Monday, December 14, 2015

Was Prince Eddy Jack the Ripper?

On November 9, 1888, the body of Mary Kelly was found in her rented room off Dorset Street on London's East End by a landlord assistant sent to collect overdue rent. Mary, a young prostitute, was brutally slain--most agree, by Jack the Ripper.

The identity of this depraved murderer was never been solved, although many, many people have tried.

Along the way, some startling suspect names emerge. One is Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence and grandson to Queen Victoria.

Read my blog post on English Historical Fiction Authors to discover the strange baseless origin of this myth.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

When January 1st Wasn't the First Day of the Year

By Nancy Bilyeau

In less than two weeks it will be the first day of 2019. Time to hang your freshly bought calendars and write a new year on your checks.
         But strange as it may seem, January 1st did not always signal the beginning of a new calendar year. Up to 1752, the two were separate things in England and its colonies. Until that point, people began each calendar year on March 25, which was Annunciation Day—or Lady Day. This was the day the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to deliver the news that she had conceived and would give birth to Jesus in nine months.
It took an 18th century act of Parliament for England to officially begin each new calendar year on January 1st. The centuries of discrepancy cause lots of headaches for historians and genealogists. There’s no question that it’s strange, not least because England lagged behind much of the rest of Western Europe. Why did this Protestant nation cling to Annunciation Day—by its very definition a day revolving around the Virgin—as the time to change the calendar when most Catholic countries had already shifted to January 1st in the 16th century or 17th century?

         The reason for the January 1st controversy has a lot to do with England’s refusal to take orders from a pope after Henry VIII’s break from Rome in the 1530s. It was Pope Gregory XIII who replaced Julius Caesar’s calendar, devised in 45 BC, with a new one in 1582—and it’s the Gregorian calendar we all use today.  Reform was unquestionably needed. There were too many days in the year; the equinoxes were out of whack; the Julian calendar had strayed 10 days from the solar calendar.

         Among other things, the pope’s new calendar established that each calendar year begin on January 1st. Once it was issued, Italy, Spain and Portugal instantly adopted the Gregorian calendar, followed by France and the other Catholic countries of Europe. But England, Germany and the Netherlands refused. So for centuries, there were two calendars in Western Europe. It wasn't a strictly religious-led decision either. In Protestant Scotland, they changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1600. But England stubbornly refused.


         The first step to understanding this furor is to realize that Pope Gregory XIII was not simply someone who cared about calendars. Born in Bologna as Ugo Buoncompagno, he was a transitional pope. Certainly not as venal and corrupt as the Borgias a century earlier, he was a gifted teacher and administrative talent who nonetheless had an illegitimate son before marrying and really liked to spend money. 

         Once he became Gregory XIII, he spent huge sums on not only Catholic colleges but also displays such as the Gregorian Chapel in St. Peter’s. To pay for all this, he resorted to papal confiscation. Most relevant to our story, he supported the overthrow of Henry VIII’s Protestant daughter with Queen Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I.

         Gregory’s predecessor, Pope Pius V, had already excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her a usurper in 1570. During his papal office, Gregory put intense pressure on the Spanish king, Philip II, to invade and dethrone England’s queen. Gregory personally financed an armed force of 800 men to land in Ireland to join a Catholic rebellion against Elizabeth (it fizzled). Moreover, a Jesuit led the papal commission to devise the Gregorian calendar—and the Jesuits were the religious order specifically created to fight the Protestant Reformation. This all fueled Elizabethan England’s refusal to accept anything that originated in the Vatican.

         The fierce clashes between Catholic and Protestant in the 16th century are the tumultuous background of my historical thrillers. The heroine of my novels, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, is a novice in the Dominican Order at Dartford Priory, outside London. But it’s not just the Christian splintering in early modern Europe that fascinates me. I also love studying what came long before the Renaissance.

         One October, as Halloween approached, I researched the roots of the holiday’s celebration in Tudor England and made some discoveries. I learned that the roots of Halloween reach back to the Dark Ages Celtic festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”), when people lit bonfires and put on costumes to scare away the spirits of the unfriendly dead. All-Hallows-Even, which was shortened to “Halloween” in the 16th century, was a complex blend of Celtic and Catholic customs. After all, the holiday was the run-up to All Saints’ Day on November 1st, an occasion to venerate all the Catholic martyrs. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers took a dim view of Halloween, but its popularity was so great that they were unable to stamp it out.

         My  blog post on Halloween ( stirred up so much attention that it made me want to keep reading about the distant and complex roots of what we celebrate today.

         I began thinking about the origins of Christmas and New Year’s Day the morning of December 20th one year, when I stood outside my apartment building with my son, waiting for his school bus to arrive. Although it was 7:15 a.m., dawn had barely broken; the Christmas lights that the superintendent had strung over the bushes glowed yellow in the purplish-gray light. A hazy fullness hung in the air—and it seemed to carry a strange potency. Almost like something magical. I had no idea as I stood there that what I sensed would connect to January 1st and the fascinating furor over when to begin the calendar year.


         I snapped a photo and posted it on my Facebook page, along with sharing a description of the strange feeling all around me. A high school friend, D.K. Carlson, offered an explanation: “The solstice is almost here.” It made me shiver to think it was the power of the winter solstice that touched me that morning: the approach of the shortest day of the year, the moment when the earth is in a point of its orbit farthest away from the sun. I find it very interesting that Julius Caesar established December 25th as the date of the winter solstice. It was—you guessed it—Pope Gregory XIII who made the adjustment to December 21st.

