A while back, I did a series of posts on women’s lives in the past—the expectations of and restrictions on women, as well as certain unexpected opportunities available to them to exercise power and authority. One of those posts looked at women religious and included a picture of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchorite who influenced the great of her world, despite not leaving her cell for decades. My current interview on New Books in Historical Fiction explores the moment when, for the women of England, that option disappeared.
When I agreed to speak with Sarah Kennedy, the author of The Cross and the Crown series, I was drawn mostly by the idea of a Tudor-era novel that did not feature Henry VIII’s romantic intrigues. That the first novel begins a year later than The Golden Lynx, but in a quite different setting, was an additional draw. Only as I read the books—and even more during my discussion with their author—did I realize how much Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries undercut one of the few opportunities available to women to live in independent (or at least semi-independent) communities where they could obtain an education, practice medicine, and exercise authority both within their convents and, to some extent, within the Church. The dispossessed nuns could not marry without a special dispensation from the king; at the same time, they had no means of support except meager and seldom-paid pensions. In a stroke of the pen, they became dependents and, if their families did not or could not reclaim them, often paupers.
As Kennedy points out, Henry’s attack on the Church formed part of a greater drive to centralize power in the hands of the king. In this drive, the nuns were collateral damage. Yet for women who had devoted their lives to the Church only to find themselves without a home, the destruction of the convents inflicted real harm. And a door once open to England’s unmarriageable daughters closed forever.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Many historical novels explore the highways and byways of Tudor England, especially the marital troubles of Henry VIII, which makes it all the more pleasant when an author approaches that much-visited time and place with a fresh eye. In her The Cross and the Crown series—which currently consists of The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters—Sarah Kennedy looks at Henry’s roller-coaster search for marital happiness and male progeny from the viewpoint of a young nun cast out of her convent and flung into a strange interim state where she can neither practice her religion nor marry without the express permission of the king.
We meet Catherine Havens in 1535. King Henry has recently declared the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the local gentry sees a chance to increase its landholdings at the expense of Catherine’s convent—a development that her abbess in no way supports but cannot prevent. When the convent chapel’s large and valuable altarpiece goes missing, the questions raised by the theft and the attempts to retrieve it sweep Catherine into a secular world that her sheltered background has not prepared her to handle. The situation only deepens in future books, as the king’s constantly shifting moods, loves, alliances, and attitudes toward religion keep his realm in equally constant turmoil—the only certainty that a misstep will lead to torture and execution.
In this atmosphere, no one is safe. Yet Catherine and the other “king’s sisters,” a group that includes his divorced wife Anne of Cleves, strive to care for his children while remaining true to their consciences. That Catherine is also a gifted physician (although a woman cannot bear that title, and the line between medicine and witchcraft at times wears disturbingly thin) offers her both a means of support and a certain protection amid the many dangers that beset even secondary affiliates of the royal court. The King’s Sisters (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2015) opens a window on a world in which the fate of Anne Boleyn is but one reminder of King Henry’s caprice.