Of Convents and Kingship
This essay was originally published on Leanda De Lisle’s blog: http://blog.leandadelisle.com/post/57645698430/i-am-delighted-to-publish-a-guest-blog-by-sarah
When I began writing my first novel, The Altarpiece, I decided to make my main character, Catherine Havens, a nun in a small convent in north Yorkshire. I wanted to create an ordinary world to see how everyday people were affected by the tumult caused by Henry VIII’s divorce and break from Rome in the 1530s. I also wanted to explore how nuns who were not noble or wealthy would react.
My convent, though the order is not explicitly named, is roughly based on the Cistercian order of nuns, who were famous for the “opus Anglicanum,” or English needlework that was prized all over Europe. (My Catherine, alas, is hopeless with her needle, partly because she is naturally left-handed.) The embroidery that English nuns did was so beautiful that they couldn’t produce enough for the markets, and this made their products even more expensive. It was a good position, financially speaking, to be in.
Some of the English convents became quite wealthy, and the historical record does leave a glimpse of a few well-connected nuns. One example is Cecily Bodenham, who moved up from being the prioress of Kingston St Michael to being the abbess of the Benedictine Wilton Abbey just before Henry’s establishment of himself as the head of the English church. Cecily controlled a large amount of land and moveable property, but when the king ordered the dissolution of the convent, she submitted willingly (perhaps a bit too willingly).
The crown seized the properties owned by Wilton Abbey—as well as the church and convent buildings themselves—as well as the gold, silver, and stained glass. And what did Cecily get for her capitulation? She got a large pension of £100 and a comfortable home at Fovant (in Wiltshire). Some of the nuns who were forced to leave the abbey went to live with Cecily, but the record does not tell whether they did this out of affection for their deposed abbess or out of desperation for a way to feed themselves.
Being a nun in pre-Reformation England was a mixed blessing. English nuns followed the same rounds of prayer and chores of reading and/or translating, gardening, caring for the sick, cleaning, and cooking that other European nuns did, starting at two o’clock in the morning! But they were also among the few women in medieval England who had the chance for education—and for real power. And after the convents were closed, that opportunity faded as the sixteenth century progressed, despite the fact that Henry VIII’s two daughters were both queens regnant of England. For most women, power was relegated to family life, where frequent childbirth and the growing power of husbands made it difficult to gain any sort of autonomy. And for poor women or women who came from families of many daughters, the prospects were very bad, because the dowries that could secure husbands were often scanty or non-existent.
Cecily’s story ended well enough—for Cecily. Other nuns who had families that would take them back or suitors who would marry them probably found reasonably satisfying lives after the closing of their convents, as well. The historical record, however, has left few traces of these nuns, and they are the women who fired my imagination as I was drafting The Altarpiece.
My novel, the first in a series, is set in 1535, when Anne Boleyn is still riding fairly high and Katherine of Aragon is under virtual house arrest at Kimbolton. The dissolution is a fresh decision, and many monks and nuns do not yet know what their ultimate fates will be. There were many nuns—how many we will probably never know—who simply disappeared into obscurity. They, for me, became emblematic of the fates of people in dramatically changing political circumstances who seek to live honorable, intelligent lives, using the gifts and skills that they have. The world was shifting. Even the universe was soon to shift, as the Earth was found to be, not the center of God’s creation, but a small planet somewhere in a vast, unknown space. And where was God? Perhaps still looking down on human beings, but, for my nuns, obscured by the growing menace of political power in the form of King Henry VIII.