Monday, September 3, 2012

The Will of the Prioress

By Nancy Bilyeau

In the town of Dartford, a 40-minute train ride from London Charing Cross, stands a building called the Manor Gatehouse. Inside you will find a registration office to record the births, marriages, and deaths that occur in Kent. This handsome red-brick building, fronted by a garden, is also a popular place for a wedding. “It looks amazing in the official pictures,” gushed one satisfied bride in a website testimonial.

But when I first walked up that path to the Gatehouse, I was filled with awe, and definitely not because I was planning a wedding. I was thinking of who stood on this same piece of ground six centuries ago. Because it was then a Catholic priory—a community of women who constituted the sole Dominican order in England before the dissolution of the monasteries—and it is where I chose to tell the story of my first novel, The Crown.

This is where Sister Joanna Stafford, my half-English, half-Spanish protagonist, prayed, and sang, and wept, and struggled.
The Gatehouse of Henry VIII, today

I didn't create a Catholic novice as a protagonist for my book because of a religious or political agenda. A lifelong Tudor fanatic, I felt I had no choice but to set a story in the 16th century. I wanted to write about someone different, and so I plunged into researching the life of a young nun at the most tumultuous time in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. What would it be like to have your way of life taken from you--would you try to stop the destruction, or accept the inevitable? 

Supreme head of the Church

At one time, like many others, I accepted a series of "truths" about life in the time of Henry VIII: people did not often live to old age; women were rarely educated outside of the royal family or high aristocracy; women outside of the court of the king, and the carnal grasp of the king, were not as interesting to our modern sensibilities; the monastic life was in decline, most likely corrupt, and deserved to be ended; and nuns were either forced to take vows or ended up in convents because they were not as "good" as the women who married--ie, they were rejects. 

My years of research revealed to me how wrong all of those stereotypes were.

The true story of one woman's life, Prioress Elizabeth Cressner, illuminates some of the complex truths.   A "good and virtuous woman," she was the leader of the priory in Dartford for 50 years; she died in December 1536 at somewhere between 75 and 80 years of age, just as Henry VIII was putting intense pressure on the monasteries to submit to his will.

Dartford Priory had been founded with great care by Edward III, although the idea of establishing a house for Dominican sisters is attributed to Edward II. Did he feel some obligation to carry out the wish of his deposed father? Impossible to know. Once the pope approved the founding of the order, four Dominican sisters were recruited from France, for whose expenses 20 pounds was paid from the Exchequer.

Edward III
The English priory soon established a reputation for "strict discipline and plain living." Dartford was known for the value put on education and contained a library of books. It also drew aristocratic nuns, even royalty, most famously Princess Bridget of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

Artist's conception of the priory in 15th century

Prioress Elizabeth Cressner took on her tasks with great energy and a bold temperament. She executed wills for people in the community and appointed priests to celebrate Mass in the parish church and masters to oversee the local almshouse for the poor. She administered much of the property owned by the priory, even though it was technically the job of the friars assigned there.

In the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell was turning a speculative eye on the monasteries. Undaunted, Prioress Elizabeth sent Henry VIII's minister a series of firm letters over a recent appointment of a certain Friar Robert Stroddel as president at the Dartford community. The prioress found him unkind and even dishonest.
Thomas Cromwell

The prioress wrote Cromwell:
"And now of late I understand {Stroddel} hath purchased letters of your good lordship under our most gracious founder's seal to be president here the term of his life, by feigned and untrue suggestion, for as much as he hath governed the office so well, as he himself reporteth."
Despite her fiery letters, the prioress was unable to dislodge Friar Stroddel. When Elizabeth Cresssner died, the convent at Dartford was still intact. There was no corruption found at the priory by the king's investigators. But her successor, Joan Vane, was forced to surrender it just the same to the king, and all of the nuns were expelled with small pensions and no place to go. The king did not award the priory to a favored courtier, as he usually did. He took the priory for himself, ordered it demolished and a luxurious manor house raised on the property. Henry VIII never slept there, though his ex-wife, Anne of Cleves, lived there for a time.

The manor house was given to Sir Robert Cecil by King James I, and passed through various hands before being demolished by the 19th century. All that remains is the red-brick gatehouse, although that was built by Henry VIII. Nothing is left of the priory itself, except for the stone wall that ran along its perimeter.

Original priory wall, seen at right

One a cloudy afternoon, I walked the perimeter of the centuries-old wall, as the cars whizzed by. There are no Dartford Priory gift shops, as exist at the carefully preserved Tower of London. No mugs for sale bearing the face of Prioress Elizabeth Cressner. But her life was significant all the same.

I paid her homage on my solitary walk.


Nancy Bilyeau has written a trilogy of historical thrillers taking place in the reign of Henry VIII. The Tapestry was published on March 24, 2015 in North America and the United Kingdom. For more information, go to


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