The Chalice

by Nancy Bilyeau

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson

The Chalice is second in a new series of thrillers about a novice nun displaced during Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries and convents. The fictional Joanna Stafford, once a novice at the historical Dartford Priory, is a member of the historical Stafford family, who were deeply involved in the hazardous politics of the Tudor era. In this story, a fearful Joanna is pressured to consult a series of seers who believe she will play a crucial role in English history. The first, Elizabeth Barton, was a real person, a nun executed in 1534 because of her prophecies warning against the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

With Dartford Priory dissolved and Catholicism in disrepute, Joanna is shunned by most townsfolk, as are her friends - former novices, nuns and friars who augment their pensions by running an infirmary, while Joanna looks forward to starting a tapestry-weaving business. Strikingly beautiful, she attracts attention from unscrupulous men and kind ones, and is a temptation to a friend who has taken vows of celibacy. Others are aware of the secret prophecy about her and wish to use her for their own political purposes. She receives both marriage offers and terrifying threats.

A strength of The Crown, first in the series, was Joanna's engaging personality. In this eventful sequel full of plot twists, she is pulled in so many different directions that both her character and the story sometimes lack focus. Wavering between her religious convictions and her attraction to two different men, she is pressured to marry a third and to succumb to a fourth's advances. Tudor England was a violent society and, although the vows of monks and nuns prohibited violent behavior, Joanna's commitment to nonviolence tends to strike a modern note, as do her occasional slips, like her willingness to be trained in dagger combat. Readers comfortable suspending disbelief for an exciting story may enjoy The Chalice; those looking for historically authentic characters and situations will find it less satisfying. (2013, 482 pages)

More about The Chalice at Powell's Books or

Other historical novels featuring nuns:

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland (2009), a thriller about an English village terrorized by its overlords, when a group of unconventional nuns with a special gift for farming arrive and take in a young woman whose mysterious death leads to accusations of witchcraft. More info

Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne (1994), about a scholarly young nun in seventh-century Ireland who must find out who murdered an abbess about to speak at a religious council; #1 in the Sister Fidelma series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory (1992), about a former nun who must fend for herself after Henry VIII closes her convent. More info

Nonfiction about the Dissolution period:

Dangerous Talk and Strange Behavior: Women and the Popular Resistance to the Reforms of King Henry VIII by Sharon L. Jansen (1996). More info

The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy (2nd ed., 2005). More info

The Religious Orders in England: The Tudor Age by David Knowles (1959). More info


Dissolution of the Monasteries at the Spartacus Educational website

Back to Historical Novels of Tudor England

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