Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Crown includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nancy Bilyeau. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Joanna Stafford, an aristocratic young novice, learns that her rebel cousin Margaret Bulmer is condemned by King Henry VIII to be burned at the stake, she makes the decision to break the sacred rule of enclosure and run away from her Dominican Order to stand at her cousin’s side.
Arrested for interfering with the king, both Joanna and her father are sent to the Tower of London. During their imprisonment, Joanna meets Stephen Gardiner, the powerful Bishop of Winchester, who allows her to leave the Tower on one condition: that she return to Dartford Priory to search in secret for the lost crown worn by Saxon King Athelstan. In order to save her father, Joanna must become a pawn in a struggle between religious extremes. As she faces challenges on every front, Joanna must determine whom she can trust and how far she is willing to go to protect a life that she loves.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What does Joanna Stafford’s decision to flee the Datford priory to attend Margaret’s execution reveal about her character? Why is she willing to compromise her position to bear witness to her relative’s last moments? Why do you think Nancy Bilyeau chose to begin her novel with Joanna’s journey to Smithfield?
2. “[Margaret Bulmer] sought to harm no one. She and the others wanted to preserve something, a way of life that has been honored for centuries. Which gives comfort to the poor and the sick. They rebelled because they felt so passionately about their cause.” Why do the Catholics in England face political persecution at the hands of Henry VIII and his government in the aftermath of his annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon? Why does Joanna risk exposing her own religious beliefs in her spirited defense of Catholic rebels like her cousin Margaret Bulmer?
3. Were you surprised when Geoffrey Scovill came to Joanna’s aid in Smithfield? To what extent does his decision to protect her seem selfless? Do you agree with Geoffrey that Joanna’s decision to attend the execution as an unescorted gentlewoman was ill-advised? If you were in a situation in which a relative in the last moments of her life depended on you for spiritual sustenance, would you take the same risks? Why or why not?
4. “I said nothing. There was no amount of abuse, no device of torture, that would ever make me disclose what had happened on the single day that I spent in royal service ten years ago.” Why does Joanna choose to conceal this? How does that episode affect her ability to trust men? How does this moment of foreshadowing by the author affect your feelings when the facts of Joanna’s having been sexually abused by George Boleyn are revealed much later in the novel?
5. How would you describe Joanna’s experience in the Tower? Why does Lady Kingston’s servant, Bess, agree to help Joanna try to make contact with her father, Sir Richard Stafford, in the White Tower? What do you think of Joanna’s experiences in the Tower tunnels and chambers? What aspects of those scenes were especially evocative for you?
6. Why does Bishop Gardiner seek out Joanna in the Tower? Why does he use Joanna’s father to blackmail her into doing what he asks? What does her decision to go along with his requests and deceive the prioress at Dartford, among others, reveal about her sense of filial obligation?
7. How does Joanna’s intimacy with the disgraced and dying Katherine of Aragon make her vulnerable to Gardiner’s quest for King Athelstan’s missing crown? What complicated motives might be behind Gardiner’s quest for the crown?
8. On her deathbed why does Katherine of Aragon urge Joanna to “protect the secret of the [Athelstan] crown” for the sake of her daughter, Mary? Why does Katherine choose to reveal the possible existence of the Athelstan crown to Joanna?
9. How does Joanna Stafford get along with Brother Richard and Brother Edmund, when they all return to Dartford Priory on Gardiner’s orders? How does their friendship change when Joanna discovers that Edmund sends her letters to Bishop Gardiner and Richard oversees their exchanges and facilitates their work? Why does Gardiner choose not to tell the three of them that they are all working for him, searching for the Athelstan crown at Dartford?
10. How does Lord Chester’s murder affect the mood at the priory? How does Joanna’s and Edmund’s interpretations of the Dartford tapestries yield to uncovering both the murderer and motivation?
11. How does the revelation of the Athelstan crown’s existence—and that it contains thorns from the crown Jesus wore—make Joanna’s quest more urgent? When Bishop Gardiner discovers Joanna and Edmund disguised at the Howard home, why doesn’t he punish or attempt to detain them? What role does Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, play?
