in France and the Low Countries. So I took the next step, and had my Dartford Priory become a center of tapestry production. It helped me strengthen one of my themes and that was how much the sisters lived and worked as a team. I was absolutely thrilled to receive an email from a Dominican sister in the United States saying that she’d read my book and I got right the essential nature of the life of the sisters and how they interacted with the friars.
EMV: Do you think England suffered in the long run from the dissolution of the monasteries?
NB: I can’t say that England would be better off if it had remained a Catholic country, like France and Spain. That is too enormous a question. But I can say that England suffered from the destruction of those beautiful buildings. There is so little to see of these magnificent abbeys and priories today, it’s just heartbreaking. Most of them were torn down and stripped for the value of the bricks and the lead. The Dominican monastery in London called Blackfriars was famous throughout Europe for its beauty and magnificence. When the Emperor Charles visited his aunt, Katherine of Aragon, in the 1520s, he stayed at Blackfriars, not at one of Henry VIII’s palaces. It was a huge complex of buildings. Today all that survives of Blackfriars is a piece of crumbling stone wall not more than five feet long. I’ve seen it; there is a small plaque next to the wall in a park. It brought tears to my eyes.
EMV: Thank you very much, Nancy, and I can’t wait to read more of Joanna’s adventures in the sequel!