         Long before the time of Julius Caesar, man honored the solstice. Bronze Age archaeologists have uncovered symbols and signs that reveal awareness of the shortest day of the year. The monuments of Stonehenge and Newgrange in Ireland are believed to have solstice alignments. In 2000 BC, people may have gathered at Stonehenge in mid-December to pray for the sun to return again, the source of all life.

         Again and again, in many societies and religions, the solstice has great meaning. For the Druids, it was Alban Arthuan, the Light of Winter. As part of the celebration, priests cut the mistletoe that grew on winter oaks and blessed it. Germanic pagans launched the tradition of burning the Yule log and decorating a home with clippings of evergreen trees.

         In Rome, not surprisingly, the celebrations became more debauched. Saturnalia, which took place in mid-December, ran the gamut from heavy drinking to gambling to reversing society norms, with masters waiting on slaves. Lighting candles was very important. So was the tradition of children going house to house, offering small gifts, such as wrapped fruit, in exchange for other tokens.

Saturnalia was so popular that not even the Fall of Rome could kill it. It morphed into the Feast of Fools, celebrated from the Fifth Century until the Renaissance in much of Western Europe on January 1st. The servants became the masters, with a lower-echelon “Lord of Misrule” chosen to preside over all drunken festivities beginning in late December and concluding on the first of January.
         Not surprisingly, the early Catholic Church did not look kindly on the parties--stimulated by the winter solstice--that marked January 1st. The church leaders didn’t want something as important as beginning a new year to take place on that same day. In 567 AD, a Council of Tours decreed that the first of January was abolished and the blameless Annunciation Day was chosen. It took a while for this to be accepted, but by medieval times, people in England looked on March 25th as the beginning of the year. And this tradition stuck through the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and into the time of the Hanoverians.


         Until finally, in 1751, in the reign of George II, England—and its colonies in the Americas—gave in and made the change, moving from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian. Parliament passed An Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year; and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use. To make this work, 16 days were dropped from 1751, and January 1, 1752 was officially deemed the beginning of the year.


 Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the new bestselling historical thriller The Blue, a spy story set in the art and porcelain worlds of the 18th century.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Furness Abbey: From Glory to Ghost-Haunted Ruins

By Nancy Bilyeau

This is the latest in a series devoted to the monastic ruins of England. My trilogy, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, is set in the 1530s and early 1540s; the main character is a young Dominican novice at a priory facing destruction.

The novels are thrillers, but the framework is a serious look at Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. I spent years researching the brutal ending of a way of life for 1,700 nuns, 3,200 monks and 1,800 friars, all expelled from their homes within a five-year period. The stone buildings themselves were confiscated by the king or given to his loyal courtiers. Many were stripped of value and demolished; some were left standing but crumbled over the centuries.  

"You love faded glory," said my husband, who knows me better than anyone in the world. He's right—I feel a strong pull toward grand old houses, pallid churches, neglected cemeteries, seldom-visited  landmarks. To me, few ruins are as poignant as those of an English abbey. 

Furness Abbey, in the county of Cumbria, has a long and fascinating history, its dissolution marked a pivotal moment in the king's attack on the monasteries, and it is ravishingly beautiful. Oh, and according to legend it houses several ghosts. :) 

                                Furness Abbey

King Stephen
The Founding: Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, count of Bologne and Mortain, and later King of England during a time of chaos, established Furness in 1127. In the founding document, Stephen wrote: "That in Furness an order of regular monks be by divine permission established; which gift and offering, I, by supreme authority, appoint to be for ever observed; and, that it may remain firm and inviolate forever, I subscribe this charter with my hand and confirm it with the sign of the holy cross."

The chosen location was a remote, narrow valley in the north of Lancashire near the coast; it was sometimes called "the vale of the deadly nightshade," because of an abundance of atropa belladonna, a beautiful plant with toxic berries. The abbey's buildings were all constructed with the vivid-colored local sandstone.
Cistercian habit

The Order: The Cistercians were founded in 1098 out of a desire to adhere more strictly to the Rules of St. Benedict. Its emphasis was on manual labor and self-sufficiency, with isolation being of great value. By 1154, there were 54 Cistercian monasteries in England, the largest were Fountains and Rievaulx abbeys in North Yorkshire ... and Furness. 

The Glory: In spite of the Cistercian emphasis on austerity and contemplation, Furness grew in wealth and local influence over the next few centuries. It controlled 55,000 acres of land; its holdings included iron mines, tanneries, fisheries and mills.  A close connection sprang up between the abbey and the Isle of Man, and more than one monk became Bishop of Man.

Robert the Bruce
Being so close to Scotland, Furness inevitably got caught up in border tensions. When Robert the Bruce invaded England in 1322, the abbot allowed the Scottish leader to stay overnight at Furness and paid him the enormous bribe of ten thousand pounds so that the abbey would not be harmed. It worked; the marauding army moved through abbey property without laying waste to it.

Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion, from a 1913 painting. Note
the prominence of monks in the fervor.
The Dissolution: Furness was one of the first of the kingdom's larger monasteries to fall. Its destruction is laced with irony. The Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion in the north of England, broke out because a great many people disagreed with the direction of the king's reforms. They wished, among other things, to preserve the monasteries that Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister, was busy closing down. 

Historians agree that the abbot of Furness in 1536, Roger Pyle, was a fearful, nervous man. When the rebellion boiled over, Pyle fled to the stronghold of the Earl of Derby, leaving his monks behind. In his absence, some of the monks contributed money to the rebels and pressured Furness tenants to do the same. 

