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My poignant journey in search of the martyrs

The tomb of St Thomas More is seen in the crypt of the St Peter ad Vincula chapel in the Tower of London (Photo: CNS photo/Marcin Mazur)

When I decided to create a 16th-century Dominican novice as the main character of my debut novel The Crown, my motive was to find a new way into the era. Queens, princesses and ladies-in-waiting, living in royal palaces, dominated Tudor fiction. For my planned thriller, I wanted to open the door to a different world and a new sort of female protagonist. Eight years of research and two books later, I feel a complex tumble of emotions – intrigued, humbled, exhilarated, saddened and outraged – over what I learned about England’s lost monastic life.

I began my journey as a life-long Tudor history addict but fairly ignorant of the specifics of the religious orders. I had no spiritual agenda; I was raised by agnostic parents in the American Midwest. But after I learned a family secret when I was 19, I felt increasing curiosity about the Catholic Church. In the last month of her life, my grandmother told my mother that while she and my grandfather, Francis Aloysius O’Neill, babysat me as an infant, they took me to a priest in Chicago, Illinois, for baptism. The first priest they approached for baptism without the parents being present said no; the second one said yes. I was baptised in the Catholic Church but for nearly 20 years did not know it.

After university, I moved to New York City to work in the magazine business. Occasionally I found myself on Fifth Avenue in midtown and would slow down as I approached St Patrick’s Cathedral. I’d walk up the steps, push open the heavy doors, and slide inside to look at the magnificent 330ft-tall space. “Do I belong here?” I’d ask myself as I watched people light candles and pray.

Now, with a plan to write a historical thriller, I dived into my research of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In most books on the reign of Henry VIII the refrain is the same: the numbers of monks, priests and nuns had dwindled by the 16th century, and many questions had already been raised about the abbeys’ financial and moral soundness. After the monasteries were closed and their occupants evicted, no one much cared, except for some rebels in a failed uprising in the north known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Two books that went deeper into the topic made me start to question that conventional wisdom: G W Bernard’s The King’s Reformation described the extreme brutality the king doled out to those who opposed him. It went beyond the executions of Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher – monks and friars who did not want to forsake the pope and swear an oath to Henry VIII as the head of the church were imprisoned, starved, hanged, beheaded and even carved into pieces. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England made a convincing argument that the Catholic faith was a vibrant and essential part of daily life when Henry VIII broke from Rome because he could not get an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Most significantly, by dissolving the monasteries the king was able to seize a colossal amount of money.

As troubling as this was, it was not until I moved from the general to the specific that the fate of the nuns of England began to haunt me. I chose the sole house of Dominican Sisters in England, Dartford Priory, as the home of my protagonist, the fictional Sister Joanna Stafford. A priory of “strict discipline and plain living,” it was founded with great care by Edward III in the 1350s. The women who took vows at Dartford were from the gentry or nobility. There was even one princess: Bridget of York, the youngest daughter of Edward IV. Daily life was spent praying, singing, studying, gardening, sewing and teaching local girls to read. Twice a week the Sisters distributed alms to the local poor. The prioresses were learned and formidable women. Elizabeth Cressner, who died in 1537, oversaw her house of nuns with tremendous vigour for 50 years.

When the king’s commissioners visited Dartford Priory they did not find a house in decay. In 1535, the Valor Ecclesiasticus put the net annual revenue of the monastery at a robust £380 9s ½d. The number of nuns had not declined over the last century, but held at a steady number. I have not been able to find any contemporary reports finding fault with Dartford.

Yet in 1539 Prioress Joan Vane “surrendered” the priory to the king and it was demolished. Why? Most likely because closure was inevitable – by that time almost every other abbey had been dissolved – and those who resisted faced royal savagery. Abbot Richard Whiting, 81, refused to surrender Glastonbury in 1539. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London, convicted of treason and dragged on a hurdle to the top of Glastonbury Tor. There, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, his severed head nailed to the gate of the deserted abbey. You can certainly see why most of the monastics submitted to the will of the king.

After the nuns of Dartford were evicted from their home, they received small pensions. Although the stereotype of a medieval nun is someone who is pressured to take vows, some of the Dominican Sisters continued to live together in groups because they did not want to abandon their vocations.

When Henry VIII’s oldest daughter, Mary, took the throne, she granted the Dominican nuns’ request to re-establish their order in Dartford and seven nuns moved back in. But this restoration only lasted as long as Mary lived. Elizabeth’s officials ordered the nuns to leave. They did so, joining some of the last remaining Sisters of Syon Abbey. Mary’s widower, King Philip, quietly paid for the group to leave England for the Netherlands. They went from convent to convent, suffering poverty and ill health. In Paul Lee’s book, Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society, a letter from someone who saw the Dartford nuns in 1561 in a convent on the island of Zeeland says: “These are the most elderly of all the religious and the most infirm, and it seems that they are more than half dead.” But they hung on for quite a bit longer. The last of the Dartford nuns died in Bruges in 1585.

As part of researching my novels, I travelled to Dartford. I met the curators of the Dartford Borough Museum and I walked the same ground as the Sisters did more than five centuries ago. All that remains of their priory are sections of the stone wall running along the boundary between convent and town. When Henry VIII had the priory demolished, a grand royal manor house was raised. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, lived there after the king divorced her. Part of the brick gatehouse still stands and, somewhat ironically, wedding receptions are held there.

Dartford was the only house of nuns, but there were several friaries in England before the Dissolution. The most famous was Blackfriars, established in 1280, a massive complex of buildings in London that extended from the Thames River to Ludgate. Parliament was convened in the Great Hall of Blackfriars. The divorce hearing of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon immortalised by Shakespeare took place there. Like Dartford, this religious house surrendered to the king and the occupants left quietly, in search of new lives.

In my second novel, The Chalice, my characters travel to Blackfriars. I wanted to re-create their journey. It seemed impossible to me that nothing remained of the imposing friary, and so, armed with historic maps from the bookstore of the Museum of London, I headed for the area near the underground stop late one summer afternoon. I couldn’t find a sign, a wall, a remnant… anything.

After hours of this, I was ready to give up when I heard beautiful singing coming from a quiet side street. Intrigued, I followed the sound of the hymn up a set of stairs to a small leafy park. There, some 20 men and women were gathered singing, with a priest standing by.

I sat on a bench and listened to them sing. It turned out that July 26 was St Anne’s Day and they sang to honour the mother of the Virgin Mary. When, at twilight, I got up to leave I spotted a piece of stone wall and some faded tombstones on the edge of the park. They were the graves of several friars of the Dominican order. Long ago, the Church of St Anne had gathered and protected some of the graves. This was all that remained of Blackfriars.

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Chalice and The Crown, published by Orion. The Crown was on the short list for the 2012 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 19/4/13