Saturday, January 14, 2012

Solid Historical Fiction Background

I have no idea about the quality of this historical novel as fiction (thriller fiction at that), but the author of The Crown, Nancy Bilyeau, has the right idea about the situation of the nuns who were removed from their convents after the Dissolution of the Monasteries:

One spring day in 1539, twenty-six women were forced to leave their home— the only home most had known for their entire adult lives. The women were nuns of the Dominican Order of Dartford Priory, in Kent. The relentless dissolution of the monasteries had finally reached their convent door. Having no choice, Prioress Joan Vane turned the priory over to King Henry VIII, who had broken from Rome.
What the women would do with their lives now was unclear. Because Dartford Priory surrendered to rather than defied the crown, some monies were provided. Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, the architect of the dissolution that poured over a million pounds into the royal treasury, had devised a pension plan for the displaced monks, friars and nuns. According to John Russell Stowe’s History and Antiquities of Dartford, published in 1844, Prioress Joan received “66 pounds, 13 shillings per annum.” She left Dartford and was not heard from again—it’s thought she lived with a brother.
Sister Elizabeth Exmewe, a younger, less important nun, received a pension of “100 shillings per annum.” This was the amount that most Dartford nuns received. The roaring inflation of the 1540s meant that such a pension would probably not be enough to live on after a few years—but there was never a question of its being adjusted.
Some of the thousands of monks and friars who were turned out of their monasteries in the 1530s became priests or teachers or apothecaries. But nuns—roughly 1,900 of them at the time of the Dissolution--did not have such options. “Those who had relatives sought asylum in the bosom of their own family,” wrote Stowe with 19th century floridity. Marriage was not an option. In 1539, the most conservative noble, the Duke of Norfolk, introduced to Parliament “the Act of Six Articles,” which forbade ex-nuns and monks from marrying. The act, which had the approval of Henry VIII, became law. The king did not want nuns in the priory but he did not want them to marry either. There was literally no place for them in England.

In his historical novels The King's Achievement and By What Authority?, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson depicts the impact of the Dissolution of the Monasteries on one English family, as Mary Torridon is evicted from her convent in the former and then lives with her sister and brother-in-law in the latter, still praying her office and observing her religious life as much as possible. In my survey of the English Reformation, I also address the fate of these nuns, with their other option of going into exile on the Continent to join convents or establish convents there, in Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation. When I spoke to the Serra Club (a Catholic lay organization that prays for and assists religious vocations) last November, I mentioned that Henry VIII had denied his people a very personal freedom: discerning a religious vocation and fulfilling God's will that one live in a convent or monastery.


  1. I read Nancy's post a few days ago and I have to say I am dying to read this novel.

  2. I hope you receive a review copy--I'll be watching the English Historical Fiction Authors site and facebook page for a giveaway!