Although the rebel army outnumbered the forces of Henry VIII, they were defeated. In the mop-up, Henry VIII's anger with the Northern monasteries flipped to rage. Abbots were hanged, monks rounded up. Two of the Furness monks were imprisoned and questioned. In 1537, the king's man, the Earl of Sussex, met with Abbot Roger Pyle, his mission being to find enough wrongdoing to justify closing the abbey. 

But there was a problem: Abbot Pyle had shown no disloyalty. The  Earl of Sussex came up with a solution that turned out to have profound consequences. He summoned the abbot to Wyland, a place where the severed heads of defiant abbots and monks were prominently posted, and then made a suggestion: The Furness abbot could surrender the abbey to the Crown and go willingly, along with the 28 innocent monks. That way, there would be no penalties or prosecutions. Abbot Pyle at once agreed, and he signed a document on April 9, 1537, effectively giving the abbey to Henry VIII. 

This tactic worked so well that it was to be the model of the future.  Frightened abbots were asked to surrender their homes to the king, and most of them agreed.

The Crumbling: In most cases, surrendered abbeys were demolished or converted into private homes. Perhaps because of its isolated location, this did not happen to Furness. The land reverted to the crown, and all precious objects were carted off and valuable lead stripped. But many of the original buildings stand today, although ravished, like sandstone skeletons. Visitors can enjoy the sight of the cloister court, church tower, infirmary, chapter house and other structures. 

A series of families have owned the abbey property, including the Dukes of Devonshire; it is now part of the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, the largest private landowner in the U.K.

Since the Dissolution, many have fallen in love with Furness. The ruins fired the imagination of William Wordsworth, who wrote a poem dedicated to it in 1888: "See how her ivy clasps the sacred Ruin/Fall to prevent or beautify decay/And, on the moldered walls, how bright, how gay/The flowers in pearly dews their bloom renewing!"

The Spectres: There are stories of three ghosts haunting Furness. One is of a murdered monk climbing a staircase, almost as if he were being dragged up. The second is a White Lady, drifting around the ruins as she searches for the lover who left and never returned. The third, and eeriest, is a headless monk riding a horse under one of the grand sandstone arches--perhaps one of the monks who sided with the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace and was punished for it.

The Preservation: Furness is an English Heritage site, and efforts are being made to prevent further collapse. Archaeological digs last year revealed the grave of a medieval abbot who, according to a newspaper report, was "a well-fed, little exercised man in his forties who suffered from arthritis and Type 2 Diabetes."

To learn more on Furness and its history, go to  and


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thetford Priory: Murdered Monks and a Desperate Duke

By Nancy Bilyeau

This post is one in a series on the monastic ruins of England, "In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands" *

Thetford Priory

One of England's oldest ruins, Thetford's Priory of St. Mary is rich with drama. It was an East Anglian priory important to not only the Cluniac monks who lived there for 436 years but also the aristocratic family that buried their dead there. A powerful duke's struggle to protect Thetford from Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries proves just how impossible a quest that was.

The Founding: Hugh Bigod was a knight of Normandy who crossed the channel with Duke William. As one of the victors in the Battle of Hastings, Bigod reaped rewards of land and title, becoming the first Earl of Norfolk. He had at some point vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In his old age, Bigod was allowed to commute his vow to the founding of a monastery. By 1103, twelve monks arrived in Thetford, and Bigod and the new prior developed an ambitious plan. The buildings were arranged around a central cloister, enclosed by covered walkways. There was a church, dormitory, chapter house, prior's lodgings and barns.

But the eighth day after the stone-laying, Bigod died. What should have been a somber entombment of a noble patron turned into an angry dispute. The monks claimed the earl's body, saying that he should be buried in the priory as was specified in their foundation charter. But the Bishop of Norwich insisted that his cathedral, founded in 1096, had jurisdiction. The monks buried Bigod in the priory anyway; the bishop retaliated by stealing the body in the middle of the night and dragging it to Norwich.

It was the first time that a corpse was forcibly removed from Thetford Priory. It would not be the last.

Cluniac habit
The Order: The Order of Cluny formed in 10th Century Burgundy as an offshoot from the Benedictines. They were determined to follow a more rigid interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict and to steer clear of political and military matters of the world. More than 30 Cluniac priories were established in England. Some became wealthy. Thetford's fortunes waxed and waned. In the early 14th century, the king had to take the priory into his protection because of its "poverty and indebtedness." Later the monks were able to run the house again with some efficiency.

The Glory: In the mid-13th century, an artisan of Thetford, suffering an illness, dreamed that the Blessed Virgian appeared and told him that he should persuade the prior to build a chapel on the north side of the church. Moved, the prior set to work on a stone Lady Chapel.

When it came time to place a statute of Mary in the chapel, the monks selected an old wooden image that had been in storage. But when they removed the statue's head to restore it, they discovered a cache of relics, including the "grave-cloths of Lazarus," along with a letter from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Thetford became a center for pilgrimages to see the statute and relics, and pilgrims claimed many cures.

The gatehouse, best-preserved structure
But the priory witnessed violence too. The second prior, Stephen, turned Thetford into "a house of debauchery" and caroused with local knights. An enraged Welsh monk stabbed the prior to death; the monk, in turn, was arrested and spent the rest of his life in the prison of Norwich Castle.

Even more disturbing, in 1313, a riot broke out in the priory. A mob forced its way in, assaulted the prior and murdered several monks at the high altar who were trying to protect their valuables from being stolen. An inquiry in town did not reveal why such a horrific attack took place, but protection was increased for the prior and surviving monks.