12. Did you like the ending of The Crown? What do you think will become of Joanna? What could her return to Dartford suggest about her aspirations—spiritual, romantic, and otherwise?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In The Crown, Joanna Stafford exhibits a kind of family loyalty that many readers may relate to. She sacrifices her spiritual calling to show support for her condemned cousin, takes many risks to save her father, and accepts her much-younger stepbrother as her flesh and blood on her father’s deathbed. Who in your life has made sacrifices out of loyalty to you? How have you demonstrated your loyalty to others?
2. Are you interested in visiting or learning more about Dartford, England, where the Dartford Priory was located? Visit http://www.dartford.gov.uk/dartford/history.htm, to read up on the history of the village of Dartford. This Web site features a tremendously detailed historical time line and useful information about the priory and its role in the town’s medieval history.
3. “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Have you heard this famous mnemonic about the wives of Henry VIII? What possibilities were there for noblewomen in this era? How did members of your book club feel about the portrayal of women—whether it was Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Joanna Stafford, Princess Mary, Lady Kingston, or Bess? What did it mean to be a woman at this time in England? Of the many women featured in the novel, which did your book club most admire, and why?
A Conversation with Nancy Bilyeau
What attracted you to historical fiction as a genre and to the Reformation era in English history?
Historical fiction was my first love. I found it so exciting to enter those richly imagined worlds of the past. When I was a teenager, I voraciously read books by Jean Plaidy; Mary Stewart; Susan Howatch; and, of course, Daphne du Maurier. I’d read in bed, and nod off with my head in a book—literally. In the middle of the night, I’d turn over and the book would fall off the bed. My parents got used to that thumping noise. In college and afterward, my tastes broadened to all sorts of fiction, but I always loved discovering a finely crafted historical, whether it was Mary Renault’s or Robert Graves’s enthralling books on the ancient world or the beautiful stories of A. S. Byatt. Part of it is that I am fascinated by history, with examining the differences in the daily lives of people who lived long ago, their values and beliefs, and yet finding how we are the same. Love, fear, greed, hope, ambition. A well-done historical novel makes you aware of the contrasts as well as of those uniting threads. The historical novelist closest to my heart is Norah Lofts, who wrote about everyone from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Hortense de Beauharnais. In fact, I named my daughter Nora in tribute to her.
I picked England’s Reformation for my first novel because the Tudor period is so mesmerizing. I’ve been fascinated with sixteenth century Europe for many years. I am especially drawn to writing about a society under great strain—and what greater turmoil could be caused than the English church’s split from Rome? There were grisly executions, imprisonments, and martyrs from every level of society, a serious rebellion, and the king’s excommunication by the Pope. Yet Henry VIII would not stop. I found myself wondering what happened to the thousands of nuns and monks and friars who lost their way of life, some of them turned out into the world with no idea of what to do or where to go. It’s hard to imagine living through that kind of rupture.
How did you first become interested in the Athelstan crown? How much is known about Athelstan’s reign?
The early Middle Ages intrigue me. Because of the comparative scarcity of written sources, we don’t know that much about the kings of England in the first millennium—not as much as we know of the Plantagenets and certainly not as much as we know about the Tudors. In my research I was struck by how few books have been written about Athelstan, who accomplished such significant things in his sixteen-year reign. I wanted to shine a light on this pious and fearless warrior king known as “the English Charlemagne.” Yet there is a swirl of mystery around Athelstan that extends to the crown. Historians believe he received objects of great religious value from Hugh Capet, the father of the French royal line. The crown of thorns has been mentioned as well as the lance of Longinius and other relics of the Passion. But exactly what the relics were, and what became of them, no one is sure. We don’t even know where the historic Battle of Brunanburh took place—or what happened to Athelstan’s corpse! He requested burial at Malmesbury Abbey instead of with the rest of his family at Winchester. But the tomb, which you can still see today, is empty. Makes me shiver.
The Crown reads like a sixteenth century thriller. To what extent did you make a conscious decision as a writer to depart from the more usual romance-driven plot for a female protagonist?
I love thrillers almost as much as I love historical fiction. Weaving a story that is filled with suspense is what I wanted to do. And it was important to me that a woman be at the center of the book and that she be very active. I wanted my protagonist to be strong and intelligent and courageous—and yet vulnerable. She isn’t always allowed the luxury of developing a sound plan and carrying it out in a clear way. Events move quickly in The Crown and people’s motives aren’t clear. Joanna has to think on her feet.
