Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Tomb of a 17th Century Wife

No doubt due to my morbid nature, tombs and effigies have long fascinated me, the older the better. I find myself in a friendly competition of sorts to find the most unusual ones with my friend Beth von Staats, a fellow historical writer, who brought to my attention the singular tomb statue of Richard Rich, despicable courtier to Henry VIII. Rich is lying on his side, propped up, staring at the living while holding a book in the most unnerving way.

So imagine my delight in coming upon an image of a woman wearing Elizabethan dress and not just lying on her side, propped up to face us, but cradling a skull! The statue is to be found in the Lady Chapel of Exeter Cathedral.

I dove into research on the woman in question, Lady Dorothy Dodderidge. There was little to learn. She was the daughter of Sir Amias Bampfield, a member of Parliament in Devon and the second wife of John Dodderidge, a justice of the king's bench considered incorruptible. He earned the nickname "the sleeping judge" because of his habit of closing his eyes while listening to a case. The couple had no children. She died in 1617, well into the reign of James I.

Sir Walter Ralegh
I did discover that Dorothy possessed an interesting first husband who preceded the esteemed Dodderidge: Sir Edward Hancock, devoted secretary to Walter Ralegh, entrusted with carrying his seal. Hancock traveled to Guyana with Ralegh in 1595--the courtier was attempting to win back the favor of Queen Elizabeth I by discovering gold for England (mostly for himself). None was found of course, but a book did come from it: The Discovery of Guiana.

After Ralegh was arrested in 1603, the 43-year-old Edward Hancock committed suicide in what may have been a failed suicide pact with Ralegh, who tried to stab himself to death with a table knife in the Tower.

I asked Mathew Lyons, author of a wonderful book on Ralegh called The Favourite, what he thought about the possible pact. "Not an explicit one for sure," he responded. "I tend to be a bit cynical about Raleigh's attempted suicide.  It smacks of opportunism. It would be pretty cruel to make someone kill themselves to make your own fake suicide look more realistic."

But, Mathew says, another Ralegh associate in Guiana, Lawrence Keymis, also killed himself. Did Ralegh have a dark charisma? "Yes, that would be my reading of it," says Mathew. (His twitter handle is @MathewJLyons, follow him!)

Sir Edward Hancock's estate was given to his widow to administer. Shortly after, Dorothy married the sleeping judge, who was older than 50 at the time. Nonetheless, he outlived her by 11 years, even marrying a third time, but choosing to be entombed with Dorothy in a niche under a Gothic arch. His monument consists of his recumbent effigy--he's not propped up on his side-- sculpted in alabaster, resting on a chest-tomb. He's wearing scarlet robes with a court roll in his hand.

A view from above of John Dodderidge

We can't know what Judge Dodderidge had in mind when he ordered the designs for The Lady Chapel. Dorothy is cradling a memento mori, which in Latin means: Remember that you must die.

Full length of Dorothy Dodderidge

It might have been the fashion of the time, for there exists a famous portrait of 1615 by Frans Hals, called Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull.In researching memento mori, I came across this observation: "Well known literary meditations on death in English prose were part of a Jacobean cult of melancholia that marked the end of the Elizabethan era." That surprised me. I'd read in other places that many in England welcomed the ascension of James I, exhausted by the 45-year-long rule of the Virgin Queen. It was more complex, clearly.

Franz Hals painted at least two portraits incorporating skulls

Read Beth's excellent post on Richard Rich here.

And here's his statue:


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a historical mystery trilogy published by Simon & Schuster: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. The series is available in North America, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

THE TAPESTRY book launch makes it onto SHELF AWARENESS

On Wednesday I celebrated the release of my novel, The Tapestry, with 100 friends and readers at The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca. I shared the launch with M.J. Rose, bestselling author of 15 novels who has just come out with The Witch of Painted Sorrows.

I really enjoyed the Q&A section, answering questions about my writing routine and whether the characters have grown over the series.

It was a lovely evening, and, the next day, a picture from the party made it onto Shelf Awareness as Image of the Day. Go here!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Downfall of Katherine Howard

Katherine appeared briefly in The Crown, for a few chapters in The Chalice, and now she plays a large part in The Tapestry.

I have a different opinion of Katherine than most other historical novelists--and nonfiction writers too.

She has been the dirty joke of the Tudor period, but I feel there is a lot more to Henry VIII's fifth queen.

