Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Weaving Up Loose Ends: Nancy Bilyeau's THE TAPESTRY

Nancy Bilyeau, the author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy, kindly sent me a copy of the third volume in her trilogy--which also led me to look back on the first volume (The Crown) and read the second volume (The Chalice) this weekend. I am wrapped up in the reign of Henry VIII right now while the end of The Tapestry indicates Joanna Stafford, former Dominican novice, daughter of a second tier noble, tapestry weaver, and conspirator may not be back to involve herself in other Court intrigues. (The Tapestry originally had the alliterative title, The Covenant to go with the first two novels.)

I can't help thinking that Joanna's story should have another reason to go to Court so we can see her view of the end of Henry VIII's reign. She should be the witness of the last days of Henry VIII: the Prebendaries Plot, Katherine Parr bringing the three Tudor children together, the final Howard family fall, etc. Joanna Stafford is not just a fascinating character and actor in Bilyeau's fictional conspiracies, but she is a lens through which to view the Tudor Court and England after Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, dissolved the monasteries and the friaries,. and changed his subject's religious lives.

This interview gives me some hope as Nancy Bilyeau states: "But I do have other ideas for Joanna Stafford, and it’s possible that I will write a second trilogy of Joanna novels. I really want to bring Joanna forward to the reigns of the children of Henry VIII, and particularly the Marian Counter-Reformation!"

In this novel, however, Henry has unraveled his own kingdom, setting factions against each other like colors in the pattern of Joanna's tapestries. Men and women are willing to do almost anything to remove him from power or keep him in power--the former was clear in The Chalice when Joanna almost participated in the murder of Henry VIII when he drank wine from a poisoned chalice--and the conspirators in this volume will even seek help from the occult to remove Thomas Cromwell from his position of influence on Henry VIII

While Joanna is still in danger after Cromwell's fall and execution, Joanna recognizes that England is in even greater danger because nothing will stop Henry VIII. She realizes this when she sees Thomas Abel, Richard Featherston, and Edward Powell, three former chaplains and defenders of Queen Catherine of Aragon and Robert Barnes, Thomas Garrett, and William Jerome, three Lutheran supporters of Cromwell drawn on sledges to Smithfield. The Catholics would be hung and quartered, while the Lutherans would be burned alive. According to Henry VIII, the first three are traitors, the second, heretics:

So King Henry VIII showed his true heart. He did not favor the Catholics, nor did he follow the Lutherans. It was impossible to understand him, to live safely in his kingdom. The removal of Cromwell had not made him a better man. There was something twisted--even diseased--in a mind that would command that the condemned be paired as opposites on the hurdles. How foolish Bishop Gardiner and the Howards were to think they could predict what King Henry would do--or control his actions.

When it is impossible to live safely in a kingdom, the King has failed because he is a tyrant.

I went back to read The Chalice, which I already had on Kindle, to understand the danger posed to Joanna throughout this novel. I found it an even more compelling read as Joanna was drawn into the so-called Exeter Conspiracy, the legacies of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, and even the turmoil between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, as this book weaves the past and present dangers together, it is a compelling read.

Joanna is always loyal to her family, even though she is sensitive to the slights she receives and the horrors she witnesses. In this novel, she does all she can for Catherine Howard as she fears for how she is being used by the Howards and by Henry VIII. She nearly always does what someone tells her what not do (or does not do what someone tells her to do) especially when Geoffrey Scovill tells her what not to do or what to do. If she should stay, she leaves; if she should go, she stays--but that's what drives the story forward.

Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper's story in The Tapestry matches in a way the story of the Courtenays and the Poles in The Chalice, although Bilyeau does omit the involvement and execution of Francis Dereham, in a way I think to build up Catherine's innocence--especially because Dereham experienced the full agony of being partially hung, eviscerated, and quartered.

Throughout this trilogy, Bilyeau provides excellent character studies of the historical figures from Henry VIII, so sad at the end, through the Princess Mary, and of course Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard,  the Duke of Norfolk. She also demonstrates the effects the English Reformation was having on the common people, with whom Joanna lives in Dartford. They are experiencing--and will continue to experience--the changes in religion after the break from Rome. Bilyeau shows how the same unraveling that is taking place at the very top of English culture is also occurring among the common folk: the same hatred, opposition of Protestant vs. Papist (which everyone had been before in England), and the same spying and conspiring against one another. As Joanna knows, it is impossible to live safely in Henry VIII's kingdom. How she and the man she chooses (no other revelations here) will live without interference from Henry VIII and his successors remains either to to seen or is up to the readers' imagination.

The Tapestry is available for pre-order at Amazon here and at Barnes & Noble here.

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