Title: The Crown
Author: Nancy Bilyeau
No. of Pages: 418
Genre: Historical fiction
“Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.
The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, takes terrifying steps to force Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic – a crown so powerful, it may hold the ability to end the Reformation. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory and searches in secret for this long-lost piece of history worn by the Saxon King Athelstan in 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain.
But Dartford Priory has become a dangerous place, and when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with a sensitive young monk, Brother Edmund, to search elsewhere for the legendary crown. From royal castles with tapestry-filled rooms to Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan, Joanna and Brother Edmund must hurry to find the crown if they want to keep Joanna’s father alive. At Malmesbury, secrets of the crown are revealed that bring to light the fates of the Black Prince, Richard the Lionhearted, and Katherine of Aragon’s first husband, Arthur. The crown’s intensity and strength are beyond the earthly realm and it must not fall into the wrong hands.
With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must now decide who she can trust with the secret of the crown so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past.”
Thoughts: Much has been made of Henry’s divorce from his first wife, paving the way for the Protestant faith to take hold in England, yet little in historical fiction has dared approach what the people must have felt to have their only known faith stripped from them and made treasonous. In The Crown, Nancy Bilyeau takes this little-trodden idea and takes it one step further by focusing on those most impacted by such changes – those who devoted their entire life to God. Through Bilyeau’s careful research, the reader gets a clear picture of just how dangerous their pious lives became after Henry declared himself the one true leader of the Church.
Joanna is a most unusual heroine of the period in that she is humble, capable, and does not need a man, marriage, or children to find fulfillment. At one point in time, Bilyeau leads the reader to suspect that there may be a “happily ever after” ending for our heroine. There is that but not in the traditional sense. Even better, Joanna does not preach. Her faith is sincere but private. The religious imagery and history, while a huge focal point of the story, remains subdued enough for even the most atheistic reader.
The mysterious and mystical crown, from which the book receives its name, is almost unnecessary to further a reader’s interest in the story. The story receives its heart and soul from Joanna’s, and the priory’s, struggle to survive in a world that is abjectly hostile to anything Roman Catholic. Athestan’s crown, while an interesting piece of trivia, is second fiddle to the drama that is Tudor England at this time. That being said, its very existence does raise questions on the power of faith, something at the very heart of the conflict.
The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau is a fascinating departure from typical novels about the Tudor period, specifically Henry VIII’s reign. Taking place as far from court life as possible, Bilyeau is able to capture the feeling of confusion and fear of all his subjects during the rise of Cromwell and the Protestants. Joanna, as an educated woman from a family of privilege is remarkable in her humility, courage and faith. Well-researched and well-written, and requiring only a small modicum of suspension of belief, The Crown is a welcome addition to the historical fiction drama.