Date read: 19th March 2014
Publisher: Orion Books
Release Date: January 10th, 2012
Length: 490 pages
In this debut historical thriller, an aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father’s life and preserve all she holds dear from Cromwell’s ruthless terror.
When novice nun Joanna Stafford learns her rebel cousin is condemned by King Henry VIII to be burned at the stake, she makes the decision to break the sacred rule of enclosure and run away from her Dominican Order in Dartford to stand at her cousin’s side.
Arrested for interfering with king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, Sir Richard Stafford, is sent to the Tower of London. Joanna’s father is brutally tortured by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester who leads the Catholic faction bent on saving England’s monasteries from destruction. In order to save her father, Joanna must submit to Gardiner’s will and become a pawn in the struggle between religious extremes. Gardiner forces Joanna to return to Dartford Priory with a mission: find the long hidden crown worn by Saxon King Athelstan in AD 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain. Gardiner believes the crown itself to possess a mystical power that will halt the Reformation.
Uncovering only dark betrayals and murder at Dartford, Joanna flees with Brother Edmund, a troubled young friar, and with time running out, their hunt for the crown leads them through royal castles, to Stonehenge, and finally to the tomb of the mysterious King Athelstan under Malmesbury Abbey. There Joanna learns the true secret of the crown, a secret tracing all the way back to Golgotha and the Relics of the Passion. Now, as Cromwell’s army of destruction advances, Joanna must finally determine who to trust and how far she is willing to go to protect a way of life that she passionately loves.
I love reading about the Tudors (and the Wars of the Roses which preceded the Tudor dynasty), as I studied it at sixth-form college with a truly inspirational teacher who made the era come alive. She also inadvertently created a battle between me and my friend Emily, as I fervently believed that Henry VII was behind the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, and she thought Richard III was the villain.
But I digress. I saw The Crown in Waterstones a few months ago and liked the description on the back cover, only not quite enough to purchase it, so I added it to my library wish list and eventually read it last week.
The first unusual thing about it is that the narrator is a nun from a noble family which has fallen out of favour. It’s hard to keep track of which families Henry VIII favoured and when, as his wrath fell on those who displeased him in whatever way quite frequently. Suffice it to say that the Staffords were an important family, but Joanna’s uncle led a rebellion against the King, was executed for his troubles, and Joanna’s parents were banished from court. Joanna joins a priory following a command from Catherine of Aragon, and after her cousin is executed for treason, finds herself a pawn in a battle with extremely high stakes – the Crown of Athelstan – as Henry VIII continues his destruction of the monasteries, abbeys and priories of the country.
I must admit to a bit of prejudice before I read this book – Nancy Bilyeau is American, and I was wary as to the style of writing she would use and whether I’d find it jarring. I’ve had a bad experience with a couple of other books trying to capture the Tudor period where the language just wasn’t right. I can’t remember the particulars (I’ve successfully blocked them from my mind, it turns out), but I gave up after a maximum of two chapters and gave the book to the charity shop. But I needn’t have worried in this case, I slipped straight into the Tudor world and Bilyeau’s writing is clear, concise, and makes you feel as though you’re in Tudor England from the very first page.
The book rattles along at pace and I found it a fairly easy read, although I struggled to keep track of what was happening and when at certain stages, I think that was more to do with me being distracted than the clarity of the writing. Joanna is a sympathetic character – she doesn’t want to return to the priory but a shady bishop has her father prisoner in the Tower of London and won’t release him until he gets results. When the bare facts of the book are laid out in my rather inept way it sounds as though the plot is pure melodrama, but it doesn’t play out that way at all. The supporting characters are all given enough personality to make them believable without taking over the plot for themselves, and Joanna’s devotion to her family and to God is admirable. Bilyeau makes the motivation of some characters ambiguous, which means you can never be sure who you’re willing Joanna to trust, and I didn’t see any of the plot twists coming at all which was a nice surprise. The only thing I was a little discomforted by was the hint of a love triangle, which seemed a little off, but it’s so in the background that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book at all.
The book is fairly self-contained but there is another Joanna Stafford book – The Chalice – which I shall be seeking out soon I’m sure. I’ll be interested to see where the characters go next, Winifred, Edmund, Geoffrey and the nuns of Dartford Priory.