The Dissolution: The Howards assumed the titles of Norfolk in 1483, when Richard III, grateful for the family's support as he seized the throne, made John Howard the 1st duke of Norfolk, in the third creation of the dukedom since the Bigods. The first duke was the commander of Richard III's vanguard at the Battle of Bosworth, and was slain alongside his king. Howard was buried in Thetford Priory.

His grandson, Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, was one of the senior peers and most important councillors of Henry VIII. He was a major landholder of East Anglia, possessor of many castles and titles, a feared military commander. His first wife was a princess of the House of York; his second was the eldest daughter of the duke of Buckingham. Norfolk is today perhaps best known for being the uncle of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard, two alluring women whom, it was said, he helped place in the king's circle.

Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk
Norfolk held conservative religious views, but that didn't stop him from eagerly taking possession of monasteries that fell during the break from Rome and the Dissolution. The king handed out fallen abbeys and their surrounding property to courtiers to strengthen their loyalty to the crown. But as more and more priories and abbeys "surrendered," the duke began to fear for Thetford.

The priory held enormous spiritual value for the Howards. In the medieval age, a person's achievements would be honored and their soul remembered if a certain number of Masses were said. If that person were buried by his heirs with care and splendor in a place of significance, then eternal peace was ensured. The first and second Howard dukes were interred in Thetford's grand church, connecting them to the earliest holders of the Norfolk titles. In 1536, the king's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, the duke of Richmond, was buried in the church, too, since he was also the son-in-law of the duke of Norfolk and the king had ordered Howard to take charge of the funeral.

 The duke of Norfolk knew Henry VIII as well as any noble could fathom the Tudor king. Howard had served his monarch with great fervor. It was Norfolk and his father who defeated the Scottish army in Flodden; more recently, the duke suppressed the Pilgrimage of Grace. Still, the king was ungrateful to those who served him, and treacherous. He was unlikely to grant the Howards favors. So in 1539, the duke formally proposed to Henry VIII that the priory be converted into a church of secular canons. This privilege has been granted to several cathedrals. If the conversion were approved, the tombs would not be disturbed. It was not all that much to ask.

Framlingham tomb of Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk
The king agreed to Howard's plan. But in 1540, the same year Henry VIII made teenage Catherine Howard his fifth wife, which everyone assumed would make the Howard family preeminent, the king changed his mind about Thetford. It would have to be dissolved like dozens of other monastic houses--no exceptions--even though his own illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, was buried there. Upset, the duke of Norfolk had no choice but to remove the remains of the dead dukes and duchesses (Richmond too) and transferred them to the Suffolk Church of St. Michael in Framlingham.

When, 14 years later, Thomas Howard died, he was buried there as well.

As for the Cluniac monks of Thetford, 13 signed a deed of surrender and were ejected with pensions. The church and all other buildings of Thetford were stripped of value and began their centuries of decay.

The specters: Sightings of ghosts have been reported for years, including that of monks chanting Latin or performing acts that were somewhat more frightening. When television camera crews set up one night at the priory, though, the ghosts did not see fit to show themselves.

The preservation: Thetford is an English Heritage sight and its existing buildings--a 14th century gatehouse, many of the walls of the church and cloister, and part of the prior's lodgings--can be visited most days of the year. For more information, go to


"In lone magnificence a ruin stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, mysteries set in the 16th century and featuring a Catholic novice. They are published by Simon & Schuster in North America and the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What was the Life of a Medieval Nun?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Anyone who writes historical fiction acts as a time traveler. What was life like for our characters? How much an author tries to enter the mind of a person who lived centuries ago depends on the author--and the subject. When it comes to lives of long ago, their thoughts and desires and expectations, some of the people seem like us, just wearing different clothes and eating different food.

But then there are the late-medieval Dominican nuns. And they are not much like us.

While researching the history of the Dartford Priory for my trilogy of mysteries, I found myself intrigued, awed, puzzled and impressed by the nuns who lived within the cloister walls. The sole nunnery for Dominican sisters opened its doors in 1372 and was demolished by order of Henry VIII in 1538. It was one of the twenty wealthiest priories in the kingdom, with nuns whose families came from the local gentry, the aristocracy and even royalty. Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's youngest daughter, Bridget, lived and died at Dartford. But while the priory owned a great deal of property, to provide for both the nuns and the friars at a nearby Dominican order, the women's existences were humble.

Their lives were ruled by custom--by religious doctrine set by the Dominican Order and adhered to meticulously. The sisters took vows of poverty, chastity, charity, and obedience. Dartford was an enclosed order, meaning the women could not leave. The doors were locked from the outside every night. They had chosen to live apart from the world.

Allow me to share just a few other aspects of what would have been expected of Sister Joanna, the protagonist of my series of historical mysteries.

They prayed more than you could possibly imagine  

The Dominican sisters worshipped in their chapel up to eight hours a day.  That's right. Eight hours. Using the same liturgy as all of their order's friaries and priories, the women "sang the offices." The Divine Office extended the prayer of the Mass throughout the day. Also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office is a “sacrifice of praise” in hymns, psalms, and canticles.

They wore uncomfortable clothing.

The Dominican habit they all wore was a white tunic and scapular, a leather belt, a black mantle, and a black veil. The habit was made of unfinished wool, expressing the penance, purity, and poverty of the order. Women and men could only wear linen by special permission. In 1474, Prioress Beatrice Eland petitioned to be allowed to wear linen instead of unfinished wool because she was debilitatem et antiquitatem (elderly and debilitated). She was granted a special license to do so.

The habits worn at a New Jersey Dominican order today. 

