Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Conversation with Bruce Holsinger on The Daily Beast

I am excited to share my story on The Daily Beast, posting today. The brilliant Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book, and I talked about writing historical thrillers: our research, our love of history, and whether it's easier to research the daily life of a medieval transvestite prostitute or a Dominican nun!

Please read:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Rescue of Winchester Cathedral

By Nancy Bilyeau

The story of Winchester Cathedral is hard to tell.

Too old, too enormous, too awe-inspiring—how is it possible to do it justice in a book, never mind a single blog post? And yet, I will try, because for me, the magnificence of the cathedral is never more inspiring than when I hold a dark, wooden, four-inch-long cross in my hand. This cross was part of the foundation of the building, below the ground.

Foundation Cross

Before I explain how a piece of Winchester Cathedral came into my possession, let me tell the stories of two men, separated by a millennium....

To read the article go to

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval?

I'm delighted to share that the April Good Housekeeping UK has a positive mention of The Chalice in its "Bookshelf" section: "The human and political battles of Henry VIII's reformation are brought to exhilarating life in The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau."

What makes it even better is Joanna Lumley graces the cover, in the most intense presentation of pink ever seen. :)

Patsy is an icon, and in honor of AbFab, I share this video:

As Patsy would say, "Take a holiday, darling. South of France."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rufford Abbey: Errant Monks and a Stuart Ghost

By Nancy Bilyeau

A carved stone head on the abbey grounds

Ever since I began my series on the monastic ruins of England, "In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands," I've been struck by how unpredictable the stories are. The crumbled walls and hollow spires of the abbeys don't always give clues to the dramas that unfolded centuries earlier. Weddings now take place at the Manor Gatehouse of Dartford—who could guess that a priory of sisters of the Dominican order walked the same ground from 1346 to 1539? I wrote about that incongruity when I traveled to Kent to research my first book, The Crown, which largely took place at a priory.

Having said that, Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire saw more drama than most.

King Stephen
The Founding  Rufford Abbey was born out of violence. In 1148, Gilbert de Gaunt, a wealthy nobleman who had fought on the side of King Stephen in his war over the succession with Queen Mathilda, established the abbey, dedicating it to the Blessed Virgin.

He did it as a gesture of atonement. While still fighting for Stephen, Gilbert de Gaunt burned down the priory of Pontefract and the pope excommunicated him for it. After Queen Mathilda won, and Gilbert de Gaunt married and was made earl of Lincoln, he set aside 30 acres on the banks of the Trent. The abbey was built using red sandstone and limestone. Cistercian monks came over from Rievalux Abbey, one of England's most glorious monasteries, to fill it.

In 1156, the English pope, Adrian IV, "confirmed all the donations and privileges of Rufford." Shortly afterward, the abbey's lands expanded and the villagers of Cratley, Grimston and Rufford, Inkersall were reportedly evicted to make room. A new village took in some of the displaced people. But this may have led to some lingering ill feeling...

The Order The Cistercians, called "the white monks," were a force to be reckoned with in the 11th and 12th centuries. William the Conqueror and his Norman lords supported and endowed the Cistercians more enthusiastically than the Benedictines. After all, the Benedictines had been there long before the Normans, and some of their abbots were on the wrong side of the Battle of Hastings.The Cistercians said they sought a simpler way of life than the older orders, "far from the haunts of men." It was of great importance to practice manual labor and farm the land. However, some medieval communities' needs exceeded the grants and tithes provided. Time and again, the Cistercians of Rufford turned to the neighboring Sherwood Forest.

Sherwood Forest today

The land grants tell the story:

In 1233, "the king licensed the abbot and monks to enlarge the courts of their house by taking in an acre of the king's wood without any interference from the forest ministers..."
In 1251, Henry III "confirmed to the monks the rights in Sherwood Forest granted them by Henry II and approved...forest justice, namely license to take green or growing wood throughout the forest so far as it was necessary...and to have their own forester to guard their own wood."
In 1291, "license was fell and sell the wood growing on 40 acres of his wood within Sherwood Forest."
In 1358 the abbot of Rufford seemed to go too far. He was charged with "completely laying waste to the wood of Beskhall, cutting down and selling the oaks over 20 acres and 3 roods of land." The abbot pointed to royal charters and was eventually allowed to keep the money, which was just over 400 pounds. But the forest grab was nothing compared to a charge of robbery in the same century:
"An apparent outrage was participated in by two of the monks of this house in 1317, as to which we have only the statement of complaint. On 10, December 1317 a commission was appointed to inquire into the charge made against Andrew le Botiller, Richard de Balderton, John de Rodes, Thomas de Rodes, together with Brother William Sausemer and Brother Thomas de Nonyngton, monks of the house of Rufford, of gathering to them a multitude of men and seizing Thomas de Holme, as he was passing through the abbey of Rufford and the grange of Roewood, robbing him of his goods, and taking him to some unknown place and there detaining him until he should satisfy them with a ransom of 200 pounds."
History does not record what happened to the accused brothers.

The Dissolution: Rufford Abbey, like every other monastery in England, was under pressure during Henry VIII's split from Rome. Men sent by Thomas Cromwell investigated the abbeys, charged with "reform." It is a matter of great dispute how much financial impropriety or moral corruption was actually discovered.

The infamous royal commissioners Thomas Legh and Richard Layton reported six monks of Rufford guilty of "disgraceful offenses." Morever, the abbot, Thomas Doncaster, was charged with being "incontinent with two married and four single women." The abbey was closed in 1536, and Abbot Doncaster pensioned off with twenty-five pounds a year. But within two months, the government appointed him to the rectory of Rotherham and voided the pension, making his string of seductions highly unlikely.