See the post here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Alison Weir, Deborah Harkness, Simon Toyne, Aly Monroe, Samantha Norman and More Endorse THE TAPESTRY

I'm honored to share with you the authors who've read advance review copies of THE TAPESTRY and offered these quotes of endorsement:

“Nancy Bilyeau's passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!” – Alison Weir, author of The Marriage Game

“In Joanna Stafford, Bilyeau has given us a memorable character who is prepared to risk her life to save what she most values.” --Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches

"The Tapestry moves like a modern thriller whilst at the same time managing to conjure up a Tudor England that feels very real and authentic in all its intrigue, mystery and menace." – Simon Toyne, author of the Sancti Trilogy

“Nancy Bilyeau’s The Tapestry is a delight, both informative and entertaining. Joanna Stafford, its central character, is a wonderful invention and her eyes on the court of King Henry VIII give it a completely fresh perspective.” -- Samantha Norman, The Siege Winter

"Nancy Bilyeau’s The Tapestry continues her excellent incursion into the turbulent and high-stakes world of the Tudor Reformation in England. It was a time when principle and faith had to do battle with arbitrary power and personal fear to keep surviving. The narrative voice draws us into the story from the first page and drives us forward to the end. What is most striking about the book is how it cleverly intertwines the history and political intrigue in the court of Henry VIII with an account of an intensely personal drama and romance. A vivid story, well and clearly told, which will be enjoyable for a wide variety of readers." -- Aly Monroe, author of Ice Light and Black Bear

 "A rip-roaring Tudor adventure from Nancy Bilyeau! Novice nun turned tapestry weaver Joanna Stafford returns to the court of Henry VIII. She's that great rarity of historical fiction: a fiercely independent woman who is still firmly of her time. A mystery as richly woven as any of Joanna's tapestries." -- Kate Quinn, author of Lady of the Eternal City

“Bilyeau’s writing is effortless, vivid, gripping, and poignant, bringing Tudor England to life with sparkling zest. If you want to see the reformation from the side of the English people rather than the self-serving court, it is tough to do better.” – Dominic Selwood, author of The Sword of Moses

"The Tapestry takes its history seriously, but that doesn't stop it from being a supremely deft, clever and pacy entertainment. This is Nancy Bilyeau's most thrilling - and enlightening - novel in the Joanna Stafford series yet." —Andrew Pyper, International Thriller Writers Award winner of The Demonologist and The Damned

"A master of atmosphere, Nancy Bilyeau imbues her novel with the sense of dread and oppression lurking behind the royal glamour; in her descriptions and characterizations...Bilyeau breathes life into history."—Laura Andersen, author of The Boleyn King

"In The Tapestry, Nancy Bilyeau brilliantly captures both the white-hot religious passions and the brutal politics of Tudor England. It is a rare book that does both so well." –Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife’s Tale

“In spite of murderous plots, volatile kings, and a divided heart, Joanna Stafford manages to stay true to her noble character. Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau’s novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape.” -- Erika Robuck, author of Hemingway’s Girl

“These aren't your mother's nuns! Nancy Bilyeau has done it again, giving us a compelling and wonderfully realized portrait of Tudor life in all its complexity and wonder. A nun, a tapestry, a page-turning tale of suspense: this is historical mystery at its finest.” -- Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A TAPESTRY Party Online Monday Night!

I will be celebrating with my readers and writer friends on Facebook Monday, March 22nd, from 6:30 to 7:30 pm on a Facebook page created for this by Amy Bruno, who runs the Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours.

Stop by and say hello!

The Facebook address is here:

It should be fun...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

THE TAPESTRY is now available on amazon UK!

I am thrilled to share that as of an hour ago, The Tapestry went live on amazon UK with a pre-order link for the ebook:

The book is on sale officially on April 24th. But pre-order it now!

Thank you, to all my wonderful readers in England, Ireland and Australia :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

What Did They Think of the Eclipse of 1140?

One morning, instead of eating his breakfast, my 16-year-old son, who fancies himself a meteorologist (he has three weather sensors connected to the balcony), worked the TV remote, looking for stories on the solar eclipse. Seen only in a small part of Europe for a few moments, the moon did indeed eclipse the sun.

Sophisticated equipment is needed to look at an eclipse:

Later, I found this video on youtube of the eclipse as seen in Cornwall on March 20, 2015:

But it made me think of what it must have been like to see another eclipse which took place, eerily enough, on March 20th....but the year was 1140.