They slept and ate very little. And it was cold.

In a modern-day Dominican nunnery, the sisters usually gather for Lauds (morning prayer), Vespers (evening prayer), and Compline (night prayer). But in the early 16th century, at Dartford Priory, the sisters would have followed the custom of the full monastic schedule.

Whenever the bell rang, the 16th century sisters had to rise from sleep or work and proceed to where they'd sing the offices.  Matins and Lauds opened the day at midnight in the summer and at 2 am in the winter. The next time for prayer was dawn: Prime. Some members remained in the chapel between Matins and Prime. Which meant the only sleep they obtained was between the end of Compline, the night prayer, and Matins, at midnight, perhaps three hours total.

As for meals, the word often used is "meager." They practiced perpetual abstinence from meat. There were two meals a day in the summer and one meal a day in the winter. On Fridays at the very least--perhaps three days a week--they fasted, consuming only bread and water. All meals were consumed in silence.

Obviously, there was no central heating in a Tudor-age abbey or priory. Often the buildings had a large cloister garden in the center, where medicinal herbs where grown, and open passageways extended from the quadrangle into the main building. This meant in the winter they moved around in the open air routinely, wearing only their habits. Did most rooms have fireplaces? Nope. Besides the kitchen, often there was one room set aside in the entire abbey or priory with a fire lit, called the Calefactory, or warming room.

This cloister in Croatia shows the open passageways surrounding the garden


To us, this all may seem hard to fathom. More like prison than a religious house. But their daily lives should be compared not to ours but to those of people who lived outside of the priory walls. And life was rough in the 16th century, especially for women. Many found profound fulfillment in their enclosed orders.

After the prioress was forced to "surrender" the priory to Henry VIII and the buildings were demolished, some of the sisters lived together in small groups, attempting to continue their spiritual community. When Mary I came to the throne, she attempted to return the kingdom to the Catholic faith. Dartford was one of two women's religious houses chosen for restoration. Fifteen years had passed, yet more than eight nuns joyfully returned to Dartford, to resume the way of life I've described above and follow to the letter each detail of their spiritual customs.

As Catherine of Siena, a 14th century Dominican saint, wrote, "There is nothing we can desire or want that we do not find in God."

To learn more about the real-life women of Dartford Priory, go here.


Monday, September 14, 2015

My Love of Atmosphere

It always makes my day when a reviewer, whether it's a professional book critic or a reader sharing thoughts on amazon and goodreads, remarks on my love of creating atmosphere in my books. I do aim to immerse readers in the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor England. I almost feel like the mistress of a time-travel machine. The next stop is 1540. :)

From the respected website

"In this final chronicle of the Joanna Stafford trilogy, Nancy Bilyeau’s vivid prose, mastery of atmosphere, a deft and pacey plot involving two kings, greedy and ambitious barons and bishops, influence seekers, religious fanatics, spies and killers, set against a background of Europe-wide uncertainty, dread and oppression, bring the Tudor period to thrilling life."

For the rest of the review, go here

Monday, August 10, 2015

What did Whitehall Look Like?

One of the challenges in writing my 16th century trilogy is how many buildings are lost. Not just the abbeys, either. In The Tapestry, Joanna Stafford spends one-third of the book at the palace of Whitehall, which burned to the ground in 1698.

In my post on English Historical Fiction Authors, I share some of my research into the lost beauty of Whitehall. Go here to read.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands": Tintern Abbey

By Nancy Bilyeau

Tintern Abbey
This post is the next in a series on the monastic ruins of England. In the first installment I wrote about Furness Abbey in Cumbria; in the second I wrote about Thetford Priory in Norfolk. I launched this project with my post on English Historical Fiction Authors: "Listening to Blackfriars." And now I move the series to a treasure of Wales...

Tintern Abbey

On the Welsh bank of the River Wye, Tintern Abbey, founded in 1131, soars to the sky nearly six hundreds years after the last monks departed. It survived the Edwardian Wars, the Bubonic plague, even the destruction of the monasteries--roofless, yes, and crumbling in many places, but far more intact than most other medieval abbeys. Tintern has proved a potent force of inspiration for writers, painters, and musicians, ranging from poet William Wordsworth to metal band Iron Maiden--not to mention Alan Ginsberg!

THE FOUNDING: Walter de Clare, lord of Chepstow and a relation of the Bishop of Winchester, founded Tintern Abbey. The De Clares were a vigorous, often violent Norman family that jostled for power from the time of William the Conqueror up to the early 14th century. When Walter, abbey founder, died childless, his nephew Gilbert De Clare assumed control of his lands, becoming the first Earl of Pembroke while earning the nickname Strongbow for his soldiering, mostly on behalf of King Stephen during the war over succession with his cousin, Queen Mathilda.

A view of the abbey church
Tintern was the second Cistercian abbey to be established in England; its monks arrived from Blois in France. Over the next century, the high point in England's history of monasticism, Tintern's land holdings grew rapidly. Thanks to the patronage of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, the monastery was blessed with a large, ornate church, following a cruciform plan. More than 200 feet long, it was built in red sandstone in the Gothic style.

THE ORDER: The Cistercians, also known as the White Monks, were formed with the goal of reform. They were very popular--by the year 1200 there were more than 500 Cistercian abbeys in Europe.

THE GLORY: The beauty of Tintern was a source of great pride to the surrounding countryside. Because its location was somewhat isolated, the abbey did not suffer any attacks during King Edward I's brutal conquest of Wales in 1282. Other monasteries thought to be sheltering Welsh leaders were damaged.

