Sunday, April 26, 2015

Recap of Wolf Hall, Episode 4, "Devil's Spit"

"Do you think I have promoted you for the charm of your presence?" The harsh and vindictive nature of Henry VIII -- and his wife, Anne Boleyn -- comes into focus in this episode of Wolf Hall. But does the series distort history in describing the nature of Thomas Cromwell?

Read my recap here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Nun Who Stood Up to Cromwell

Historical fiction set in the Tudor era, whether it's a novel like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, or a mystery like Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, depicts a Catholic kingdom riven by monastic corruption, a system dying out as it pleaded for reform. In my years of research into the Dissolution of the Monasteries in order to write my trilogy of books, I came to different conclusions. Yes, there were cases of fraud, such as a phial said to contain Christ’s blood kept at Hailes Abbey, in Gloucestershire. But overall, I discovered a rich, vibrant world of people deeply committed to a spiritual life, some of whom wanted to withdraw from society to devote themselves to prayer and study. I focused on the nunneries, since I’d decided on a protagonist who was a Dominican novice. 

Approximately 1,800 nuns existed at the time of the destruction of the priories, out of 9,300 monastics total. We know of the fates of a handful of women, those considered of enough interest for the ambassadors or politicians to write about. The sisters left behind a few letters and wills, that’s it. The priories themselves are rubble or, at most, fragmented walls and spires of ghostly beauty. “In lone magnificence, a ruin stands,” sighs the poem by George Keate, “The Ruins of Netley Abbey.”


I created a heroine, Joanna Stafford, who was the daughter of a Spanish maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon and a younger brother of the Duke of Buckingham. Her priory would be real, however.

I selected the sole Dominican priory in England, in the town of Dartford, in Kent. I traveled to Dartford to deepen my research in 2011. A small museum devoted to the town’s history helped a great deal. Walking around, I found echoes of the past: signs for “Priory Road” and “Priory Shopping Centre.” On the site of the convent stands a gatehouse and garden built directly after the nuns’ time—it’s a popular place for wedding receptions, ironically.

All that physically remains of the grand priory buildings themselves is a stretch of low stone wall along a busy road. “What happened here?” I said out loud as I stood on the cracked sidewalk alongside those walls.

Of all of the victims in the struggle over religion, the nuns were, as a group, the most tragic, I believe. The displaced monks and friars could serve the new church as chantry priests or hold some other spiritual office. They could become clerks or apothecaries or tutors.

But the displaced nuns had far fewer options. The abbeys fell in the mid to late 1530s. Many of the prioresses and nuns received pensions but they were small and the inflation of the 1540s and 1550s diminished their value. There were no professions open to unmarried women of the period, apart from court service at one end of the spectrum and prostitution at the other. 

However, these women could not marry. A law passed Parliament in 1539, the Act of Six Articles, forbidding those who had taken vows of chastity from ever marrying, on pain of death. Introduced by the Duke of Norfolk, the act had the support of the king, who for reasons unknown was intent on ex-monastics being celibate. During the reign of Edward VI, the law was repealed. But under Mary I, the marriages of ex-nuns was forbidden again—only to be permitted once more by Elizabeth. By that time some of the nuns were dead; the youngest ones at the Dissolution were well into their forties. In all of my research I found only two references in the contemporary records of nuns’ marrying.

But in that same research I learned some illuminating details of the stories of women who courageously faced destruction of their way of life in the 1530s. One of them is Florence Bonnewe. She does not appear in my books. But her fate haunts me all the same.

In demolishing the abbeys, these houses of distinctive architecture, some of them containing beautiful books and stained glass, we lost buildings that were centuries’ old. The Benedictine convent of Amesbury, in Wiltshire, had been founded before the arrival of William the Conqueror. The historians give the year as 979 and the motive of its creation as guilt over the murder of King Edward the Martyr the previous year.

The convent wasn’t large or particularly prestigious, but it kept going. More than five centuries later, 34 nuns lived at Amesbury. The head of the house was Florence Bonnewe, of whom nothing is known before she leaps into history in 1539 as a woman who stood up to the king.