The Nobility: Henry VIII gave most of the abbeys' property and lands to courtiers loyal to him. He awarded Rufford to the Talbot family in October 1537. George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury and a passionate builder, demolished some of it and began the long process of converting it into a grand country estate.

Part of the abbey remained, and was to be the site of a secret wedding leading to one of the Stuart family's most poignant tragedies.

Bess of Hardwick

The wedding came from a tangled family alliance. Talbot's second wife was the dynamo Bess of Hardwick, who had already given birth to numerous children by her second husband, among them a lovely girl named Elizabeth. When Mary Queen of Scots fled to England and ended up in genteel confinement, one of her unofficial jailers was the earl of Shrewsbury. The Scottish queen was allowed guests, and in 1573 Margaret Douglas, granddaughter of Henry VII, visited with her son Charles Stuart, the earl of Lennox and the younger brother of  Lord Darnley. It may seem incredible, but Mary Queen of Scots had cordial relations with her mother-in-law at that time--incredible since Mary was accused of plotting to kill her husband, Lord Darnley, oldest son of Margaret Douglas. Charles Stuart and Elizabeth Cavendish, thrown together, fell in love.  They married at the chapel at Rufford, without the knowledge of Queen Elizabeth. Because Charles Lennox had a claim to the throne, the queen was furious.

Arabella Stuart
Charles and Elizabeth died of disease when Arabella Stuart was a child. Bess of Hardwick raised her, and in some  eyes she was a natural heiress to Elizabeth I, her first cousin twice removed. But the queen never warmed to her, and her male councilors believed that Arabella's cousin, King James VI of Scotland, was a much better candidate.

Queen Elizabeth would not allow Arabella to marry, despite interest from suitors in England and Europe. The king of Poland sent an ambassador to ask for her hand--refused. Elizabeth did not want Arabella's claim to the throne to be strengthened through marriage.

Arabella, 28, may have hoped she would be given more freedom when her male cousin succeeded to the English throne in 1606. Sadly, King James distrusted her even more than Elizabeth. When Arabella fell in love with William Seymour, also descended from Henry VII, permission to marry was denied. They wed in secret in 1610 and tried separately to flee the country. Arabella's ship was captured before it reached Calais and she was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Arabella Stuart, 1590
Arabella Stuart never saw her husband again. She died in the Tower on Sept. 25, 1615 after refusing food for a prolonged period. She left behind a great many letters, collected in the 1994 book The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, published by Oxford University Press. In the letters, Stuart, a "talented Renaissance thinker," expressed her anguish over her constricted life and longing for independence.

Arabella Stuart is buried in Westminster Abbey in the tomb of her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots.

As for Rufford Abbey and its adjoining estate, it passed from the Talbot family to the Saviles in the early 17th century. The Saviles were passionate royalists. Lady Anne Savile held Sheffield Castle against the rebels: "This gallant lady, famous for her warlike actions beyond her sex, had been besieged by the rebels in Sheffield Castle, which they battered on all sides by giant guns, though she was big with child." After she finally surrendered the castle, Lady Savile marched out with full military honors and gave birth the next day.

Sir George Savile, 1st marquis of Halifax
The main home of the Saviles, Thornhill in Yorkshire, was burnt down during a siege in 1648 and Rufford became the family seat. The family was deeply involved in plans to bring Charles II back to England, and when the Stuart king returned, he made George Savile the Marquis of Halifax. The family became rich and Rufford Hall grew and grew. George Savile, the 7th baronet, built a bathhouse and garden pavilion on the estate in 1729.

Sir Henry Savile, who inherited the estate in the mid-19th century and was a close friend of Edward, Prince of Wales, bred racehorses at Rufford. His great success was Cremorne, a thoroughbred that won 19 of his 25 races.

Cremorne, painted in 1872 by Harry Hall

In 1872, Cremorne became the second of six horses to win both the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. Incredibly, the horse had a reputation for laziness and overeating. When Sir Henry Savile died in 1881, his prized thoroughbred followed the next year. Cremorne was buried at Rufford.

The Saviles managed to hang onto Rufford Hall into the twentieth century but sold it in 1938. During the Second World War, the house was taken over by the army and much woodland sold.  The main buildings' structural damage was so severe, the Nottinghamshire County Council, which took it over, had to demolish part of the property. English Heritage now owns the house.

Rufford Hall, adjoining the abbey ruins

The Ghosts: Rufford has had quite a few ghost sightings. In Edwardian times, the mother of author Vita Sackville West, visiting the Savile family, said she was awoken in the middle of the night by a strange clamminess, like touching cold skin. She was told the next day that the ghost of a murdered child sometimes crept into people's beds.

The other ghost reported by many is the White Lady--the figure of a woman flitting among the abbey ruins who some say is the unhappy Arabella Stuart. This was the place where her fragile parents found brief happiness. One visitor even snapped a picture of a flash of movement in a dark archway and insists that it shows a misty shape, wearing jewelry.

A type of white rose grown in the Rufford garden is also named after the White Lady.

The preservation: Rufford House and 150 acres of country park can be visited much of the year. Visitors may tour parts of the country house originally built by the earl of Shrewsbury and added on to by the Saviles, including "Brick Hall," once a grand reception area. Still intact are the original monks' cellar and refractory. Walk there to absorb a sense of the Cistercian monks'  existence, all those centuries ago.

For more information, visit the English Heritage site and Nottinghamshire Council information site.


"In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate.

Read the earlier posts in my series on monastic ruins:

Searching for the Lost World of Blackfriars 

The Beauty and Tragedy of Furness Abbey

Tintern Abbey: A Treasure of Wales

Thetford Priory: A Duke's Quest

The Haunting Power of Whitby Abbey