The Tudor Era

The Tudor Era


This essay first appeared on Kelsey’s Book Corner:

Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. “Bloody Mary” Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare. The Tudor era still looms large in our imaginations, from The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall to Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous.  We love to follow the intrigues, romances, and betrayals of these glamorous historical figures.

The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, and Henry VIII was right at the center of it. His break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. Like us, people in Tudor England struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority. What is the right relationship between religion and politics? What moral authority does the king have? What moral responsibility?

My first novel, The Altarpiece, tries to provide some possible answers. I’ve been fascinated with the Tudors since, as an undergraduate, I first studied Renaissance Literature. Shakespeare, of course, but also Sir Thomas Wyatt, who supposedly had a close—some would say too close!—relationship with Anne Boleyn. As a PhD student, I studied the ways that Renaissance poets wrote about women, because the “woman question” was central to the changing world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As a professor of English literature and creative writing, I teach this literature, but my imagination has always wandered to the “blank spaces” in history. My creative life began in poetry, but in researching the history of the church in England, I came across a curious “hole” in the record: what happened to the nuns in England after the dissolution of the convents. The monks could become priests in the new church or find other professions. But what about the women?

The story could only be told in prose. I chose a real place—Mount Grace in northern Yorkshire—and peopled it with fictional characters. I changed the religious house to a convent and the story took off. Catherine Havens, my main character, is a young nun, but she is also strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman. But the realm of Henry VIII stretches far, and she must either submit to the new order or risk her life. When the altarpiece in the church goes missing, Catherine also finds herself at the heart of a mystery that will uncover more secrets than she expects.

The Altarpiece is the first in a series that will follow Catherine’s journey into the Tudor court. Will she betray her beliefs, conceal them, or change them altogether? She’s still young, and there are two royal daughters—one Roman Catholic and the other Protestant. There are dangers still ahead, and it will take all of Catherine’s wits to keep her head on her shoulders!

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