The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s first novel, The Crown, is a historical mystery set during the Tudor period, beginning just before the death of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour. The story revolves around the search for a legendary crown which is said to possess special powers. Our heroine and narrator is Joanna Stafford, niece of the third Duke of Buckingham, and a novice nun at Dartford Priory.

When Sister Joanna escapes from the priory and travels to London to witness the execution of her cousin for treason she is unfortunate enough to be captured and taken to the Tower of London. Here she is visited by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who sends her back to Dartford on a mission to find the mysterious Athelstan crown which he believes could be hidden somewhere within the priory. As Joanna learns more about the crown she starts to wonder why the Bishop wants it so desperately, but with her beloved father also imprisoned in the Tower and threatened with torture, it seems she has no choice but to obey Gardiner’s orders…

This was one of the most entertaining Tudor novels I’ve read and a real page turner from beginning to end. When the search for the Athelstan crown began I was concerned it might become too much like The Da Vinci Code but that didn’t happen. The mystery of the hidden relic was an important part of the story, but not at the expense of the character development or the wonderful sense of time and place that the author creates.

I really liked Joanna Stafford. One of the things that makes her such an interesting narrator is the constant conflict between her commitment to the vows she’s required to take as a nun and her desire to do whatever is necessary to help her father, even if it means breaking some of these vows. The fact that she sometimes struggles with her conscience and doesn’t always make the right decisions helped me to believe in her as a character.

As a member of one of England’s most powerful families, Joanna meets a lot of famous names from the period including Katherine of Aragon, Anne and George Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Princess Mary, but unlike a lot of Tudor novels this one doesn’t really focus on the court. Instead we are given lots of details on life in a priory and what it was like to be a nun during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when on the orders of Henry VIII the religious houses of England, Wales and Ireland were closed down, destroyed or sold. This is not something I knew much about before starting this book and I had no idea what happened to the monks and nuns after the monasteries were dissolved, so it was good to learn more about the process and what it involved. But although there’s plenty of history here, it really serves as a background to the plot and never slows the story down at all, so I think this book could be enjoyed by people who like thrillers and mystery novels as well as by fans of historical fiction.

The Crown is a complete story in itself, but the way it ended left me feeling that there were more adventures ahead for Joanna. Apparently Nancy Bilyeau has written a sequel and I’m already looking forward to reading it and entering Joanna’s world again.

I received a copy of The Crown through Netgalley

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