Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay "Zenobia" placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and "Loving Marys" reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013.
Some earlier milestones: In 1661, Nancy's ancestor, Pierre Billiou, emigrated from France to what was then New Amsterdam when he and his family sailed on the St. Jean de Baptiste to escape persecution for their Protestant beliefs. Pierre built the first stone house on Staten Island and is considered the borough's founder. His little white house is on the national register of historic homes and is still standing to this day.
Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe.
Why did you write THE CROWN?
I've loved historical fiction since I was a child. The 16th century was always my favorite—I have an inexhaustible interest in the Tudors. I also enjoy reading an intricately plotted thriller. I decided to fuse the two genres for my first novel and craft a historical thriller.
Why did you choose a nun for your main character?
I didn't want to write the story of a real queen or princess, other people are doing that and doing it very well. I thought about what kind of woman had some sort of independence besides a royal or a noblewoman. Who would be doing interesting things during this period? I came up with a Catholic novice in the middle of the dissolution of the monasteries.
What was happening to the nuns of England when your book begins in May of 1537?
Some of the convents or priories had already been dissolved by order of King Henry VIII. He was given the authority to do this by an act of Parliament in 1534. The timeline, simplified, is as follows: Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church of England, breaking the authority to the Pope. This had implications besides giving him the ability to grant himself the annulment from Katherine of Aragon that the Pope had blocked for years.
What about all of the monastic orders in England who up to then had followed the leadership of the Pope? There were 825 communities in England: monks, friars, and nuns. Most of them were created in the 11th and 12th centuries. Some were poor and tiny, and some were large and internationally renowned, such as Syon Abbey. The one that I write about, Dartford Priory in Kent, was one of the larger ones. It was the only house of Dominican nuns in England.
Although Henry VIII has the reputation now as a hotheaded tyrant, he always wanted to follow procedure and law. Thomas Cromwell, chief minister for Henry VIII since 1532, came up with the idea of sending commissioners to all of the monasteries to ask a series of questions. This was all done to "reform" and, unsurprisingly, the commissioners produced reports of rampant abuses, both financial and moral. And so one by one, they were dissolved, starting with the smallest and working toward the largest.
Most of the monasteries fought to survive. Large "fines" were paid; they defended themselves. But those who directly defied the king were punished. There were some grisly executions. Early on, some monks were starved or hung in chains. Two of the biggest defenders of the Catholic church and the monasteries were Cardinal John Fisher and Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More. They were executed in 1535, but the church has since made them both saints. This had quite the chilling effect on opposition within the monasteries. Most of them submitted to the government's will and disbanded by 1540. They were given small pensions. But they were left the only way of life most had ever known.
What threw a bad light on the dissolution, in my opinion, is that it produced so much income for the government. The king was in desperate need of money—he liked to live very well, as we all know. He inherited a great deal from his father, but by the 1530s it was almost gone. The dissolution produced more than a million pounds—in 16th century money! It is known as the largest forced transfer of property in England since the Norman Conquest.
There was a very interesting rebellion in England in 1536 and 1537 called the Pilgrimage of Grace. Most of the general population and a portion of the nobility in the North of England rose up against Cromwell and his plunder of the monasteries. They did not want their abbeys destroyed, and they feared the growing Protestant movement that Martin Luther fueled in Germany. The king outmaneuvered the rebels, even though they had more men, and had the movement's leaders killed.
In the first chapter of my book, my main character, Joanna Stafford, is going to Smithfield, to the burning at the stake of Margaret Bulmer, the wife of one of the Northern leaders of the rebellion. It was unusual to burn a noblewoman at the stake for treason, out before the population in Smithfield. This is one of the mysteries I explore in my novel.
Your main character is a Stafford. Why did you select that family?
The Staffords were a doomed family, and that is always interesting. They were wealthy, of royal blood, and followed the Lancasters in the War of the Roses. The first Duke of Buckingham was a Stafford, he actually died in battle defending King Henry VI. The second Duke is famous for plotting with Richard III, to depose the princes. He turned against Richard later, and was beheaded for it.
The third Duke made it to middle age, but Henry VIII never liked him much or trusted him. He was too rich and powerful. In 1521, he came under suspicion of treason and was tried for it, found guilty and also executed. All of his land and castles were taken away and given to other noblemen. The king did give back Stafford Castle. It was first built in 1090, a wonderful stone castle on a hill. The family was broken after 1521; they did not resurge. In the next century, a Stuart king gave the Buckingham dukedom to someone new.
© Nancy Bilyeau.