Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Tudor England and a Tortured Writer

Nancy Bilyeau
My friend Sandy Morgan is one of the people I test things out on. She’s a fanatical reader of mysteries and thrillers, from P.D. James to Anne Perry. So while visiting her in late 2011, I showed her a draft of the jacket copy for my first novel, The Crown.
She was smiling as she read the jacket copy—good!—until she reached a certain sentence and then she frowned—bad!—and finally even recoiled. “You don’t have torture in your book, do you?” she asked, her eyes filled with concern.

My novels, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, are set in England in the late 1530s and early 1540s, during the tumultuous time when Henry VIII broke from the Church of England because the Pope would not grant him a divorce. The protagonist of the books is Sister Joanna Stafford, who took novice vows at a Dominican priory in Kent.  This was a violent transition that led to rebellion (the Pilgrimage of Grace), executions for treason (Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher), martyrdoms (the Carthusian monks) and a diaspora of nuns, monks, and friars, forcibly ejected from their homes.

And yes, during this period in English history, there was torture, primarily inflicted within the thick walls of the Tower of London. Today’s visitors can see a curated room devoted to the fearsome rack and other devices. It’s quite clearly part of the draw of the Tower, a huge tourist attraction.
The records from history make grim, shocking reading. Before Henry VIII broke with Rome, he was one of the many people in England who respected and revered the Carthusian monks of The Charterhouse in London. This was a special place: the monks lived in small individual cells, rarely speaking, spending their days praying, meditating, and writing. Henry VIII was anxious to obtain the approval of the Carthusians to his religious revolution—that he, the monarch, would be the head of the Church of England and all must take a vow of obedience to his supremacy. But the Carthusians refused to take the vow, and, despite pressure, continued to refuse. In response, they were, in groups over a period of three years, hanged, drawn and quartered, or starved to death while chained to a pillar in the Tower of London. This is the reality of Henry Tudor, a far cry from the romantic bed hopper of popular culture.

My character, Joanna Stafford, is imprisoned in the Tower of London for several months in The Crown, suspected of treason and religious-driven rebellion—the very reasons that put prisoners in the hands of the torturer. So would I incorporate any scenes of it into my books, observed or endured? I struggled with this day and night.

What makes it even more challenging for me is that I personally can’t handle viewing torture and slasher gore in films. I thought that Casino Royale was ruined by Bond’s gratuitous torture. I’ve never seen any of the Saw, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
My books are thrillers but they are also historical fiction, based on years of research. I feel it is critically important not to romanticize the era. And so I did write a short scene, based on contemporary documents and completely driven by character, that includes torture observed in the Tower. And yet, when my friend Sandy looked at me so sadly, I asked my editor at Touchstone/Simon&Schuster to remove reference to it in the jacket copy. I didn’t want to scare off potential Sandy’s. When she eventually read the entire novel, she made no objection to that passage. It was part of the plot; it didn’t repel her.

But there’s another dimension: I blog quite a bit about the historical period in which I set my novels. One post for English Historical Fiction Authors, titled Little Ease: Torture and the Tudors, has more than 11,000 views as of this week. I am not sure what to make of this.  Will many readers actually be drawn to my book because of the violent underbelly of the glamorous Tudor age?  Should I have left that reference to torture on the jacket copy?

I continued to wrestle with these questions, of how much torture and violence to include in my novels. Sometimes I thought about the first novels set in Tudor England I ever read, The Concubine by Norah Lofts and The Sixth Wife, by Jean Plaidy. As much as I adored those writers, the motor of their plots was romantic, not political or theological. They weren’t writing thrillers, certainly. Yet their works were enduring classics.

Norah Lofts, Jean Plaidy and the other historical novelists I respect wrote in a different era, however. C.J. Sansom does not shy away from the violence of the Tudor era in his fine series of mysteries. And Hilary Mantel takes on the question of torture in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The fact that she focuses on Sir Thomas More’s torture of suspected evangelical heretics and completely omits Henry VIII’s sanction of the torture of the Catholics who opposed him—such as the Carthusian monks, who were hanged, drawn and quartered—has brought her criticism. 

In my second book, The Chalice, there are scenes of violence, as Joanna witnesses the victims to Henry VIII and Cromwell. However, most of the tension is psychological. And the book went on to win the Romantic Times Reviewers Award last year for Best Historical Mystery.
The Chalice was also given the “Soft-Boiled Egg” Award from NYC’s Mysterious Bookshop.  The bookshop’s definition: “These are the best in traditional, historical and romantic suspense titles.  Death, yes, but violence plays a very small part in these stories which concentrate more on the character development of those who solve the murders.”

Had I gone Soft-Boiled? Some people have asked if my novels could fit into the category of “cozy mystery,” a genre in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously. Despite my second book having won the RT award, there is no sex in my books, just a great deal of sexual tension. So yes to part of that description. But violence? I certainly don’t wallow in it. Still…there is nothing cozy about the rack, so I fear I may have to say no to inclusion.

In The Tapestry, Joanna Stafford is pulled into the court itself, reluctantly presenting herself to Henry VIII at Whitehall in April 1540. I very deliberately chose that month, for it is when Thomas Cromwell, Joanna’s nemesis, is made earl of Essex and the tensions among the power players at court reach critical boil. The factions are battling to the death. That summer Cromwell lost and was executed at the Tower of London in one of the most harrowing beheadings of the entire Tudor period. And a day later, six men of different religious faiths were executed.
I couldn’t shy away from the true events—they were crucial in the life of my main character. Yet I could not subject my readers to the full gruesomeness, either. 

I decided to portray those bloody days, as I had many others in the mid-16th century, through the eyes of Joanna Stafford, to draw on her horror and fear but also her pity and ultimately her compassion.
I hope that these are the decisions that would make even my friend Sandy proud.

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. On March 24, 2015, The Tapestry was published in North America and the United Kingdom. For more information, go to

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