All of the smaller monasteries and a growing number of the larger ones—possessing vast tracts of land and valuables—had been dissolved already. In most cases the property and buildings were turned over to families loyal to Henry VIII. The valuables were pillaged. What the king’s commissioners tried to do was persuade the abbots and priors and prioresses to surrender their religious houses to the king. If so, the helpless and frightened monastics living there would receive those annual pensions. The grisly fate of those who refused to submit to the king and Thomas Cromwell—not only Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher but dozens of defiant monks and friars—was instructive. Few refused.

At the end of March three royal commissioners—John Tregonwell, William Petre and John Smyth--arrived at Amesbury with the goal of securing "surrender." 

Florence Bonnewe had other ideas. 

The men wrote to Cromwell: 

“We yesterday came and communed with the abbess for the accomplishment of the king’s highness’ commission in like sort. And albeit we have used as many ways with her as our poor wits could attain, yet in the end we could not by any persuasions bring her to any conformity. At all times she resisted and so remaineth in these terms: ‘If the king’s highness command me to go from this house I will gladly go, though I beg my bread; and as for pension, I care for none.’ In these terms she was in all her conversation, praying for us many times to trouble her no further herein, for she had declared her full mind, in the which we might plainly gather of her words she was fully fixed before our coming.”

Months of pressure followed. Florence stood firm. At some point the most senior commissioner in charge of dissolving nunneries, a priest named John London, entered the picture. It is worth pausing in the story of Florence to consider “Dr. London.” Archbishop Matthew Parker would call Dr. London a “stout and filthy prebendary.” In his visitations to the nunneries he was charged with improper behavior at Chepstow in 1537 and Godstow in 1538. Dr. London was first dean of the Diocese of Oxford in the early 1540s and there forced to perform “open penance” after adultery with an Oxford mother and daughter. He was caught up in a failed conspiracy against Thomas Cranmer in 1543, sent to Fleet Prison and “died of shame and vexation.”

James Gardiner, the 19th century editor of the towering Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, wrote of Dr. London’s actions in 1539:

 “When we think of the shame in which Dr. London ended his days, a few years later, committed to the Fleet for perjury, not to mention other stories against him; and when we consider that Cromwell himself, the year before this, had been obliged to pay some regard to the abbess of Godstow's remonstrance against his conduct towards her and her companions, it might seem strange that the task of suppressing nunneries should have been more specially committed to him than to any other. But perhaps indelicacy was rather a recommendation for the kind of work that was to be done.”

Florence begged to be “left in peace,” but the demands only increased. The royal commissioners secured letters from Cromwell and even Henry VIII insisting that yes, the surrender of the nunnery must take place.

In August 1539 Florence finally submitted the resignation of her position in the following letter to Thomas Cromwell:

“I humbly recommend me unto your good lordship and have received the king’s gracious letters and yours, touching the resignation of my poor office in the monastery of Amesbury….I have resigned my said office into the hands of the king’s noble grace, before the commissioners thereto appointed; trusting that the promises of said commissioners have made unto me for assurance of my living hereafter shall be performed.”

Florence was swiftly replaced by a nun named Joan Darrell who was “very conformable” to Cromwell’s wishes. Dr. London arrived to oversee the official surrender of the convent in 1540. Joan Darrell was awarded an annual pension of one-hundred pounds, the largest amount given to any prioress in the kingdom, even though she’d held the position for a few months. 

And what of Florence? She received absolutely nothing. The commissioners broke their promises.

One source writes that she died “almost immediately after.” According to contemporary historian John Stowe, “10,000 people, masters and servants, had lost their livings by the putting down of these houses at that time.” A number of them—no one is sure how many—could find no employment and roamed the country, homeless. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote: “It is a lamentable thing to see a legion of monks and nuns who have been chased from their monasteries wandering miserably hither and thither seeking means to live.” Florence Bonnewe was spared that, at least.

Twenty-one Amesbury nuns were still receiving their pensions as of the year 1556 and one as late as 1605. As for the buildings and land of Amesbury, they were given to Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, brother of the king’s third wife. The church was preserved, but most of the buildings were ordered demolished, stripped of lead that could be sold. Some of the stone was used to construct a manor house. 