Gilbert De Clare
Tintern might have come under the protection of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford and Gloucester and commander of the king's forces for a time. Because of the family's connection to Tintern, it is possible the "Red Earl"--so named for his red hair and dangerous temper-- ordered the abbey left  alone. The Red Earl was a noble perpetually scheming and fighting and changing sides. He supported Simon de Montfort instead of Henry III, but betrayed him and later became young King Edward I's greatest champion, eventually marrying one of his daughters. Undoubtedly guilty of horrific murders, he often spoke of a desire to go on Crusade to the Holy Lands. In his 50s, he fought so bitterly with another nobleman over a land dispute, he was briefly imprisoned. De Clare was most definitely a creature of the medieval age.

After the battles in Wales were over, Tintern's renown grew. In 1326 Edward II, the son of the Red Earl's patron-turned-punisher, spent two nights there.

It was not a king or a nobleman but a disease that dealt Tintern its most serious blow. In 1348 or 1349 the Bubonic Plague reached Wales, killing one-third of the population. Wrote Welsh poet Jean Geuthin:
A plague doctor
 "We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.’
Monasteries were hit the hardest of all, with their enclosed populations. Once the disease entered, it was likely to annihilate one and all. Tintern needed a great many monks to maintain it because of its size, and between the plague and a gradual decline in vocations, it was never the same thriving abbey after the year 1400.

THE DISSOLUTION: When Henry VIII broke with Rome and set loose the laws that dissolved the monasteries, some of the abbots and priors, monks and friars, resisted and incurred the wrath of the king. Tintern was not one of them. On Sept. 3, 1536, Abbot Wyche surrendered the abbey and all of its lands. If a monastery was in or near London, it was likely to be transformed into a home for a nobleman close to the king. But no one took Tintern as a home. All valuables were taken and the roofs were stripped for their lead.

THE LEGACY: Few visited Tintern and no one much cared about its history until the Romantic movement, keen for picturesque ruins, discovered the abbey. Just about the time Turner painted the monastery, William Wordsworth in 1798 wrote the much-admired  "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":

William Wordsworth
"...These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life..."

Tintern Abbey became a popular destination, inspiring other poets, novelists, painters, and scholars. Parties especially liked to go at night to see the torchlight dance off the soaring walls.

Painting by J.M.W. Turner
The crown purchased the land from its owner, the duke of Somerset, in 1901 and the buildings were better maintained.

In 1967 Allen Ginsberg took an acid trip at Tintern and wrote a poem dedicated to "clouds passing through skeleton arches."

But of all the dedications to Tintern, perhaps the one least predictable by its medieval monks and lords was the band Iron Maiden, in its video for the song "Can I Play with Madness." It makes excellent use of the ruins site:

To learn more about visiting Tintern Abbey, now owned by Cadw, go here.


"In lone magnificence a ruin stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate.


Nancy Bilyeau is writing a thriller trilogy set in 16th century England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The first novel, The Crown, published by Simon&Schuster in North America and Orion in the United Kingdom, was on the short list of the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award in 2012. The second novel, The Chalice, won Best Historical Mystery from the RT Reviews.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Stalwarts & Spies: The Throckmortons and the Dawn of the English Catholic

By Nancy Bilyeau

Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons

Late one November night in 1583, a group of “gentlemen of no mean credit and reputation”—in other words, agents working for Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary to Queen Elizabeth I—banged on the door of a London house. Their sudden arrival threw the occupant of the house into a panic. His name was Sir Francis Throckmorton and he was at that very moment upstairs, using a cipher to disguise his letter to the woman who posed a mortal threat to Elizabeth: Mary, Queen of Scots, her second cousin. Deposed from her own throne in 1567, Mary was being held in genteel confinement in an English manor house, the object of a series of rescue attempts. Walsingham, the spymaster, worked tirelessly to thwart all of them.

Highly incriminating letters and papers were found during their search. Throckmorton, 29 years old, a devout Catholic, had composed a list of other Catholic gentlemen and nobles who could be counted on to rise up against their Protestant queen, Elizabeth, when the time came for a coup and replace her with Mary. He also wrote a list of ports and harbors ideal for an invasion by a French army led by the Duke of Guise, Mary’s relative. 

The  young Mary Queen of Scots, from a drawing made in France
At first Throckmorton denied everything, claiming the papers were planted. But under torture in the Tower of London, he admitted to being the central player in a conspiracy between certain Englishmen (including his brother), the Spanish ambassador, and the Duke of Guise. It has gone down in history as the Throckmorton Plot. 

A portrait that has been attributed to Sir Francis Throckmorton

This was not the last time the name “Throckmorton” surfaced in a plot against a Protestant English ruler. In 1605, a servant to Robert Catesby, a key conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot and the son of Anne Throckmorton, rode directly to the Throckmorton estate, Coughton Court, to tell a group of Catholics, including two Jesuit priests, of Guy Fawkes’ arrest in the plan to blow up King James I and his Parliament. He said those Fawkes plotted with were now running for their lives.

These failed English conspiracies in support of Mary Queen of Scots (ranging from the fourth Duke of Norfolk’s efforts to marry the Scottish queen to Anthony Babington’s plot to murder Elizabeth), along with the infamous Gunpowder Plot, formed a strong impression in some minds that Catholics were conspiratorial and dangerous, controlled by France, Spain and, of course, the Pope. These fears hardened into bigotry throughout the 17th century. The despicable Titus Oates, who fabricated the “Popish plot” against Charles II and brought about at least 15 executions, wouldn’t have been possible without the Gunpowder Plot. Moreover, the Glorious Revolution and the arrival of the Hanovers—the direction the country took that leads us to today—were born, in large part, from fear of what James II, a Catholic king, would do. Those fears originated in the 16th century.

