Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The fate of Tudor Nuns - a Guest Post by Nancy Bilyeau

It is with great pleasure I present the keys to my Castle, once again, to Nancy Bilyeau.  In her recently published second novel, "The Chalice" (which I've reviewed here), ex-nun Joanna Stafford attempts to find her place in the world after the dissolution of Dartford Priory.  But what was it like for the nuns of Tudor England in the face of such adversity?  Nancy pulls back the curtain of time and take us back 500 years to a time when the Catholic faith was in real danger of being decimated and when followers of the faith were in fear for their lives.

Nancy also provides an exclusive excerpt from "The Chalice" for you to read!  Over to you, Nancy!


In my recently published second novel, The Chalice, I continue to write about the life of a young Dominican novice in the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. My first book, The Crown, was set, in part, in the Dartford priory that was the only house for Dominican sisters in England. The Chalice takes up the story after the priory has been “surrendered” to Henry VIII, who ordered it demolished and a royal manor house built atop the rubble.

What happens to a woman who entered a religious life because of a calling but is forced from her sheltered home because of a fast-moving Reformation imposed from above? This question is hard to answer from the historical record.  Roughly 1,800 nuns, 1,600 friars and 5,000 monks were expelled from their religious orders in the 1530s. Henry VIII had launched commissioners to investigate the monasteries for corruption and decay. Not surprisingly, all were found wanting. “Reform” was not the point—extinction was.  Those who protested or refused to submit to the royal will were severely punished, with imprisonment or execution.

More than 1 million pounds was transferred to the royal treasury in the Dissolution. The king vowed that this wealth would be used to found or enhance religious, charitable and education establishments. Historians now say that no more than 15 percent of the secured wealth was used for these purposes. Some of the money was poured into the king’s building plans, such as the Palace of Nonsuch. Much of the rest paid for Henry VIII’s invasion of France in 1544.

The abbeys themselves were either demolished and stripped of their value down to the lead or awarded to courtiers loyal to the king. Many of the nuns, friars, and monks were given fixed small pensions, but they proved inadequate to the inflation and coinage debasement that ravaged England in the 1540s and 1550s. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V: “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.”

In The Chalice, I base my depiction of life after the destruction of Dartford Priory on historical research. A group of former nuns did live together in community near their former priory. Others sought shelter from the families they’d parted from years ago. And perhaps others, as with my Joanna Stafford, struggled to maintain some independence.

Here is an excerpt from The Chalice that addresses life after the Dissolution:

