By Nancy Bilyeau (Guest Contributor)
In the town of Dartford, a 40-minute train ride south of London Charing Cross, stands a building called the Manor Gatehouse. Inside you will find a registration office to record the births, marriages, and deaths that occur in Kent. This handsome red-brick building, fronted by a garden, is also a popular place to throw a wedding reception.
But as I looked at the Gatehouse one day, I thought about who stood on this same piece of ground five centuries ago. Because it was then a Catholic priory—a community of women who constituted the sole Dominican order in England before the dissolution of the monasteries. And the priory is where I chose to tell the story of my novels.
There are all sorts of ways to write historical fiction. The books can range from reimagined stories of famous people of the past, such as novels written by Philippa Gregory and Conn Iguldden, to tales of purely imagined characters in a different time, such as Cold Mountain and The Historian (although Dracula may at this point seem as familiar to us as Great-Uncle Vlad, he was never alive—or undead!).
In my trilogy, the main character, Sister Joanna Stafford, is fictional. As are Geoffrey Scovill, Brother Edmund, Brother Richard, Sister Agatha and many more of the secondary characters. But Lady Margaret Bulmer, whose burning at the stake for treason begins The Crown, did exist. So did Bishop Stephen Gardiner; Sir William Kingston; Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and his children, Mary Howard, Dowager Duchess of Richmond, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; Dartford’s Prioress Elizabeth Croessner; Malmesbury’s Prior Roger Frampton; Henry and Gertrude Courtenay, the Exeters; Sir Walter Hungerford; Hans Holbein the Younger; and let’s not forget Thomas Cromwell. And then comes the A-list of the Tudor court: Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, Anne and George Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and of course, the rock star himself, Henry VIII. They’re very much in the mix of my three novels.
Why did I not confine myself to imaginary creations of the late 1530s and early 1540s? The truth is because as much as I loved crafting my own characters, the real people were irresistible. I’ve been reading about them and thinking about them since I was a teenager. So when the time came for me to write my books, there was just no way that they wouldn’t be invited to the party.
In 2012 I spent a week in London and Dartford. It took me five years to research and write the first novel in the series, The Crown. I worked away in New York City, where I’ve lived for a long time. I often sought inspiration in the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But nothing can substitute completely for the real place, even if the “real” place existed centuries ago.
I spent nearly every waking hour running around London. You have only to take a tour of the Tower of London given by a dry-witted yeoman warder or peek into the Tower gift shops (yes, plural; I counted three) to know that this is a place that mines its history well. The Tudors, the Plantagenets, the Stuarts, the Hanovers and the present House of Windsor… the gang’s all here, each with a fascinating—if a trifle well worn—story to tell.
My day in Dartford awakened different emotions. The priory was a vital part of the town’s life for 180 years. It was torn down after its prioress reluctantly surrendered to the will of King Henry VIII, who destroyed the abbeys and priories of England in his break from Rome. That dissolution is a key part of the plot to my books.
The Gatehouse you see today, the one that today offers charming wedding packages, did not exist during the time of the nuns. It was raised shortly after the sisters were expelled. King Henry VIII demolished the priory and built a very expensive manor house for himself. He never slept there, although his least troublesome ex-wife, Anne of Cleves, did. Years later, Anne’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth I, did too. It was exciting to see it and I pleaded with the woman who runs the registration office to snap my picture in front of the Gatehouse’s main entrance.
But the only physical evidence left of the house of Dominican nuns is the stone wall that ran along the property’s perimeter. On a cloudy July afternoon I walked it as the cars whizzed by, and I felt humbled. I had researched priory life, with the help of many books and articles and the guidance of the wonderful staff at Dartford Borough Museum, located near the center of the town. I knew something of the ritual of their daily lives.
Joanna Stafford may not be real. But nuns and novices and prioresses and friars took vows at Dartford, they lived and worshipped and sang and laughed and suffered and died on the other side of this 600-year-old wall. There are no mugs bearing their faces on sale at any gift shop. But their lives were significant all the same. I paid them silent homage in my solitary walk.
And I hope in my small way I’ve done them justice.
Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown and The Chalice—an O, The Oprah Magazine pick in 2012 and a 2014 RT Book Reviews Best Historical Mystery respectively—is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently executive editor of DuJour magazine. A native of the Midwest, she graduated from the University of Michigan and now lives in New York City with her husband and two children.