Before Sir Francis Throckmorton plunged into violent plotting, his family had made a far different sort of impact in England, one of service to the crown and country. To best understand the Throckmortons, who’ve popped up in so many interesting times and places in the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts, we must take a closer look at the patriarch, Sir George Throckmorton, Sir Francis’s grandfather, a strong-minded man who had a blunt conversation with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell that is well known even today.

George Throckmorton was born in 1489, two years before Henry VIII, the king who was to wreak such havoc in his life. His father, Robert Throckmorton, was a landowner, soldier and a courtier who did well under the new Tudor regime. Coughton Court was already in Throckmorton possession. In 1501, George married an heiress, Katherine Vaux. They had, incredibly, 19 children, including seven sons who lived to adulthood. His rise in the kingdom was steady: George served the king in the French war; he was knighted in 1516; he attended the Field of Cloth of Gold; he was made a justice of the peace in Warwickshire. By 1529 he was a member of Parliament and worked for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, alongside a lawyer who would one day make his mark: Thomas Cromwell.

The people who attended the court of Henry VIII in the late 1520s and early 1530s would be amazed, perhaps dumbfounded, by today’s adoration of Anne Boleyn. During the time that the king struggled for his divorce, most of the nobility, as well as the commons, had enormous respect for Catherine of Aragon, both for her royal status as the daughter of Isabelle and Ferdinand, and for the gracious, brave and pious manner in which she carried out her duties as queen of England.

As for Anne Boleyn, she had little support beyond members of her own family, Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, later archbishop of Canterbury. Henry VIII insisted in his communications with the Pope that Anne was a chaste and respectable woman. Both the nobility and the common people did not see her that way. According to Edward Hall in his contemporary History of England, “Surely the most of the lay people of England, which knew not the law of God, sore murmured at the matter and much the more, because there was a gentlewoman in the court called Anne Boleyn.” There were murmurings, a few shouts in the street as the king passed by, but of course most people were too afraid to tell the king what they thought of his intended new marriage.

Until George Throckmorton.

It was the royal divorce that changed everything for him. From the beginning, Throckmorton was known to be someone who did not support the king’s wish to rid himself of his first wife. Throckmorton was respected in Parliament. His views carried weight. Cromwell, 
who had replaced Wolsey as chief royal councilor, was busy crafting legislation intended to weaken the Pope’s control of England and, step by step, make Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England. Throckmorton attempted to block that legislation.

In 1532, the king summoned Throckmorton to an audience with himself and Thomas Cromwell. There he was asked to support the divorce. As Throckmorton himself recalled in a later document, “I told Your Grace I feared if ye did marry Queen Anne, your conscience would be more troubled at length, for it is thought that ye have meddled with the mother and the sister.”

The king answered, “Never with the mother.” Which is almost certainly true; the rumors that Henry VIII slept with Elizabeth Boleyn were scurrilous.

Cromwell jumped in to say, “Nor never with the sister either, and therefore put that thought out of your mind.” This is most certainly not true. Henry VIII had an affair of some duration with Mary Boleyn.

Although his facts were not all straight, George Throckmorton told his sovereign with all honesty that he did not believe that the sister of a discarded mistress was an appropriate queen of England and that his conscience would be troubled if Henry married Anne. He was certainly not alone. But he is the only Englishman known to have voiced this opinion to the king’s face.

While this was definitely not what Henry VIII wanted to hear, Throckmorton wasn’t punished directly. He did become distinctly less favored by the king. It’s possible Cromwell delivered a warning, for Throckmorton promised in writing to “live at home, serve God and meddle little.” With Parliament out of session, Throckmorton retreated to Coughton Court.

Queen Anne didn’t last long, beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason and adultery in 1536. Before Henry VIII had her executed, he declared his marriage to Anne Boleyn null and void, based on his “affinity” to her sister Mary. That warning by Throckmorton came to pass, although in the most cynical fashion imaginable.

If Throckmorton, along with others who had supported Catherine of Aragon and now cared deeply about the fate of Princess Mary, thought that the kingdom would return to how things used to be, they were greatly mistaken. Henry VIII didn’t return to the Catholic fold even after Anne, a religious reformer, was dead and replaced by Jane Seymour, who favored traditional ways. For one thing, the Cromwell-engineered Dissolution of the Monasteries was pouring thousands of pounds into the royal treasury. If Henry VIII returned to obedience to the Pope, he’d have to stop demolishing the abbeys, ejecting the nuns and monks, and seizing the valuables and property. That was the last thing he wanted to do.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, another 16th century turning point in defining which side you were on, took Throckmorton farther down the road of opposition to Henry VIII. It was a rebellion that sprang up in the North of England opposing the kingdom’s religious reformers, joined by men and women from every level of society. 

The king ordered his nobility and gentry to come to the aid of the Crown, bringing armed men, and Throckmorton did so with 300. Nonetheless, he was arrested in early 1537, charged with making copies of the rebels’ demands and expressing willingness to join their side. He denied disloyalty but was sent to the Tower of London. One of this sons later wrote that Throckmorton’s “foes gaped to joint his neck.” The family’s connections did all they could, including his wife’s pleas for help to her half-brother Sir William Parr (uncle of the later Queen Catherine Parr). For months, his life hung in the balance.