Here is what William of Malmsbury wrote about it:

"There was an eclipse throughout England, and the darkness was so great that people at first thought the world was ending. Afterwards they realised it was an eclipse, went out, and could see the stars in the sky. It was thought and said by many, not untruly, that the king would soon lose his power."
To the people of this time, it must have been an incomprehensible event, that could only be a portent of some tragedy.

Only seven years earlier, the chronicler John of Worcester wrote of another vanishing of the sun:

"In 1133 a darkness appeared in the sky throughout England. In some places it was only a little dark but in others candles were needed. ... The sun looked like a new moon, though its shape constantly changed. Some said that this was an eclipse of the sun. If so, then the sun was at the Head of the Dragon and the moon at its Tail, ... King Henry left England for Normandy, never to return alive."

How much more will we understand another millennium from now about what makes the planets move and the sun darken?


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Supremacy and Survival: Book Review by Stephanie Mann

I'm excited to see that Stephanie Mann, author of the excellent book Supremacy and Survival, reviewed THE TAPESTRY, the third in my trilogy.

Stephanie is among those wistful that I'm not continuing the life and adventures of Joanna Stafford after the year 1541. She writes:

"I can't help thinking that Joanna's story should have another reason to go to Court so we can see her view of the end of Henry VIII's reign. She should be the witness of the last days of Henry VIII: the Prebendaries Plot, Katherine Parr bringing the three Tudor children together, the final Howard family fall, etc. Joanna Stafford is not just a fascinating character and actor in Bilyeau's fictional conspiracies, but she is a lens through which to view the Tudor Court and England after Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, dissolved the monasteries and the friaries, and changed his subjects' religious lives."

To read Stephanie's entire review, go here.

Alison Weir Endorses THE TAPESTRY!

I'm ecstatic to report that Alison Weir, the bestselling author of more than a dozen biographies and historical novels, has contributed the following quote for THE TAPESTRY:

"Nancy Bilyeau's passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!"

I've been reading Alison's work since The Princes in the Tower (1995) and consider her an inspiration. I believe I own every single one of her books--in hardcover. :) Several months ago I devoured her biography of Elizabeth of York.

We "met" over email three years ago, and she graciously recommended my novel THE CROWN, saying, "A stunning debut. One of the best historical novels I have ever read."

I'd love to re-post my interview with Alison as she was publishing her novel A Dangerous Inheritance. She's fascinating on Plantagenet and Tudor history. To read, go here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

THE TAPESTRY Will Be Published in the UK!

Very pleased to share the news that THE TAPESTRY found a UK publisher. It will be available as a print book in bookshops and libraries, and an ebook will be sold on Amazon as of March 24th.

It's been a long, difficult wait to find a publisher. It means so much to me because my three books are set in England and I love the country. I wrote the novels out of that love and fascination for Tudor England.

Turnaround Publishing is my new partner and I look forward to the adventure!

Friday, March 6, 2015

A March Madness of Historical Fiction

According to the various online dictionaries, "March Madness" has many meanings:
    "The period of the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, with the majority of the competition set in March." Source: No, that's not what I mean 
    "The month of the government of Canada's fiscal year end (March 31), when departments traditionally rush to spend the remainder of their budgets in order that they not experience budget reductions the next year." Source: wikipedia. That's really not what I mean
  1. "The main part of the breeding season of the European hare." Source: wikipedia Oh, come ON
           "The most wonderful time of year." Source: urban dictionary Yes!
 For the purposes of this blog post, March Madness is a time when readers can be transported across centuries and across continents into the stories of five different women. Some are from history, some are fictional, but all are enthralling. :)

These five historical novels constitute a very special March madness. Among your choices, an empress, a queen, a fashion designer, a witch and a nun:

Lady of the Eternal City, by Kate Quinn. (Go to Quinn's website here.) Publishes March 3rd

Rome, 2nd Century: Elegant, secretive Sabina is the wife of Hadrian, Rome's brilliant and sinister Emperor, and she must struggle to keep the peace between her husband and the battered warrior Vix, who was her first love.

"An epic, sexy romp," Publishers Weekly 

"A feast for historical readers," RT Reviews

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran. (Go to Moran's website here.) Publishes March 3rd.

India, 19th century: The story of Queen Lakshmi--India's Joan of Arc--who against all odds defied the mighty British empire. The novel is told from the viewpoint of Sita, the queen's most favored companion and most trusted soldier in the all-female army.

