Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Listening to Blackfriars

By Nancy Bilyeau


"Catherine, queen of England, come into the court!"

It was the third call made by the crier, commanded by Henry VIII to stop the queen from leaving the tribunal court convened to inquire into the legality of their 20-year marriage. On that day, June 21, 1529, before a vast room occupied by two scarlet-clad cardinals, nobles of the realm and a throng of spectators, Catherine threw herself at the feet of the man who was desperate to divorce her in order to marry another woman.



Immortalized by Shakespeare, Queen Catherine said:
Sir, I desire you do me right and justice; and to bestow your pity on me; for I am a most poor woman, and a stranger; born out of your dominions; having here no judge indifferent, nor no more assurance of equal friendship and proceedings. Alas, Sir, in what way have I offended you? What cause hath my behavior given to your displeasure, that thus you should proceed to put me off, and take your good grace from me?
 After finishing her entreaty to an embarrassed and unmoved husband, Catherine rose, ignored the crier, saying,  "It matters not, this is no indifferent court for me. I will not tarry." And she left. When the queen reached the sight of the crowd of commoners gathered outside, they cheered for her, the sound of it wafting into the chamber she'd left behind.

It is an unforgettable scene, one that has shaken and moved me each time I read Catherine of Aragon's plea to be spared such a humiliating rejection. Perhaps it was the draw of such high drama--the cheers and cries and arguments of The Great Matter--that led me to search that section of London for the place where the royal confrontation took place: Blackfriars. But there is another reason too.

In my novels, The Crown and The Chalice, I write the stories through the eyes of a Dominican novice who lives at the priory of Dartford, in Kent. It was the sole house of Dominican sisters in the kingdom. But the largest male Dominican establishment in England--and one of the most prestigious in all of Europe--was the monastery of friars dubbed Blackfriars. In its vast complex, the upper frater building, 110 feet long and 52 feet wide with two-foot-thick stonewalls, had a second-storey room called the Parliamentary Chamber. Many important sessions of government were held there.

It's natural to be surprised that a friary would possess such a chamber; the medieval monarchs' respect for the large monastic orders--Dominicans, Benedictines, and Franciscans--is not much written about. The first followers of St Dominic arrived in England in 1221. Over the next 50 years, their influence, and their numbers, grew as, pledged to humility and poverty, they stayed in various churches. They were nicknamed "Blackfriars" because of the color of their robes.


Edward I
Edward I was the principal patron of the new Blackfriars friary in London. He made a gift of 200 marks in 1280 to raise the church; construction of all the buildings--cloister, frater, infirmary, chapel, dormitory, vestry, buttery, brewery--lasted at least 20 years. King Edward took its creation so seriously that he extended the western perimeter wall of the city of London so the friars could have more room. Their property extended from the Thames River to Ludgate; the friars, moreover, were not answerable to the mayor or any governmental officials of the city. They were a city within the city.

After the work was finished, King Edward I conducted state business in Blackfriars and even slept there on occasion. Did nights spent on a friar's pallet afford more peace for Edward Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots? Perhaps.

The Dominicans were grateful to their patron, so much so that they staunchly defended his son, Edward II, when no one else did. After Edward II was deposed by his French wife and her allies, the Blackfriars were distrusted and blamed for a time and had to go into hiding.

Edward II coronation

There are no more instances of Dominicans'  dangerous interference with political affairs. On the property, houses were built and lent to those not affiliated with the friars. It became a fashionable place to live, known for its gardens. Sir William Kingston retired to Blackfriars precinct after his years of service managing the Tower of London, dealing with such prisoners as King Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn. The Parr family also had a house in Blackfriars, and Henry VIII's sixth wife, also named Catherine, was born there in 1512. 

When the end came in the 1530s and Henry VIII, denied his divorce by Rome, declared himself head of the Church of England, the Dominicans did not martyr themselves, like the Carthusian monks. The prior, John Hilsey, surrendered Blackfriars without any known objection in November 1538. The 15 friars living there were ejected and the friary officially closed. For his cooperation, Prior Hilsey received a pension of 60 pounds for the rest of his life and could stay in prior's lodgings, which included larders, buttery, kitchen, storeroom, cellar, gallery and other parcels.


Blackfriars as Elizabethan playhouse
Throughout the rest of the 16th century, the buildings and gardens of Blackfriars were sold to various courtiers. Large structures were broken up; later, some of the halls were put back together to become a playhouse for Shakespeare and other Elizabeth playwrights. In the Great Fire of London, that building was destroyed.

I knew very well that nothing of Blackfriars remained when I visited London in the summer of 2011 to research my novel, The Chalice. But it was hard to believe. It had functioned as more than a friary and parliamentary-session house, it was a palace. When Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, visited his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, he stayed not in any of Henry VIII's castles but in the guesthouse of Blackfriars. 

I bought some historical maps and guidebooks at the fantastic bookstore at Museum of London. Armed with my research suggesting some bits and pieces of the medieval complex remained, I headed for the neighborhood early in the evening. I took the underground to--what else?--the Blackfriars station.




I walked the neighborhood, my backpack, stuffed with books growing heavier by the minute. It's not really a tourist area, and the financial workers, ties loosened, drinking beer outside a shiny pub, glanced at me, bemused, as I rounded their corner yet again, a map of the city in my hand.

Tired and hungry, I was about to give up when I heard something very strange on a deserted side street. It was singing, a beautiful hymn of some sort. I followed the sound of their voices to a set of stairs leading up. At the top was a small, leafy courtyard park, and a group of 20 middle-aged men and women gathered, singing. A priest stood by.

I learned that this day, July 26, was St Anne's Day, and they sang to honor her, the mother of the Virgin Mary. I sat on a bench and listened to their program. At twilight, I got up to leave, and saw a scrap of low stone wall and near it a line of centuries' old tombstones on the edge of the park pavement. 

They were the graves of friars of the Dominican Order. The Church of St. Anne was built in 1550, twelve years after the surrender, to serve as the house of worship for those still living in the precinct. One thing they did was gather and protect some of the graves.




I had found Blackfriars.



Touchstone/US
Orion Books/UK
Nancy Bilyeau's novel The Chalice, part of which is set in Blackfriars in 1538, goes on sale February 28, 2013 in the United Kingdom. On March 5, it will be published in North America. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com











4 comments:

  1. What a fascinating story! I did know about Blackfriars as a theatre, of course, but not that this was where Catherine of Aragon had to go through all that nastiness, and how delightful that you arrived on a day when something special was happening!

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  2. I got chills. Serendipity or fate? Lovely, either way.

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  3. Beautiful post, and loved the photos. I must admit that though I am a Dominican Sister, I had not noticed the connections you mentioned to Henry VIII. Fascinating! Thanks for posting it.

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  4. I am behind in browsing this marvelous site but I remember how Nancy told me (when we talked at the HNS conference in late June)that she found Blackfriars. What a marvelous post and story of discovery!

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