George Throckmorton, not interested in martyrdom, announced that he was reading the New Testament and perceived the error of his ways, his “great blindness.” It’s unclear what factor was the deciding one. But during a period in which men who were closer in blood and friendship to Henry VIII—and had committed lesser crimes—met the fate of the ax on Tower Hill, George Throckmorton was released from the Tower of London.

                               Top: The Tower of London. Above: the brilliant Sir Nicholas Throckmorton,

This time he did live at home and “meddle little,” focusing on rebuilding his spectacular home, Coughton Court.

But how he served God is less clear. Throckmorton believed in his heart in the values of the traditional Catholic. His own father, Robert Throckmorton, devoted time and sums of money to his parish church and had, most unusually for the 16th century, gone on a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He died in Rome on his way to Jerusalem in 1518.

Eamon Duffy is at the forefront of modern writers who argue that in the early 16th century traditional worship was not a corrupt and decaying system but a vital one. This is what the Throckmorton father and son believed. And it is the value system that George passed on to his many descendants. Until Henry VIII decided to break with Rome over a thwarted divorce, the kingdom was going in a certain direction. The king swerved onto a new path. The Throckmortons—and other families such as the Howards—kept going in the original direction.

Another possible factor in George Throckmorton’s traditional stance was sympathy for the fate of his aunt, Elizabeth. She was the abbess of a house of Poor Clares in Cambridgeshire. A woman of intellect, she exchanged letters with the famous humanist, Erasmus. After her abbey was destroyed, Elizabeth, more than 60 years old, went to live at Coughton, perhaps bringing one or two nuns with her who had nowhere else to go. She also brought a “dole-gate,” through which help was given to the local poor, and upon which her name was carved.

The practice of the Throckmortons’ “staunch” Catholic faith went in and out of fashion, depending on the Tudor ruler. After Cromwell was executed, religious traditionalists felt a little safer in England. The reign of Edward VI was so difficult that some left the country to live in exile. Mary’s reign was a brief respite. George’s seventh son, Sir John, was active in her Parliament and a witness to the queen’s will. 

During the reign of her successor, Elizabeth I, the Throckmortons fell into a defensive position again and a “priest hole” was built in Coughton Court, where priests could hide during inspections. The family became “recusants,” those who refused to attend Anglican services and paid heavy fines for it. People who could not pay the fines were imprisoned. With their money, the Throckmortons avoided that humiliation. Some became Protestants, most famously Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a skilled courtier.

The patriarch, George Throckmorton, had died in his bed in 1552. His grandson was not so lucky.

Sir Francis Throckmorton, born in 1554, was a son of Sir John, the witness of Queen Mary’s will. Because of the increasingly cold climate for Catholics in England, he left England after receiving an Oxford education and studying law at the Inner Temple. In France he was drawn into a conspiracy against Elizabeth, aimed at her overthrow and replacement by the Scottish queen. Once returned to England, Throckmorton would coordinate with Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in the English court. 

Elizabeth I

This was a time of escalating violence, as both sides took steps against the other. Pope Pius V, enraged with Elizabeth's political and financial support of Protestant factions in the Netherlands and elsewhere that threatened the Catholic powers, excommunicated the queen, calling her a "servant of crime." Jesuit priests, some of them English by birth, sneaked into England. Some of them swore it was to minister to those who wanted to continue to practice their Catholic faith. But certainly others were trying to destabilize the kingdom and make it easier to overthrow Elizabeth. In response, Walsingham strengthened his spy network. When he caught conspirators, they were often turned over for extraction of information to the Tower of London and the merciless hands of Sir Richard Topcliffe, an undoubted sadist. (See my blog post "The Rack Seldom Stood Idle/")

Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen's spymaster

When Throckmorton returned to the country of his birth, it was with a purpose that could not be more dangerous. Did the young man understand the possible consequences if he failed? We don't know--but failure arrived within the year. He came under suspicion and Walsingham had him watched for six long months, taking note of his co-conspirators, before dropping the net. As a contemporary document put it: Suspicion of Throckmorton "grew first upon secret intelligence given to the Queen's Majesty, that he was a privy conveyor and receiver of letters from the Scottish queen. Upon which information, nonetheless, divers months were suffered to pass on, before he was called to answer for the matter."

 Once he'd rolled up the Throckmorton operation, Walsingham urged action against Ambassador Mendoza, who was expelled from England. It was spycraft worthy of today's TV series Homeland.

Ironically, Sir Francis Throckmorton's treasonous action set in motion not the accession to the English throne of Mary Queen of Scots but her own arrest and death, and later war with Spain. Walsingham was able to use the Throckmorton Plot to persuade a reluctant Queen Elizabeth to authorize the Bond of Association. This was a d
ocument obliging all people who signed it to execute any person who attempted to usurp Elizabeth’s throne. The bond was used as a legal precedent to kill the Scottish queen after the failure of the Babington plot in 1586. King Philip of Spain was enraged by the ejection of his ambassador and Mendoza was not replaced. That scandal, coupled with the death of Mary Queen of Scots, pushed Philip to declare war on Elizabeth I in 1588 and set sail his armada.

Fortunately, George Throckmorton has happier legacies. His granddaughter, Muriel, married Thomas Tresham, and is the ancestress of Diana Spencer, princess of Wales. 

Another Throckmorton nun -- in the 18th century

And Coughton Court, which Sir George loved so much, is a popular place for visitors, enthralling all who see it with its Tudor history, including the spectacular turreted gatehouse built by Sir George and the “dole-hole” that Elizabeth Throckmorton brought with her after her abbey was demolished. Six hundred years after the first Throckmorton took possession, the family still lives there—and thrives.