The Seymour family held the Amesbury estate for over a century. In 1660 a larger house was built there for the handsome William Seymour, the grandson of Catherine Grey, husband of Arbella Stuart and second duke of Somerset. After changing hands many times, it is now a nursing home.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of historical thrillers. The third novel. The Tapestry, is on sale in North America and the United Kingdom, and will be published in Germany in 2016. It is discounted to £1.99 on amazon UK until May 2nd.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Recap of Wolf Hall, Episode 3, "Anna Regina"

In Episode 3, “Anna Regina,” one queen is exiled and another queen is crowned. Although King Henry VIII is the husband in question, none of this could have happened without the ingenuity of Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Wolf Hall. “This is Master Cromwell, he used to be a moneylender, now he writes all the laws,” says an appalled Catherine of Aragon to her daughter, Princess Mary.

To read the rest of my recap, go here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

This Takes the Cake!

My friends from the magazine world convened in an apartment in Tribeca to celebrate the publication of The Tapestry.

I am absolutely floored by the wonderful cake my friend Donna made.

It took me five years to write my first novel, while I was employed by Ladies Home Journal followed by InStyle magazine. I am deeply appreciate of the support of my media friends!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Entirely Beloved": My Review of Wolf Hall, Episode 2

The second episode of Wolf Hall, the Tudor drama on Masterpiece Theatre, aired tonight. posted my recap of the series on Thomas Cromwell and his rise in the court of Henry VIII.

"In this recap, I will try to unravel some of the complexities of the relationships in the court of Henry VIII, which are shown onWolf Hall without much effort to explain. While such a sophisticated script yields rich rewards, it assumes a certain working knowledge of 16th century power players. The courts of the Tudor monarchs were unlike those of their Plantagenet predecessors. Nor does the 16th century heart of power resemble the regimes of the latter Stuart monarchs and succeeding Hanoverians. There is a highly personal nature to ruling the kingdom—and with that comes deadly risks to those who seek favor and influence..."
To read the full recap, go here.

"Mystery Scene" Magazine: THE TAPESTRY is "Meticulously Researched"

I love "Mystery Scene" magazine and so was delighted to see this review of THE TAPESTRY:

"This is Nancy Bilyeau’s third installment of the trials and tribulations of former novice of the Dominican order and aristocrat Joanna Stafford. After having her priory demolished by decree of King Henry VIII during the English Reformation, Joanna finds herself living contentedly in the small English town of Dartford, weaving elegant tapestries that provide her an income.
When the king, who is a distant cousin, orders her to the Palace of Whitehall in London to receive a commission for a tapestry, she has mixed emotions. She’s not a fan of King Henry, but she is anxious to see her cousin, Catherine Howard, who is one of the queen’s maids of honor. And she knows it’s not wise to ignore a kingly order.
While she travels, she feels watched, but sees no one. Upon arriving at Whitehall’s gatehouse, a page offers to take her to the Keeper of the Great Wardrobe, who is in charge of tapestries. Instead he leads her to an outbuilding where he attempts to kill her. She’s rescued by Thomas Culpepper. It’s clear someone wants her dead, but she doesn’t know why. The royal court is filled with rumors, treachery, and intrigue, and men—and women—with hidden agendas. Not knowing whom she can trust, Joanna sets to unravel the mystery with the help of Constable Geoffrey Scovill, a friend and former suitor from Dartford.
It’s obvious that the award-winning Bilyeau knows her English history. In this meticulously researched Tudor thriller, the names of the real-life characters who populated Henry VIII’s court come fast and furious. In addition to Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper, figures include Lord of the Privy Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Archbishop Thomas Kranmer, Sir Walter Hungerford, and Anne of Cleves, the king’s sad fourth wife caught in a six-month unconsummated marriage. With the many references and situations that refer back to the first two books in the series, it’s recommended that those books be read first."

The full review is here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

THE TAPESTRY on InStyle's Bookclub List for April

I'm ecstatic that InStyle magazine picked The Tapestry for its April book club. Other novels include Sara Gruen's At the Water's Edge and Hallie Ephron's Night, Night, Sleep Tight.

Says the magazine:

"Fans of the Tudor era, you’re in for a treat. In the third installment of Bilyeau’s dramatic trilogy, we once again meet Joanna Stafford, a former nun who is determined to protect both her beliefs and her friends from the dangerous politics that surround King Henry VIII’s reign...."

To read the full review and see all seven recommendations, go here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Recap of Wolf Hall, Episode 1, "Three Card Trick"

"Wolf Hall" has come to Masterpiece Theater, following a much-talked-about run on British television. This is a stellar adaptation of the historical novel by Hilary Mantel that delves into the darkest side of Tudor England.

I think the series is brilliant, with performances by Mark Rylance, Jonathan Pryce, Claire Foy and Damien Lewis that can be studied for a thousand nuances.

When the show ran in the UK, there were some complaints about the time jumps and flashback, especially in Episode 1: "Three Card Trick."

In my recap, posted on, I explain the timeline and supply some historical tidbits at the end too.

For the recap, go here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Mysterious Life & Lonely Death of Elizabeth Boleyn

On Lambeth Road, on the south bank of the River Thames, is the elegant Garden Museum, offering visitors lush gardens to walk through and an array of horticulture tools to examine. The shop sells books, kits, soaps, embroidered bags, and thumb-pot waterers. Somewhere beneath the shop floor—no one knows exactly where, since there are no markers or plaques—lies the body of Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother of Henry VIII’s second queen and grandmother of one of England’s greatest rulers, Elizabeth I.

Her present obscurity is not a shock; there is no irony to this. Instead, her unmarked grave is the outgrowth of a life remarkable for its silence amid the noise–the style, the wit, the fiery ambition and brilliant allure of the Boleyn family.

How did Elizabeth Boleyn feel about her striving husband, Thomas; her notorious daughters, Anne and Mary; her erudite son, George? Was she proud to be mother-in-law of Henry VIII—and did that emotion flip to outrage and grief when Anne and George were beheaded in 1536, among the charges being that they committed incest? Or, perhaps, like her spouse, the Earl of Wiltshire, Elizabeth was grateful to survive the brutal coup that destroyed the Boleyn faction and even willing to court the king’s favor once more.

We don’t know as much about Anne Boleyn as we think we do. The movies and miniseries and novels and articles and twitter handles create the impression of a certain kind of woman: beautiful, witty, and bold. Someone who could steal a king from a prestigious first wife of many years’ standing. But there are surprisingly few authenticated likenesses or letters of Anne Boleyn’s, and many descriptions of her behavior come to us from the pens of her enemies.

Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery. It was painted after her death.

If the facts about Anne Boleyn are minimal, they are fragmentary for her mother. One assumption is that most women’s lives from this period are not recorded. But other mothers of Henry VIII’s wives come into greater focus, with one sad exception. Queen Isabella of Castile is of course a famous figure of history; the other royal mother, Duchess Maria of Cleves, comes through in her religious choices, her relationships with her husband and children, her loyalty to her homeland. Jane Seymour’s and Catherine Parr’s mothers are present in history; we can feel their care taken for their families. Only Joyce Culpepper, wife to that ne’er do well Edmund Howard, is more of an enigma than Elizabeth Boleyn, and that is because she died before Catherine Howard reached the age of 10.

But Elizabeth Boleyn outlived Anne. She was there, in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the daughter, wife and mother of prominent courtiers. So how can there be so few mentions?

Elizabeth Boleyn does play a part in an unsavory scandal. There was a rumor that Henry VIII had an affair with her when he was young, before his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Supposedly a gentleman said to the king about his planned marriage to Anne that it would be a blot on his conscience, “It is thought that ye have meddled both with the mother and the sister.” The king replied, “Never with the mother.” And Thomas Cromwell leaped in, “And never with the sister.” (Cromwell’s attempt to clear his master’s reputation notwithstanding, Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn is accepted by historians.)

Elizabeth Boleyn was at least 11 years older than Henry VIII and giving birth to nearly a child a year during the last decade of the reign of the old king, Henry VII. The prince was kept under close watch by his father; he married at the age of 17. So any adulterous affair between the two seems improbable.

Henry VIII, as a young man

But then the Boleyns were the subjects of many scurrilous rumors. Elizabeth Amadas, wife of the royal goldsmith, is supposed to have said, “that the king had kept both the mother and the daughter” and that Thomas Boleyn “was bawd to his wife and two daughters.”

One of the worst of the anti-Boleyn rumors was that Henry VIII fathered Anne and thus he married his own daughter. Since Anne Boleyn was born most probably in 1501, when Henry Tudor was 10 years old, this is officially ludicrous.

We do know that Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn were fairly close. Anne was sent to the Low Countries and then France when very young, to receive a fine education, but that doesn’t rule out a strong bond. Lady Boleyn sometimes accompanied Anne as chaperone when her daughter was the beloved of Henry VIII. And when Queen Anne was in the Tower of London in 1536, under arrest, alternately stunned and hysterical, she said her mother would “die of sorrow.”

Two years later, Elizabeth Boleyn died. Was it of sorrow? The answer is … perhaps.

In the beginning and in the end, Elizabeth defined herself not as a Boleyn, but as a Howard. That could be the key to understanding her.

Anne Boleyn’s aristocratic blood comes from her mother’s family. Elizabeth was the granddaughter, daughter and sister of a duke of Norfolk. The Howards are considered one of the “old” families of Henry VIII’s court, but in fact theirs was not ancient nobility. Richard III raised John Howard to the dukedom in 1483, as reward for loyalty during his struggle for the crown. John was a knight’s son and, through his mother, the grandson of a duke.

John Howard died at Bosworth alongside Richard III. His son, Thomas Howard, the earl of Surrey, was imprisoned and his lands were taken. He spent years proving himself to the Tudors and buying back Howard property. This all took place during Elizabeth’s childhood. The Howards were a close-knit family, and probably the struggle to survive royal suspicion brought them even closer.

The poet John Skelton, while a guest of the Howards, wrote a poem in tribute to several young women, including Elizabeth. The poem suggests she had a potent allure. Based on the outstanding attractiveness of Anne, Mary, and George Boleyn, it seems safe to assume that their mother was lovely.

Elizabeth married Thomas Boleyn when she was 17 or 18. He was intelligent and determined—ferociously so. He set himself to climb the ladder of Tudor society: courtier, knight, ambassador, earl, all the way to Lord Privy Seal. Elizabeth gave birth to perhaps seven children (four died young) and ran his households. She may have served both Elizabeth of York and Catherine of Aragon at important occasions, but is thought to have mostly resided in the country, in Norfolk or Kent, at the family‘s castle of Hever. Although the couple must have lived apart for long periods—Thomas Boleyn traveled to France and Burgundy repeatedly for the king—there is no impression of estrangement. Many 16th century marriages worked this way.

Hever Castle

“Most historians have felt that Anne’s father personified all that was bad about the court,” writes Eric Ives in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Yet Thomas Boleyn shifts from hard to like to actively repugnant after the killing of Anne and George. He did not defend his children; in fact, he offered to serve on their jury. He left court after their deaths, yet wrote sycophantic letters to Cromwell. He lost the office of Lord Privy Seal but retained his earldom and seat on the king’s council. Incredibly, he attended the christening of Prince Edward, the child of Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour, in 1537.

Thomas Boleyn died on March 12, 1539. He was buried in Hever Church, and King Henry VIII ordered that Masses be said for his soul. But Elizabeth was never laid to rest with him. She in fact pre-deceased him by a year; one court paper said she was “sore diseased with the cough” as early as 1536. Perhaps her children’s murders robbed her of the strength to recover and she suffered a slow decline.

Still, it was in her choice of where to die that Lady Boleyn’s voice can perhaps, finally, be heard.

She died on April 3rd, 1538. A nobleman wrote in a letter: “My lady Wiltshire was buried at Lambeth on the 7th… She was conveyed from a house besides Baynard’s Castle by barge to Lambeth with torches burning and four banners set out of all quarters of the barge, which was covered with black and a white cross.”