"Filled with fascinating historical details about a subject that is not often portrayed, the novel looks at both the rights of women and the conflict between the British army and India"-- Library Journal

"A riveting and addictive glimpse of that era"--Historical Novel Society

Mademoiselle Chanel, by C.W. Gortner (Go to Gortner's website here) Publishes March 17th

France, 20th century: A novel of the life of Coco Chanel, the ambitious, gifted laundrywoman's daughter who revolutionized fashion, built an international empire and became one of the most influential and controversial figures of the 20th century. 

"Gortner brings history to life in a fascinating study of one woman's unstoppable ambition," Booklist

"In this deliciously satisfying novel, C.W. Gortner tells the rags-to-riches tale of how this brilliant, mercurial, self-created woman became a legend." -- Christina Baker Kline

The Witch of Painted Sorrows, by M.J. Rose (Go to Rose's website here.) Publishes March 17th

France, 19th century:  A woman named Sabine flees to her grandmother's Paris mansion to escape an abusive husband, but what she finds there is even more menacing. Sabine explores the forbidden night world of Paris, discovering both an occult underworld and her true nature as artist and lover.

"Rose's new series offers her specialty, a unique and captivating supernatural angle, set in an intriguing belle epoque Paris, a perfect match for the author's lush descriptions, intricate plot, and mesmerizing storytelling" -- Kirkus

"A haunting tale of possession" -- Publishers Weekly

The Tapestry, by Nancy Bilyeau (Yes, this is me! And you can find my website home page here) Publishes March 24th

England, 16th century: Joanna Stafford, an aristocrat and former novice of the Dominican Order, is summoned to the court of King Henry VIII because of her talent at the tapestry weave. Struggling to stay ahead of a formidable enemy, she becomes entangled in court politics when she tries to free her beautiful young friend, Catherine Howard, from the king's tightening web.

"Up to her ears in court intrigues, religious persecutions, beheadings galore and Henry VIII's volatile nature, Joanna shines, remaining ever vigilant." -- Historical Novel Society

"Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau's novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape." -- Erika Robuck


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Last Nun of the Priory

By Nancy Bilyeau


One spring day in 1539, twenty-six women were forced to leave their home— the only home most had known for their entire adult lives. The women were nuns of the Dominican Order of Dartford Priory, in Kent. The relentless dissolution of the monasteries had finally reached their convent door. Having no choice, Prioress Joan Vane turned the priory over to King Henry VIII, who had broken from Rome.

What the women would do with their lives now was unclear. Because Dartford Priory surrendered to rather than defied the crown, some monies were provided. Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, the architect of the dissolution that poured over a million pounds into the royal treasury, had devised a pension plan for the displaced monks, friars and nuns. According to John Russell Stowe’s History and Antiquities of Dartford, published in 1844, Prioress Joan received “66 pounds, 13 shillings per annum.” She left Dartford and was not heard from again—it’s thought she lived with a brother.
Sister Elizabeth Exmewe, a younger, less important nun, received a pension of “100 shillings per annum.” This was the amount that most Dartford nuns received. The roaring inflation of the 1540s meant that such a pension would probably not be enough to live on after a few years—but there was never a question of its being adjusted.
Some of the thousands of monks and friars who were turned out of their monasteries in the 1530s became priests or teachers or apothecaries. But nuns—roughly 1,900 of them at the time of the Dissolution--did not have such options. “Those who had relatives sought asylum in the bosom of their own family,” wrote Stowe with 19th century floridity. Marriage was not an option. In 1539, the most conservative noble, the Duke of Norfolk, introduced to Parliament “the Act of Six Articles,” which forbade ex-nuns and monks from marrying. The act, which had the approval of Henry VIII, became law. The king did not want nuns in the priory but he did not want them to marry either. There was literally no place for them in England.
Sisters who could afford it immigrated to Catholic countries to search for priories that would take them in. Others lacking family support sank into poverty. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, wrote: “It is a lamentable thing to see a legion of monks and nuns who have been chased from their monasteries wandering miserably hither and thither seeking means to live; and several honest men have told me that what with monks, nuns, and persons dependent on the monasteries suppressed, there were over 20,000 who knew not how to live.”
Such wandering through England would not be the fate of Elizabeth Exmewe. Enough is known of her life from various sources to gain a picture of a determined woman.
Dartford Priory, founded by Edward III, drew women from the gentry and aristocracy, even one from royalty. Princess Bridget Plantagenet, youngest sister of Elizabeth of York, was promised to Dartford as a baby. She lived there from childhood until her death in 1517. Elizabeth Exmewe was typical of most of the other nuns—she was the daughter of a gentleman, Sir Thomas Exmewe. He was a goldsmith and “merchant adventurer,” serving as Lord Mayor of London.

