Of all the historical eras, the Tudor history is one that I’ve always found fascinating and not least because of the multiple marriages and deaths of the wives of King Henry VIII. Of course I’m not alone in this fascination for Tudor times as there are multiple books written on the subject.
This book focuses on the dissolution of the monasteries that happened during Henry’s reign from 1536-1540.
‘ The Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus separating England from papal authority. This and subsequent acts gave the Crown the authority to disband monasteries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriate their income and dispossess them of their assets. Via The National Archives Here
The book gives us a fictional account of the lives of the nuns and clergy who were living at the abbey at Shaftesbury Abbey at the time of the dissolution.
In particular, one young nun Agnes Peppin, daughter of a butcher sent to the Abbey after giving birth to an illegitimate child. Her mother had a connection to the FitzJames family which ensured Agnes a place as a postulate nun in the abbey.
The protagonist Agnes Peppin was well read, intelligent and had good clear handwriting skills from her tutorage by a nun and was eventually given a place at the Abbey with the Abbess Zoache, as a transcriber of events that the Abbess herself was forced to endure as she slowly and reluctantly signed over the assets of the abbey to a representative of Thomas Cromwell, who had a major part in the dissolution of monasteries throughout England, Wales and Ireland. It is not a wise person who mentions the name of Thomas Cromwell in Ireland. The Irish have long memories of his sacking of many of their monasteries and religious houses.
Agnes learns that she enjoys reading the old texts in the library at the Abbey and is horrified at their fate, when all goods from the abbey, including the old texts were either destroyed or passed onto Thomas Cromwell eventually whose greed was eventually the end of him when he himself was tried for treason and executed. His representative and also feathering his own nest in the process was Sir John Tregonwell He served as Judge of the High Court of Admiralty from 1524 to 1536.
Tregonwell developed carnal designs on Agnes Peppin and was intent on making her a mistress of his. Agnes managed to escape that particular fate and her journey to home and around the south meeting up with several other nun acquaintances and friends was an interesting part of the book. Tregonwell also set up an agreement with the Abbess, whereby she lived in one the appropriated farms of the Abbey’s lands on the condition that she sign a document giving him legal ownership on her death.
The image that always comes to mind whenever I think of the time of dissolution is the ancient Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire where the beautiful but skeletal remains of the abbey are much visited now by tourists and illuminated at night. We passed it many times on our travels to Devon.
The book The Butcher’s Daughter is a fascinating, atmospheric glimpse of that time period, retold with some wonderful prose and threw me straight into that period of history. The stories of the fate of the abbey sisters and the clergy therein are at times heartbreaking and at others quite funny.
Although I found the book a bit slow at the beginning it did then keep my interest completely until the end.
I would highly recommend this to historical fiction lovers who will no doubt, as I was, be totally captivated by the book.
According to historian George Bernard
There were nearly 900 religious houses in England, around 260 for monks, 300 for regular canons, 142 nunneries and 183 friaries; some 12,000 people in total, 4,000 monks, 3,000 canons, 3,000 friars and 2,000 nuns. If the adult male population was 500,000, that meant that one adult man in fifty was in religious orders.
With thanks to Chaam Zeinafor my ARC copy of the book
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