Writing religion into historical fiction
By Judith Arnopp
It is difficult for us in our modern, largely secular world to appreciate the importance of the church in the medieval and Tudor period. The day itself was governed by prayer, the bells marking the religious hours, each month punctuated with Christian festivals and feasts. Every aspect of life, from diet to sex, was governed by the church. The people, ruled by superstition and fear of offending God, did not question that authority. Heresy was not tolerated. To the medieval mind, life was a penance to secure entry into Heaven. An after-life for the godly was a certainty … the sinner was destined for hell. Satan was a constant torment, tempting the unwary – both a terror and a deterrent.
The characters in my books, most of them historical figures, were bound by the strictures of the church. Margaret Beaufort was renowned for her piety, her goodness and charity and my objective is to make that relevant to my readers, and help them relate to Margaret. Today’s audience may not find the depth of her conviction attractive or believable. I had to be very careful not to bore them to death. Margaret has been portrayed in fiction a lot, sometimes as a flawless saint, while others paint her as bordering on evil. I admire Margaret and in my books I wanted to present a rounded character. I kept her piety but also showed her humanity, her imperfection. She wavers between certainty and fear, success and failure, so although she is devout, she fights an internal battle each time her earthly ambition conflicts with her religious conviction.
|Margaret Beaufort at prayer.|
is no doubt Margaret believed totally in God and the teachings of the church, even
her detractors do not deny that. Although she was ambitious and forward
thinking, I am in little doubt that had she lived to see it, she would have
been outraged by Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the dissolution of the
monasteries. She may have embraced change, and perhaps her concern for the
future of the Tudor dynasty would have led her to condone the putting aside of
Catherine of Aragon, but I don’t believe she’d have approved of Anne Boleyn or
the ‘New Religion.’ As to the arrest and execution of her beloved Bishop, John
Fisher – there is no doubt what she’d have thought of that.
Henry VIII’s quest for an heir, lacking the mitigation of his grandmother, quickly deteriorated into brutality, the resulting uprising in the north creating an often underestimated threat to the crown.
The book I am working on now (working title: Sisters of Arden) is set during the dissolution, the research taking me deep into the complexities of the dissolution, the unimaginable upheaval – which I can assure you were far worse than Brexit.
As a boy Henry was schooled in the importance of the succession and he witnessed first-hand the fragility of heirs. His father, King Henry VII, had three sons but the death of the infant Edward in 1499 was quickly followed in 1502 by the death of the Prince of Wales, Arthur. The loss of Arthur, the king’s beloved heir, was monumental, weakening the Tudor claim and deepening the king’s insecurity. There is some suggestion that relations between the king and Queen Elizabeth had ceased but they lost no time in their quest for another son and she fell pregnant shortly afterwards. For a while things looked promising but the queen died after giving birth to a daughter, who also perished shortly afterwards.
Young Henry, now the Prince of Wales, learned a sharp lesson on the vital import of legitimate sons. It was a lesson he would never forget. As king it was his primary duty to beget an heir, continue the Tudor line yet all his sons born to Catherine of Aragon died, either before birth or shortly afterward. Henry’s options were running out. Left with an ageing queen and just one useless daughter, he knew he had failed in his primary duty. He had not met the expectations of his father and grandmother. As he saw it, his only option was to set Catherine aside in favour of a younger, fertile wife. He would go to any lengths to achieve it.
Unfortunately for Henry, the pope was unwilling to play ball. Encouraged by Cromwell, Henry turned to theology, quoting from Leviticus 20:21
"If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing...they shall be childless,"
while conveniently ignoring Deuteronomy 25:5
“If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be remarried outside of the family to a stranger; her husband's brother shall go into her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.”
Despite Catherine’s claim that her marriage to Arthur had been unconsummated, Henry declared their marriage was unclean. He petitioned the Pope – who refused to grant an annulment, leaving Henry, who greatly disliked to be refused, with no choice. At Cromwell’s suggestion, in an effort to secure the succession and preserve the Tudor dynasty, the king eventually broke with Rome and assumed the title of Head of the Church in England. Henry was a religious man and the action was not lightly undertaken. He was fearful of God, and remained staunchly Catholic until death. By becoming head of the church in England, he dispensed with the pope but did not embrace the new religion. It was his son, the heir for whose sake so many had died, who was the first to fully embrace Protestantism in England.
With Catherine dispensed with, he was free to marry the woman who had held him at arm’s length for years. But, to Henry’s dismay and Anne Boleyn’s detriment, his new queen produced another useless daughter and later, a still-born son. As his relationship with the queen deteriorated, Henry feared history was repeating itself. In need of comfort Henry found Jane Seymour waiting in the shadows – a woman who would prove more biddable than either of her predecessors. Stepping quickly, and surely with some reservation, into the executed queen’s shoes, Jane quickly gave Henry his greatest desire – and produced a legitimate heir for England.
But Henry, having begun at Cromwell’s behest to close and reform the smaller monasteries, could not stop. Despite the protests of his beloved queen and the outcry from the populace, the great monasteries of England began to fall. Monastic treasures were confiscated, the fabric of the great buildings robbed and the monks and nuns dispersed. As Henry’s coffers began to fill, Margaret Beaufort must have been turning in her grave.
it turned out, Henry’s sole legitimate son ruled for only six years, but in
that time he fully embraced Protestantism and initiated years of religious
turmoil in England. His sister Mary, ruling for just five years, did all in her
power to reverse those actions and reintroduce Catholicism. But, with the
monastic lands now in the possession of the nobles who supported her, she could
do nothing to restore the religious houses. She did however reinstate Catholicism
in England for a time, burning dissenters at the stake and earning herself the
unfortunate label of ‘Bloody Mary.’ On her death, Henry’s daughter by Anne
Boleyn began a prestigious forty-five year reign as Elizabeth I.
As an author, my job is to consider the impact of these monumental changes not just on the nobility but on the populace, the common folk who followed like bewildered sheep as religious belief in England see-sawed to and fro. I was delighted to read that some of those sheep did take a stand and attempt to deter Henry from his path. The Pilgrimage of Grace was a movement of the Catholic populace against the destruction of the church and the break with Rome. The rebels amounted to some 30,000, made up of nobles, commoners and disposed religious communities. It was the worst uprising of Henry VIII’s reign, a horrible and bloody chapter in history that is often overlooked.
Of course, change was inevitable and the wave of religious revolution that was already sweeping through Europe was unstoppable. In his quest for an heir, Henry VIII hastened things along in England but the repercussions of his actions impacted the country for years to come. Sisters of Arden will not justify or vilify but subtly illustrate the impact of the dissolution, and the consequences not just for the nobility (many of whom benefitted rather well) but on the ordinary people, the congregation, the monks and the nuns who were cast penniless and unprotected into the secular world.
Margaret Beaufort at prayer: Rowland Lockey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
LLanthony Priory ©JudithArnopp
Judith is the author of ten historical fiction novels set in the medieval and Tudor period. Her books include:
The Beaufort Chronicles (Three book series of the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort)
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers