London, 1537: Smithfield is awash with gawpers flocking to see a beautiful Yorkshire noblewoman burned alive for questioning King Henry VIII’s religious changes. Enter Joanna Stafford, a novice at Dartford Priory, England’s only house of Dominican Sisters. She has broken her vows of enclosure to pray at the pitiful immolation of her cousin. From this dramatic opening we learn a lot about Joanna, heroine of The Crown, The Chalice and now The Tapestry. She is strong and wilful, feisty and likeable. Faith, family and her conscience matter more than rules.
The action is fast from the outset. Joanna is involved in a skirmish at the burning, arrested and sent to the Tower. Before long she is in the thick of it, navigating her way around the poisonous politics and ambition of Henry’s court, as Cromwell, Gardiner, and Cranmer vie for royal favour.
Inevitably, the trauma that will change her life soon rides up the priory path: Cromwell’s henchmen, there to hack down her home. It is a defining moment, propelling her on the interconnected journeys that make up the trilogy. In The Crown, she is after an ancient relic. The Chalice features a foreign plot to murder the king. And The Tapestry sees her sucked into the belly of the beast, the royal court, where Henry takes a shine to her and makes her keeper of his tapestries. All the while, she must dodge increasingly sophisticated attempts to murder her, while choosing how to live the rest of her life – if she survives.
The story is fiction, but it is a sheer joy to have Henry’s court recreated with an eye to the reality of its venality, rather than the trendy Wolf Hall airbrushing of its violence and rapacity. The tone is always modern and light, but with none of the clumsy thigh-slapping faux period language. Bilyeau’s writing is effortless, vivid, gripping and poignant, bringing Tudor England to life with sparkling zest.
If you want to see the Reformation from the side of the English people rather than the self-serving court, it is tough to do better than this trilogy.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (1/5/15).