My poignant journey in search of the martyrs

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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, writes Nancy Bilyeau in The Catholic Herald.

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.

FULL STORY My poignant journey in search of the martyrs (Catholic Herald)