Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Plea of Catherine of Aragon

On June 21, 1529, Catherine of Aragón knelt before her husband in front of two cardinals and the nobility of England and begged him not to proceed with the annulment of their 20-year-long marriage.

Henry VIII informed his Spanish wife two years earlier that his conscience troubled him, that he believed their lack of male heirs proved that God was displeased by their union. In marrying Catherine, his older brother's widow, he claimed he violated Old Testament law.

Catherine, five years older than Henry VIII, was, quite simply, not having it. The proud daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón insisted her marriage was legally valid and refused to cooperate with her second husband's effort to annul the marriage. We can only assume that her discovery that King Henry was passionately in love with a younger woman of the court, a charismatic commoner named Anne Boleyn, hardened her resolve even further. Catherine and Henry had produced a daughter, the accomplished Princess Mary, and in eyes of the queen--as well as a significant portion of the nobility--Mary was a perfectly acceptable heiress to the throne.

Cardinal Campeggio eventually made his way to England to hear the case, along with English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in an ecclesiastical court held in Blackfriars, the magnificent priory of the Dominican friars in London. Blackfriars itself has long fascinated me. I set several chapters of my second novel The Chalice inside its walls. On a trip to London I spent hours trying to find a trace of it. (Read the blog post here.)

But for the purposes of this post, I'd like to pay tribute to Catherine's decision to kneel before Henry and beg for her marriage and her rights. The king was surprised, dismayed, and twice tried to raise her to her feet. She would not do so. She was determined to have her say.

Shakespeare re-created this moving and powerful scene in his play Henry VIII, which I saw performed in Central Park almost 20 years ago. The bard embellished historical record only slightly. What follows is quite close to what Catherine said, according to contemporary records:

Sir, I desire you do me right and justice;
And to bestow your pity on me: for
I am a most poor woman, and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions; having here
No judge indifferent, nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? what cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure,
That thus you should proceed to put me off,
And take your good grace from me?
Heaven witness,I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable;
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined: when was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire,
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? what friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger, did I
Continue in my liking? nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged. Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife, in this obedience,
Upward of twenty years, and have been blest
With many children by you: if, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honour aught,
My bond to wedlock, or my love and duty,
Against your sacred person, in God's name,
Turn me away; and let the foul'st contempt
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp'st kind of justice. Please you sir,
The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch'd wit and judgment: Ferdinand,
My father, king of Spain, was reckon'd one
The wisest prince that there had reign'd by many
A year before: it is not to be question'd
That they had gather'd a wise council to them
Of every realm, that did debate this business,
Who deem'd our marriage lawful: wherefore I humbly
Beseech you, sir, to spare me, till I may
Be by my friends in Spain advised; whose counsel
I will implore: if not, i' the name of God,
Your pleasure be fulfill'd!

Of course it did not work. Henry VIII would not be deterred. Catherine was eventually banished from court and Henry married Anne Boleyn. Queen Catherine suffered anguish, depression and fear over her shattered marriage. Yet she never wavered. The queen died of a painful illness, abandoned, in January 1536.

I have been married 21 years to my husband, and, for that and many other reasons, I take a moment today to salute a woman who fought for her rights, her throne, and her daughter.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Letter From a Friar

I'm always thrilled to hear from someone in monastic orders now who has read one of my Tudor thrillers. Once in a while I receive an email from a reader who thinks the way I depict a nun's life is "wrong." But I don't hear that from a sister who has taken vows, or from a friar.

Friar Thom, a Franciscan, enjoyed reading about how the nuns and friars interacted in The Crown. I just heard from him about The Chalice and wanted so share it (he said it would be OK).

Greetings Nancy,

I finished The Chalice today and I have to say it was GREAT, SPECTACULAR, EXCITING !!! I bought the book last year when it was hot off the press. But I was asked to take a new assignment in Joliet, Illinois (outside Chicago) and didn't get around to breaking open my adventure.  I spent a great deal of time ending (and grieving) the old and welcoming the new.


As in The Crown I found myself totally lost in the book/adventure/journey. In fact on at least two occasions friars who passed by my room late in the evening, asked "who in the world were you talking to in your room so late - we didn't have guests did we?"  I had to confess Nancy, I was talking to the characters in the book. I do admit one evening even to yelling at Jacquard !!! You instill such life into everyone in the epic adventure.


I won't take up your time Nancy. I have read so many reviews from readers on line, who like myself  loved and praised your writings. Congratulations!!


Now we all can't wait for -The Covenant.


May our good God send many blessings upon you and your family Nancy, and in thanksgiving for his spirit which helps you to make history come alive for all of us...



(Friar) Thom Smith, OFM

Friday, June 6, 2014

My Writing Process: A Little Music, a Lot of Coffee

By Nancy Bilyeau

The Sister Queens
It's my turn to leap--or would the correct verb be hop?--onto the My Writing Process blog tour. I've been tagged by two talented novelists: David Abrams, author of the award-winning satiric war novel Fobbit, and Sophie Perinot, who wrote The Sister Queens, one of my favorite historical novels (get to know her in my interview.) I was supposed to blog in April to follow up on Sophie's lead, and, well, that didn't happen. Explanation to follow, a respectable one, I hope. David tagged me much more recently, and I decided to go ahead and talk process. This is always an interesting exercise because when you have to answer these questions, it makes you realize things about how you do your work. In my case, I faced the fact that my process is a little contradictory.

