Where did all the women go under Henry VIII?
Tintern Abbey. Fountains Abbey. Rievaulx Abbey. Their ruined stones remind us, even today, how grand the religious houses of England were. Most people know that Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and convents in the 1530s, and seized or destroyed many of their treasures. Many scholars have written the stories of evicted monks—some became priests in Henry’s new church and some returned to secular life, taking wives and starting families.
But what happened to the nuns?
If you search for the women, you find almost nothing. There are a few records of ex-nuns forming schools or households together in East Anglia, but most of them simply disappeared from history. It’s as though these women never existed.
My mind began to work on this empty space. And one day, standing amid the stones of Fountains Abbey, I asked myself: what if there had been a small, rather neglected convent at Mount Grace, where a young woman lived, an orphan destined to take the veil after her early hopes of going to court were dashed? And what if she found herself caught between the king’s new orders and her God’s?
And what if the symbol of her religious faith was the convent’s beautiful altarpiece . . . and one day someone stole it?
I saw her in my mind’s eye as though from memory: Catherine Havens, with her healing herbs. She loves learning. She loves reading. She loves the image of Mary, Mother of God. She also, however, finds—as the king’s soldiers close in and a new owner takes possession of the convent—that she may love a man, too.
What would she choose—to defy her king and lose her head? Or defy her vows and lose her hard-won freedom?