Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel, The Crown leapt to the top of my reading list for purely selfish reasons. I was writing about life in a 16th century priory in Poissy, France and stumbled upon a link between Poissy and Dartford Priory in Kent. Founded by royalty (Edward III) with nuns from Poissy in the 14th Century, Dartford Priory was a prestigious religious institution. I was curious to read an historical fiction account of life there—especially since I have not found an account of life at Poissy. I’m glad I did. The Crown is a thrilling read.
Bilyeau’s Dartford Priory is a religious establishment in turmoil, perhaps reflecting the time. Anne Boleyn is dead; Jane Seymour is Queen, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is underway. The novel begins in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace as its leaders are sentenced to die.
Against this backdrop, we meet Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory who has run off to witness to the burning of her cousin, Margaret Bulmer, to provide her with support and prayers at the time of her death. It’s an horrific opening, one that makes the reader confront the brutality and inhumanity of Henry VIII’s reign, and setting the tone for the high stakes to come.
Her cousin Margaret is not the only relative to run afoul of Henry VIII, who executed her Uncle Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham—Margaret’s father. With this history, Stafford is not a popular name with Henry VIII who is disinclined to leniency when Joanna’s father Richard Stafford intervenes to ease Margaret’s suffering. Worse – Joanna’s mother was one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting and Joanna herself was with Katherine until she died. They are sent to the Tower along with Geoffrey Scovill, a sheriff’s deputy and love interest for Joanna (yet how can this be when she is almost a nun… read and find out!).
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester finally grants her release from the Tower on the condition that Joanna return to Dartford Priory and spy for him. He keeps Joanna’s father in the Tower to guarantee her cooperation. She must find the Athlestan Crown….the crown of the first King to unite Britain, the crown that has magic, perhaps cursed properties in the wrong hands.
Joanna returns to the Priory accompanied by two monks, where dramatic events are already in progress. From here, its murder and a bit of violence as Joanna finds the Crown. Bilyeau crafts wonderful plots, subplots and terrific characters, weaving in fascinating details about Dartford, its tapestries, herbology, and the chaos of England at the tipping point of Reformation.
I liked Joanna Stafford, who is nicely balanced. She is spiritual yet not too virtuous, independent yet not so much so that it stood out as remarkable for the 16th Century. Her quest for the crown and its secret leads her out of the Priory and into the real world in the company of men, but not in a way that felt contrived. Most of all, I loved that this was not a book about court intrigue.
The book is an excellent, fast-paced read. It felt more like a thriller than most historical fiction books, which I liked. I will definitely read more from Nancy Bilyeau. (And yes, reading it helped with my Poissy research.)
Love to know your thoughts on this book!