Friday, May 3, 2013
From the Author of "The Crown" and "The Chalice"
The Catholic Herald features this article by Nancy Bilyeau, the author of two historical fiction novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and featuring a young almost nun who has been cast out of her Dominican convent by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I've read The Crown, but have also enjoyed Bilyeau's non-fiction essays describing the historical background of this era. This article exemplifies that pleasure :
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 with the book I recently reviewed, Treason, by Dena Hunt, Bilyeau's historical fiction has to be judged first for its qualities and effectiveness as a work of fiction. But their influence on readers' impressions of English history are also important--that's the great mixture of historical fiction, when it's well done. It can lead readers to nonfiction works to understand the background of the work, especially when the story seems to contradict the "conventional wisdom". And in the case of the English Reformation, either when dealing with the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the martyrdoms of Catholic priests during the reign of Elizabeth I, I think Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation is a good introduction!