The Crown

by Nancy Bilyeau

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson

The Crown is a thriller set during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Joanna Stafford is a fictional character descended from the historical Stafford family, who were Dukes of Buckingham until Edward Stafford was convicted of treason early in the reign of Henry VIII. She has come to Dartford Priory with the intention of becoming a Dominican nun following the death of Katherine of Aragon. As the novel opens, another treasonous Stafford, her cousin Margaret, is about to be burned at the stake for supporting the Yorkshire rebellion against Henry.

Joanna is loyal to the crown but also devoted to Catholicism and heartsick at the dissolution; she finds it hard to imagine that Dartford, her beloved refuge, might also be taken over by officials of the king, and its community of nuns scattered. So she is vulnerable when a powerful official pressures her to find a valuable relic, the Crown of Athelstan, which he believes is hidden at Dartford. A believably complex character, young Joanna is impulsive and self-confident, warm-hearted and intelligent, devoted to her faith and her community, and just defiant enough to be the center of a consistently suspenseful story.

Tudor England was a violent place, and the story is driven by both historical and fictional violence, some of it truly horrific. Most of the violence, however, occurs off-stage; when it is portrayed, the scenes are brief and non-exploitive. Joanna's religious faith is true to her time and pervades the story, but this is not a "Christian message" novel with a heavy-handed or preachy tone. If anything, the message here is feminist, championing Joanna's desire to join a sympathetic community of women where she can live without the daily interference of a husband, pursuing a life she finds comforting and satisfying: prayer, companionship, scholarship, and the creation of lavishly pictorial tapestries. The Crown is first in a series, and Joanna is an engaging heroine with enough personality to bring readers back for more. (2012; 409 pages, including a bibliography of sources on the history behind the novel)

More about The Crown at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other novels about the Dissolution:

The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman (2011), a mystery featuring Queen Elizabeth's astrologer Doctor John Dee as sleuth, teaming up with Robert Dudley to find out what happened to King Arthur's bones after the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom (2003), about a hunchbacked lawyer in Henry VIII’s court sent to investigate the murder of an official involved in the dissolution of the monasteries; #1 in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Altarpiece by Sarah Kennedy (2013), about a prioress's adopted daughter in Yorkshire during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535. More info

Nonfiction about Dartford Priory, the Staffords and the Resistance to Henry VIII:

Chronicles of Dartford Priory: The History of the Priory of St. Mary and St. Margaret the Virgins of Dartford by Peter Boreham (1999). More info

The Staffords, Earls of Stafford and Dukes of Buckingham: 1394-1521 by Carole Rawcliffe (1978). More info

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


Dartford Priory at the Kent Archaeology website

Back to Novels of Tudor England and the Renaissance

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