Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

The Crown is the début novel by American journalist and writer Nancy Bilyeau. Set in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace – and in particular the reprisals that followed its suppression – and against the backdrop of the dissolution of monasteries, its central character is Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory in Kent.

Stafford comes from a noble family whose extensive connections include both those active in the 1536 northern uprising against Henry VIII’s assault on the established church and those who helped crush it. Her decision to enter the priory stems from her deeply private sense of faith, but also from a sense of emotional kinship with Henry’s discarded first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Stafford is an interesting and complex lead character, highly intelligent and independent-minded but also to some extent surprisingly reticent – almost passive in her emotional and spiritual inner life; the explanation for her coolness and sense of detachment comes late in the book and is certainly psychologically satisfying, but still leaves much to be explored in future books.

Bilyeau deftly draws on the tensions and stresses inherent in the highly charged and lethally dangerous scenario to develop a page-turning plot that involves everything from torture in the Tower of London to the search for the mystical Anglo-Saxon object which gives the book its title – by way of rival claims to the throne at a time when Henry VIII was still without a son.

The England of the late 1530s is sharply, if sparingly evoked – for a book about a young woman in a closed religious institution Bilyeau has managed to conjure an impressively nimble and wide-ranging narrative – and she handles her large cast with enviable ease. Moreover, she reaches deep into English history in ways which illuminate vividly and inventively the crises of the period of which she writes and which also open up a sense of how Tudor England saw its place in history which is rarely explored.

Overall, then, The Crown is an exciting historical thriller, sure in its sense of time and place, which delivers both a cracking fast-paced story and a perceptive insight into the perilous, poisonously inter-penetrated world of politics and religion in late Henrician England.

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