The idea here is to answer four questions, then pass the hat to other authors to answer the same--it's a great way to learn about some new writers. I'll tag my chosen at the bottom of this post. Don't miss them!

Ready? Let's go...

1. What are you working on?

I've just finished my third novel, The Tapestry and turned it in to my editor at Touchstone/Simon&Schuster. I love writing a series and so I eagerly signed on to writing a third book in one year's time. My first novel, The Crown, took five years to research and write. I left my editing job at InStyle magazine to devote myself to writing the second novel, The Chalice, and completed it in 14 months. Somehow I thought that even though I'd returned to magazine editing full-time, and I have two children at home, I could write a third novel in a year. I'm very proud that I finished my book--and excited about the story and the characters and the history I'm bringing to life--but it wasn't easy. Some things fell by the wayside, including my first opportunity to blog about my process. Sorry, Sophie! I expect to receive my editor's notes any minute, and then must jump on the edits of the book, to ensure it will be ready for a March 2015 publication date.

Signing The Chalice at BEA

My next project is top-secret. Sorry, my agent insists. But I can tell you that while it's also a historical thriller, it's a more personal story than anything I've written before.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Bishop Gardiner, antagonist
My books are a fusion of historical novel and thriller. My protagonist, Joanna Stafford, is fictional, as are several other key characters, but I also populate the books with real people from history, ranging from Henry VIII and Bishop Stephen Gardiner to George Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. There are other Tudor-era mysteries and thrillers on the market, including the excellent books penned by C.J. Sansom, C.W. Gortner and S.J. Parris. My books differ from those in my protagonist's calling in life and her point of view: When The Crown begins, she is a Dominican novice, during a time when Henry VIII was determined to break from Rome. There are few (if any) novels set in the Tudor era that take the Catholic side in the Reformation. I'm fortunate to find a readership of people intrigued by this perspective. As my English friend Harriet says, "It's interesting to read about this from the point of view of the losers!" The final point of difference is the touch of mysticism running through my novels, drawing on historically accurate beliefs in relics, prophecy and sorcery.

3.) Why do you write what you do?

Glenda Jackson, an unforgettable Elizabeth I.
I'm writing the books I would love to read. I've been a voracious fan of historical fiction since I was 12 years old, and that's about the time I fell in love with the Tudor period as well. I was so smitten with the PBS series "Elizabeth R," starring the incomparable Glenda Jackson, that it launched me on a life of buying just about every biography and nonfiction book written on the Tudor period. I never thought I would write a book set in that time myself, I was a magazine editor and writer dabbling in screenwriting. Then, in 2005, I was invited to participate in a fiction workshop; I'd never published even a short story at that point. I walked into the workshop with a tentative plan to write a mystery set in the 16th century. Once I decided on my main character, a half-Spanish novice hoping to become a nun, her story took hold of me, body and soul. Joanna Stafford— intelligent, stubborn, pious, loyal, impulsive, hot-tempered—is someone who is very much alive to me.

4.) How does your writing process work?

Because I come from the magazine world, I follow some of the principles of magazine writing. One is that the "lede," the beginning, is very important. With each of my novels, I worked hard on the opening paragraph and in particular the first sentence:

The Crown: "When a burning is announced, the taverns off Smithfield Square order extra barrels of ale, but when the person to be executed is a woman and one of noble birth, the ale comes by the cartload."

The Chalice: "When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love."

In constructing my novels, I follow a loose outline. By loose I don't mean that I haven't any idea of where the book is going. I figure out major plot points and an ending before I start writing. But I think it's important to keep the writing open to improvisation, to surprises. I feel that when books are plotted in detail ahead and follow it exactly, the story has a faintly predictable air. When I am tapping on my keyboard and inspiration hits, it can lead to some exciting choices. It almost feels like someone whispering in my ear, "I'm here! I'm here!"

I believe in revising, that is another thing I bring with me from magazines. I never get writer's block, because I know that even the roughest prose can be revised and made smooth. But still,  I can't write as fast as some other authors. Stephen King thinks novelists should be able to produce 2,000 words a day. Even if I have the whole day to write, I rarely can manage more than 500. It might be because my books are written in a specific style: first person narration, stripped of modern expressions. My engine simply runs out of gas after 500 words or so.

Inspiration: The Cloisters Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

My favorite time to write is early morning, just before dawn. I listen to some music--I particularly like composers Trevor Morris and Wojciech Kilar--drink strong coffee and then fling myself at the keyboard. If I'm not happy with what I'm writing, I take long walks alone. When I need serious inspiration, I head for St Patrick's Cathedral or the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That's it! Please check out the posts from these wonderful writers next week:

Peter Andrews is a full-time, independent writer of speeches, articles, novels, screenplays, and blogs. He has dozens of short stories and hundreds of nonfiction articles in print. He has worked professionally in PR, and as a Web producer, speechwriter, and radio producer. He is the author of the popular How To Write Fast Blog,

Beth von Staats is a historical fiction short story writer and administrator/owner of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers ( Beth's short story compilation focuses on the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I through the life experiences of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and a host of other Tudor era historical figures. Some of her short stories are published on the website.