The Garden Museum is based in the deconsecrated parish church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. Photo by Mike Glaeser.

Before it was the Garden Museum, the building on Lambeth Road where Elizabeth Boleyn was buried was the Church of St. Mary’s. The church was abandoned in the 1970s, and sponsors moved forward to transform it into a museum. One person who was buried beneath its floor was John Tradescant, a famous gardener of the early 17th century. Before Tradescant lived and died, the church was the chosen resting place for some of the Howards.  It was very near to the family’s manor house of Lambeth. A memorial plaque, now lost, honored Thomas Howard and his wife, Agnes, Elizabeth’s parents. At least one of her sisters rested beside her.

Even more significantly, Elizabeth did not die at Hever, her husband at her side.  Seriously ill, she left Kent and traveled to London. Elizabeth Boleyn spent her final days in the home of Hugh Farringdon, the abbot of Reading, near Baynard’s Castle, not far from Lambeth.

Who was the abbot of Reading? Born Hugh Cook, he was a Cluniac monk who took the name of Farringdon and became abbot in 1520. Reading was one of the wealthiest abbeys in England. King Henry was the abbot’s guest in January 1521, and Farringdon later became a royal chaplain. The abbot took the king’s side during the Great Divorce, signing the Articles of Faith that acknowledged the supremacy of Henry VIII over the pope. In 1532, the king gave the abbot a New Year’s gift of twenty pounds.

Reading Abbey

It seems probable that Abbot Farringdon was known to Queen Anne Boleyn, and thus to her mother. Perhaps some sort of friendship sprang up between them and, for whatever reason, Elizabeth Boleyn turned to him when she was dying.

Certainly the other members of the Boleyn family would not have turned to a monk in their final days. Anne Boleyn, her brother and her father were all fervent supporters of church reform. The tenets of such reform were a direct connection to God in faith, without the intercession of priests, monks, and abbots. But did Elizabeth in her heart agree with this? It is possible that she did not find comfort in the church that her onetime son-in-law had created.

There is a final chapter in the life of Abbot Farringdon, and not a pretty one. Although he had conformed to the king’s will for years—unlike other monks and abbots and friars who chose martyrdom—in 1539, just after his abbey had closed, he was charged with high treason. The abbot was accused of giving money to the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace. This rebellion took place in 1536 and 1537, and it is inexplicable why no steps were taken against him for so long a period afterward.

Abbot Farringdon was entitled to be tried by Parliament but his death sentence was passed before trial began, by order of Thomas Cromwell. On November 14, 1539, Hugh Cook Farringdon was hanged, drawn and quartered before the gatehouse of his own abbey.

So ended the life of Elizabeth Boleyn’s friend, yet another victim in the brutal and capricious reign of Henry VIII.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of 'Dreamland' and 'The Ghost of Madison Avenue,' set in Gilded Age New York. She is also the author of a trilogy of novels set during the reign of Henry VIII: 'The Crown,' 'The Chalice' and 'The Tapestry,' published by Simon & Schuster in North America, Orion in the United Kingdom, and seven foreign countries. 

Her novel 'The Blue' is a thriller set in the 18th century world of art and porcelain. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

THE TAPESTRY Review: "Best of the Best Historical Fiction"

I'm very excited about this review from Library of Clean Reads, which gave The Tapestry a "G" rating and said, "Is it possible that this third book in the Joanna Stafford series of fantastic historical fiction is the best yet? If you have read The Chalice and The Crown you may wonder how it could get any better, but it has."

 "...It’s obvious that the author has done meticulous research, as usual. And that she is well versed in the Tudor era. Apart from Henry VIII and Catherine Howard, other historical figures appear throughout the novel, ie. Cromwell, Anne of Cleves (Henry’s fourth wife), Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Hans Holbein. I learned about the Henry’s Act of Six Articles forbidding persons who had taken vows of chastity in a religious order from every marrying, on pain of death. I loved the list of characters (useful to readers unfamiliar with the era) as well as the extensive bibliography.

"Look for royal intrigue, murder, friendship, love, treachery, religious/political turmoil in this best of the best historical fiction."

To read the full review, go here