It was common for brothers and sisters to enter monastic life together, though at separate places. Elizabeth’s brother, William Exmewe, was a Carthusian monk and respected scholar of Greek and Latin at the London Charterhouse. He was also one of the monks who in 1535 refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII, despite intense pressure. The king had broken from the Pope because he could not get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Once the king became head of the Church of England, it was imperative that all monks shift their loyalty to him. But Exmewe would not compromise his beliefs, and he was punished with a horrifying death: He was hanged, disemboweled while still alive and quartered.

No nun in England was executed besides Sister Elizabeth Barton, a Benedictine who prophesied against the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Barton was arrested, tortured, tried, and hanged for it. Elizabeth Exmewe did not publicly criticize the king nor seek martyrdom. Four years after the death of her brother, she was turned out from Dartford Priory.
Historians studying the dissolution have noted a remarkable fact: in several cases, nuns attempted to live together in small groups after being forced from their priories. They were determined to continue their vocations, in whatever way they could. Elizabeth Exmewe shared a home in Walsingham with another ex-nun of Dartford. “They were Catholic women of honest conversation,” said one contemporary account. A half-dozen other Dartford refugees tried to live under one roof closer to Dartford. Meanwhile, Henry VIII had their priory demolished. He built a luxurious manor house on the rubble of the Dominican Order, although he’s not believed to have ever slept there. It became the home of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after he divorced her in disgust in 1540.

Following the reign of Henry’s Protestant son, Edward VI, his Catholic daughter, Mary I, took the throne in 1553. Mary re-formed several religious communities as she struggled to turn back time in England and restore the “True Faith.” Elizabeth Exmewe and six other ex-nuns successfully petitioned Queen Mary to re-create their Dominican community at Dartford, which was vacant after the death of Anne of Cleves. They moved into the manor house, built on the home they left 14 years earlier, with two chaplains. The convent life they loved flourished again: the sisters spent their days praying, singing and chanting; gardening; embroidering; and studying.
But the restoration didn’t last long. When Mary died and her Protestant half-sister took the throne, one of Elizabeth’s goals was extinguishing the monastic flames. In 1559 Elizabeth’s first Reformation Parliament repressed all the re-founded convents and confiscated the land.
And so the Dartford nuns were ejected again, this time with no pensions. Mary’s widower, King Philip of Spain, heard of their plight, and paid for a ship to convey the nuns of Dartford and Syon Abbey to Antwerp, in the Low Countries. Paul Lee, in his book Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval Society, has charted the sisters’ poignant journey after leaving their native land.  
After a few months, a new home was secured for them. For the next ten years Elizabeth Exmewe lived “in the poor Dutch Dominican nunnery at Leliendal, near Zierikzee on the western shore of the bleak island of Schouwen in Zeeland.” Several of the English nuns were entering their eighties, with Elizabeth being the youngest. All suffered from illness and near poverty. The Duchess of Parma, hearing of their hardships, sent an envoy to the Dartford nuns. He wrote: “I certainly found them extremely badly lodged. This monastery is very poor and very badly built…. I find that these are the most elderly of the religious and the most infirm, and it seems that they are more than half dead. “ Despite his dire observances, the nuns themselves expressed pride in their convent. Their leader, Prioress Elizabeth Croessner, wrote a letter to the new pope, Pius IV, saying they strove to remain faithful to their vows and were interested in new recruits!
In the 1560s the nuns died, one by one, leaving only Elizabeth Exmewe and her prioress, Elizabeth Croessner. Destitute, the pair moved to Bruges and found another convent. They lived through a bout of religious wars, with Calvinists marching through the streets.
The onetime prioress of Dartford, Elizabeth Croessner, died in 1577. Now Elizabeth Exmewe, the daughter of a Lord Mayor and the sister of a Carthusian martyr, was the only one left of her Order. In 1585, she, too, perished in Bruges and was buried by Dominican friars with all honors. Elizabeth Exmewe is believed to have lived to 76 years of age.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of historical thrillers published by Simon & Schuster in North America and nine foreign countries. The main character is a Dominican novice. The Crown, published in 2012, was an "Oprah" pick. The Chalice, published in 2013, won the award for Best Historical Mystery last year. The Tapestry will be published on March 24, 2015.

Anyone interested in obtaining a review copy, please contact Nancy here.