Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Joanna Stafford Trilogy: All in Paperback

As of today, all three of Nancy Bilyeau's Joanna Stafford series novels are in paperback: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. Joanna Stafford is a Dominican nun who is cast out of her priory because of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and the Friaries, and the Convents) perpetrated by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

As you know if you read this blog with any regularity, I post often about the Dissolution of the Monasteries: It was the greatest cultural calamity ever inflicted upon England. It meant the loss of great art and architecture, books and music, order and rule, hospitality, education, and the spiritual, religious life. It left a gaping hole in English life: the prayer and penitence of good monks and nuns and the preaching and poverty of good friars.

It's easy to say that not all monks, nuns, and friars were good, but many, even the vast majority were faithful to their Rule and their vows. If the English Reformation was supposed to improve and revive the Church in England, it failed entirely in this case because all it did was destroy, pillage, and plunder the religious heart of England.

Although Bilyeau does not focus on these losses directly, since she is telling stories of intrigue, danger, and conspiracy, her choice of Joanna Stafford as a heroine means that calamity is part of the desperation at the heart of each plot. When we first meet Joanna Stafford at the beginning of The Crown she is on her way to offer some sort of comfort to her cousin, Margaret Bulmer, who is being burned at the stake for her role in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern uprising of commons, nobles, and monks against the suppression of monasteries and other changes in religion being enforced by the monarch and his minions. One of the last times we see her in The Tapestry, she is trying to comfort Catherine Howard as Henry VIII's fifth wife awaits her fate.

At the heart of each plot, each symbol (the crown, the chalice, the tapestry) is indeed the desperation of those English men and women who saw how destructive Henry VIII's Supremacy and tyranny were. Joanna Stafford witnesses and gets involved with these plots to thwart Henry VIII or even remove him from the throne through murder (The Chalice).

As I wrote in my review of The Tapestry last year:

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 recommend all three books as good historical fiction! More about the books from the publisher and more about Nancy on her website. Nancy Bilyeau discusses her books and the research she did with Christine Niles here.

No comments:

Post a Comment