What Happened to the Tudor Nuns?
This essay originally appeared on Sheila Deeth’s blog: http://sheiladeeth.blogspot.com
Who doesn’t love the Tudors? Or love to hate the Tudors? Lust, power, betrayal, the church, the state—they embody it all. Henry VIII’s six wives have been the source of novels and films for a long time, and we never seem to get tired of watching Anne Boleyn win the king then lose her head. Katherine of Aragon is always a tragic heroine—or was she lying all along about her marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur? And then there are the daughters. Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” was the first real queen regnant in England, and her half-sister Elizabeth ruled over the island’s “golden age.”
As a Renaissance scholar, I’ve always been interested in the “big story” of the Tudors, especially the literature—Shakespeare!—that their era inspired. But what about the rest of the country? England was also home to countless monks and nuns who made their livings inside the religious houses. These places were sources of great wealth and power—and one of the few institutions in which a woman without social standing could hope to get an education and hold some authority. When Henry VIII broke from Rome, the monks had opportunities. They could remake themselves as private men or they could become priests in the new Church of England (provided that they took the Oath of Supremacy, of course!).
But what about the nuns?
My writing has always been focused on the “other story” or the blank spaces in the historical record. My first novel The Altarpiece brings to life one of these women, far in the North of the country, who has settled her life in the convent and now must face an uncertain future. My nun’s name is Catherine Havens, and she’s smart and capable and a bit stubborn in her desire to have both a life of the mind and a life of the body. Like a true Renaissance woman, she wants to make herself up as she goes along—in exactly the way she wants. It’s not going to be easy for her, but I want to follow her through the sixteenth century and see what would happen to such a woman.
For me, the past is never a fixed mark from which we have flown forward. It’s a vast pool where what we are started to emerge, and it’s full of unexplored spots. To reimagine the past is to bring us forward to a different place, changed and filled with wonder. I do try to keep as closely to the historical record as possible, using my research skills to uncover the details of food, clothing, and speech patterns. I want my imagined world to be as real as possible, and the reality of the Tudor era included the royalty, so they will be there. I want to dive into the mind and hearts of the forgotten voices of Tudor England, though, and bring to life the women and men who suffered and celebrated, who misbehaved and triumped, under the golden realm of the Tudors. They were the superpower of their time, and we still have much to learn from them.