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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
Published by Touchstone
ISBN: 978-1451626865
Published September 2012
Trade paperback, 409 pages

It is the year 1537 in England. Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic Church and people are being burned at the stake for being papists. This is the setting for an exciting debut novel with an unlikely heroine, a 27-year-old Dominican novice nun, Joanna Stafford. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, she leaves her home, Dartford Priory, to support her cousin, Margaret, and witness her burning at the stake in London as a rebel papist.

After witnessing her cousin’s death, Joanne and her father are captured, put in the Tower of London and accused of interfering with the king’s justice by the Duke of Norfolk who is intent on destroying Joanna and all her aristocratic family. Enter wily Stephen Gardiner, Catholic Bishop of Winchester, architect of Henry’s divorce from Katharine of Aragon. He offers Joanna freedom and the life of her father if she will agree to find a religious relic, the lost crown worn by Saxon King Athelstan - “the Athelstan Crown”- and give it to him. 

The crown, the legend and the curse attached to it will “change the lives of every man, woman, and child living in England – and beyond” according to the Bishop. Joanne must find it or forfeit her father’s life. She agrees to return to the nunnery where the Crown is supposedly hidden and is begrudgingly accepted back into the religious community. Strange things begin to happen and an important representative of the King is murdered by someone using the Priory’s reliquary as the murder weapon. 

When a friar is arrested for the murder, Dartford Priory is put under suspicion. This is the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries by the King and Cromwell. The priory with its nuns and friars risks being dissolved. There are plenty of twists and turns in the story as Joanna and Brother Edmund, a friar who is attracted to her, pursue the mysterious Crown, first at Dartford then at other abbeys. Secret passages and doors in abbeys are traversed and hints woven into tapestries are examined in pursuit of the Crown. 

A brief historical look at the origins of religious relics and the reasons people revere such objects as fingernails, hair, teeth of dead “saints”, the nails that pierced Jesus, etc, helps the reader to understand why the Crown of Athelstan is so important. Anyone who has read and/or watched “The Da Vinci Code” may clue into it.

I very much liked Joanna’s character. She is a strong woman who is willing to risk her life to save what she most values, including her religious calling. She is attracted to Brother Edmund but her novice vow of chastity complicates matters. She is intelligent, courageous and quick-thinking, more suited to an aristocratic life than to a nunnery. On the other hand, it is through Joanna that we understand why the quiet, contemplative life of a cloistered nun is so special in their search for spirituality and usefulness to God.

The story is based on authentic events. Margaret Bulmer really was burned at the stake for high treason. And as everyone knows Henry VIII was a real king. The monasteries and religious houses really were dissolved during the Reformation. This is historical fiction at its very best.

The author paints a vivid picture of 16th century life. We see, smell and hear life in the castles, inns, hovels and the Tower of London. History, intrigue, murder, villainy, mystery, mysticism, religious vocation, love – all are covered in this not-to-be-missed book!

Note: This book is rated C = clean read.

Reviewed by Sandra 

Disclosure: I bought this book and was not told how to rate or review this product.

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