 When I stepped out the door, I plunged into the heart of town. I lived on the High Street, in one of the two-story timber-framed buildings that faced the church.
From behind our priory walls, Dartford had seemed a good neighbor—a friendly, well-ordered place. Three hours on horseback from London, the town was known for its safe travelers’ inns, its proud shops, and, of course, its five-hundred-year-old church. There was another Dartford, though. One that was not so well ordered. The shambles was closer to the church than usually thought desirable in a town this size. The stench of it, the butchered animals and dead fish, were a constant unpleasantness. I wondered why the town fathers did not have such a malodorous site moved.
The shambles was a reminder that beneath the pleasing surface of Dartford lurked ugliness. It was a reminder that I too often ignored.
That very morning, heedless, I leaped across the puddles in the street to reach the pride of the town: Holy Trinity Church. Its square Norman tower, with five-foot-thick walls, could be seen for miles.
I’d made it across the street when I heard my friends’ voices behind me.
“Sister Joanna, a good morning to you.”
Brother Edmund and Sister Winifred bore such a strong resemblance to each other: slender, with ash-blond hair and large brown eyes. As I waited for them to reach me in the doorway, I scrutinized Brother Edmund’s sensitive features, more out of habit than necessity. For years he had struggled with a secret dependence on a certain tincture, made from an exotic red flower of India. At the priory he’d confessed it to me and vowed never to weaken again. Ever since, I’d studied his eyes for the telltale sign of the potion: a preternatural calm, a blank drowsiness. When the priory was dissolved, Brother Edmund continued his work as an apothecary and healer. The priory had had two infirmaries, one inside its walls and the other, for the benefit of the town, outside it. Brother Edmund kept the town’s open, supplying it himself, and practiced his skills on any who desired it. I worried that his proximity to the tinctures of his trade would weaken his resolve. But today, as every day for almost a year, his eyes were clear.
When they reached me, I realized it was Sister Winifred who deserved my concern more than her older brother. Her skin was ashen; her cheekbones stood out in her face. I knew the marshy air of Dartford wreaked havoc on her, especially after a sopping night.
“Are you well, Sister?” I asked as the three of us entered the church.
“Oh, yes,” she said quickly.
Our footsteps echoed as we walked across the church, which was alive with light. Brilliant candles flickered everywhere: at the grand high altar, at the chapel of Saint Thomas Becket, and on the floor clustered around the brass memorials, honoring the dead gentry of Dartford.
Wewere the only people visible on the floor of the church. Yet we were not alone. A hundred feet up, high above the vestry, through three vertical slits, a candle gleamed. And a malevolent dark form moved between those carved slits.
Father William Mote, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, was watching us from his private room.
Brother Edmund glanced up; he, too, took note of the priest’s surveillance. He put his arm around Sister Winifred, patting her on the shoulder as he guided her to our destination at the southeastern corner of the church: the altar of Saint Mary the Virgin.
I do not know exactly how it happened, that we, the refugees of Dartford Priory, were shunted off this way. No one ever said we were unwelcome at Holy Trinity. It was all done as if it was for our benefit: “Your Dominican Order reveres the Virgin—wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a chapel devoted to Her?” And we would hear Mass exclusively from doddering Father Anthony rather than Father William,. The final insult was the timing: to prevent any “confusion,” we attended separate Mass.
I made a tally of all the good that our priory had done for generations—not just as landlord and employer but also as sponsor of the almshouse and the infirmary. And what of our role as teachers? The priory was the only place where girls of good local families could learn reading and writing. Nothing took its place. And yet now we were treated like inferior animals to be culled from the herd. I dipped my fingers in the stoup of holy water at the side of the chapel entrance. But before I followed Sister Winifred inside, I whirled around to glare at Father William’s high spying place. You should be ashamed, I thought.
Brother Edmund shook his head. Just as I stood watch over him for signs of his weakness, he did his best to help me master mine—my temper.
I took my place before the statue of the serene Virgin. It was of some comfort that we took Mass in such a chapel. A colorful wall mural of Saint George slaying the dragon dominated the room.
There was a stirring behind me. The others were arriving, the six nuns of Dartford who still lived in community. They were the vestiges of the priory, attempting to live out the ideals of our order. When King Henry and Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell dissolved the priory, most of the sisters returned to their families. Our prioress departed for the home of a brother, and none of us heard from her again. But Sister Rachel, one of the senior nuns, had years earlier been bequeathed a large house a mile from the center of town, and five others joined her there, pooling their pensions. Arthur’s rambunctiousness made my joining the sisters in their community impossible, and so I, like Brother Edmund and Sister Winifred, leased lodgings from Holy Trinity Church.
Morning Mass was when we could all be together again. At the priory, we had chanted the Psalms at least four hours a day—the liturgy was the core of our commitment to God. To be reduced to a single observance was difficult, but without daily Mass we’d be plunged into confusion.
Sister Eleanor strode forward, water dripping from her clothes. Yes, the hem of her kirtle was drenched from the mile’s walk in the rain, but she’d never complain. She’d been appointed circatrixof Dartford by the prioress—the enforcer of rules. From what I could tell, she considered herself the leader now, though Sister Rachel—ten years older and the actual owner of the house—also had firm ideas of how they should conduct themselves.
We all stood in the same exact place every day, re-creating the hierarchy of our lost world. Sister Winifred and I, the two ex-novices of Dartford, were in front. The tense Sister Eleanor stood behind us. Next were the two nuns who also held office while at Dartford: Sister Rachel, the reliquarian, and Sister Agatha, the novice mistress. Then came the final three. Brother Edmund stood across the aisle, alone, continuing the strict division of man and woman.
I struggled to hide my impatience as we waited for our assigned priest. The only sounds were the sizzle of an altar candle or one of Sister Agatha’s loud sighs. I turned around; her eyes met mine with a little nod. Of all the sisters, I missed her the most, my warm-natured, gossipy novice mistress.
Finally we heard the shuffling feet of Father Anthony.
“Salve,” he said in his creaky voice.
A moment after he’d begun Mass, I looked over at Brother Edmund. This was not correct. My friend, who was as proficient in Latin as I, cleared his throat.
“Father, forgive me, but it is not the beginning of Lent.”
The priest blinked rapidly, his mouth working. “What day is it?”
“It is the second of October, Father.”
“What year?”
Brother Edmund said gently, “The Year of Our Lord fifteen hundred and thirty-eight.”
Father Anthony thought a moment and then launched into an appropriate Mass.
How far we had fallen. I ached to remember: Sitting in my novice stall, singing and chanting, the lavender incense so heady it made me swoon. Or plucking cherries from a tree in our orchard.Or leafing through the precious books of the library. This morning, I could feel the same longing from the others, pulsing in the very air. Yet what was to be done? The monastic life was extinguished in England.

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