The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau. Orion Publishing Group. London, 2012. 416 pps. £18.99, hardcover; £12.99, paperback.
Sister Joan Stafford is a novice of the Dominican order at Dartford Priory in Kent. And that should make an end of the matter.
But the year is 1537. Henry VIII is on the throne, having severed England’s ties with Rome (and Anne Boleyn’s head), and sent an army to Yorkshire to quell a pro-Catholic uprising amid the moral chaos and rampant destruction of the dissolution of the monasteries and convents.
And this army which crushed to the Northern Rebellion was led by none other than Sister Joanna’s cousin, the Duke of Norfolk. Worse still, among the rebels captured and condemned to be burnt for treason is another cousin, Lady Margaret Bulmer.
Defying her order, driven by her lifelong affection for Margaret, Sister Joanna leaves the secure confines of the Priory and makes her way to London that she may offer her devout prayers for her cousin on the scaffold. And that’s where things go pear-shaped.
Assaulted by the drunken crowd out for a day’s entertainment, Joanna is rescued by a constable, only to meet with her disgraced father who is also there on a mission to ease Lady Bulmer’s martyrdom. Soon all three of them are locked in the Tower, and not for safe-keeping. There, Joanna is abused there by her violent cousin, Norfolk (the same Norfolk who destroyed her cousin’s life), and then left for months to moulder.
Eventually, she is brought for questioning to the quasi-disgraced, oleaginous Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; and offered a choice–find a sacred relic which is believed to be hidden at Dartford Priory, a crown of antiquity and divine powers of protection, or her father–like her, still incarcerated–will be racked to death.
(The Tudors were skilled at that sort of thing: blackmail, torture…)
It is no choice.
Thus, knowing next to nothing, Joanna returns to Dartford in the company of two now-homeless Dominican Friars to begin her feverish search for this sacred relic, desperate to discover its history, its powers, its hiding place. (And she doesn’t have much time). In so doing she uncovers more secrets than she bargained for, even as all about them, Henry’s malevolent henchmen are breaking previous royal promises of protection and destroying the nuns’ lives of prayer and sacred dedication.
Sound exciting? Eventful? Well, it is. (Fasten your seatbelt.)
Written as a first-person narrative, The Crown follows in a fine tradition of historical mysteries, ably blending the tension of the thriller with the horror of historical reality in one of England’s most turbulent periods. And after a slightly sluggish start as Bilyeau sets the scene and maps out the family geography–absolutely everyone is related to everyone else in Tudor history (a gene pool of four–explains everything, doesn’t it?)–the action takes off.
And the pace doesn’t slacken as the mystery and confusion surrounding the crown and the Priory itself deepens, as friends and allies vanish and the political landscape grows daily more perilous.
One of the novel’s great strengths is the unflinching depiction of the violent men who peopled Henry VIII’s court and did his bidding. Bilyeau shines when she writes of the schemers and power-brokers like the brutal Norfolk or the manipulative Gardiner–men so consumed by greed and lust for power that nothing is sacred to them. Anything or anyone that stands in the way of their own aggrandisement will be crushed with the utmost inhumanity and casual cruelty. In Bilyeau’s hands, these men are truly sinister, and with Sister Joanna, one recoils at the breath of their vicious rages, their twisted amorality and sadistic destructiveness.
Bilyeau is also adept at capturing the spirit of an age still wholly in thrall to superstition–Henry’s obsession with having a male heir (was it as he believed the judgement of God upon his kingship?), the fears that gripped his courtiers about the power of holy relics and signs from heaven.
The monasteries and convents were, of course, all dissolved and destroyed by Henry VIII and their wealth shared out by him and his minions. This process is well underway by the novel’s close in 1538.
Yet seen through the eyes of Sister Joanna, told in her voice, this recitation of facts has been given a human face and we feel the personal cost and private tragedy of all those quiet and unassuming lives of prayer upended by a king’s political whim. And that’s quite an achievement–as well as being a ripping good mystery! (Though not, thank heavens, of the bodice-variety. The heroine’s a nun, remember?)
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