Having said that, Joanna has romantic feelings in this book, though her being a novice sworn to chastity obviously complicates what she does with such feelings.
A lot of people die in The Crown—many of them in gruesome ways. Did you regret killing off any of the characters? Why or why not?
I’m afraid that I’m a bit of a sadist. I think it’s thrilling to write a strong death scene. I believe a book of this sort must feature high stakes and plenty of shocks and twists. I wasn’t always planning to kill off Brother Richard. But then, while in the thick of it, I suddenly decided that he had to be murdered too. I was jumping around the room, waving my arms over my head, yelling: “Brother Richard is going to die!” Probably anyone witnessing this would have questioned my sanity.
I suppose the person I most regret making an end of is Margaret Bulmer, and that is because she really was burned to death at Smithfield in 1537 for high treason.
She had young children and by all accounts loved her husband. And she didn’t do anything that other wives of rebel leaders weren’t doing. Yet Margaret was singled out among the women for a terrible death. It’s very disturbing.
You open the novel with a scene of a religious execution, while the conclusion alludes to a sense of religious optimism—that perhaps the old ways and Catholic faith will not be permanently extinguished in England. Can you talk about how you chose to begin and end The Crown?
Believe it or not, in the earliest draft of my book I wanted Joanna’s going to Smithfield to take up two or three pages, to be a prologue. But I spent a lot of time researching Margaret Bulmer and Smithfield and the Pilgrimage of Grace, and all the things that happened in 1537, and when it came time to send my main character, Joanna Stafford, to Smithfield, it just exploded in my imagination.
When writing the end of the book, I had so much faith in the intelligence and spirituality and innate kindness and humanity of both Joanna and Edmund, that I felt optimism about their futures and their ability to navigate whatever challenges lay ahead.
In the course of your research, did you come across facts or details from this era that surprised you or that you wished you could have incorporated into the novel?
Oh, everything surprises and enthralls me about the Tudor period! The hardest thing for me is leaving things out that I think are interesting. There are contemporary comments about Margaret Bulmer’s execution—people who found it baffling or especially sinister—that I wish I could have included in the book, but there was no way to do it. A monk named Robert Johns said, “It is a pity she should suffer . . . but let us speak no more of the matter, for men may be blamed for speaking the truth.” That phrase has rolled around in my head for years: “for men may be blamed for speaking the truth.”
Joanna Stafford is a compelling protagonist who seems unwilling to think of herself in the terms her society dictates. Did you have any historical figures in mind when you created her?
No, Joanna is not based on anyone. She is her own person. She wouldn’t have it any other way. But of course I am always interested in reading biographies of strong women who have defied the challenges of their time.
What led you to leave Bishop Stephen Gardiner’s motives for possession of the crown unclear?
I know what Bishop Gardiner intended to do, but Joanna never did, and it is important that I honor the secret, as strange as that may sound. I don’t despise Stephen Gardiner as much as some assume I do. In a way, I feel sorry for him. He was the architect of his own anguish. Gardiner was an eager young lawyer who helped Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry with their legal arguments for the King’s Great Matter. Gardiner watched the country split from Rome and progress toward Protestantism with dismay that must have bordered on panic. He attained great power, but he spent most of his adult life enmeshed in deadly factional struggles, such as when he nearly succeeded in destroying Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr. During the reign of Henry VIII’s Protestant son, Gardiner was himself imprisoned in the Tower of London. He then came into his own under Mary Tudor, but of course that is when the fires of Smithfield burned the highest.
Gardiner is one of the biggest monsters in the influential writings of the Scottish Protestant leader John Knox. And yet I saw glimpses of a different man in my research. When Gardiner was in his twenties and studying at Cambridge he passionately loved music and theater—he acted in a play by Plautus. And he was a loyal friend. How do we reconcile this young man with the bishop who presided over the persecution and eventual burning of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the Protestant martyrs?
Can you describe a bit of your research into Catholic religious institutions in England? How many monasteries and priories survived when England became an officially Protestant country under the Tudors?
There are many wonderful books about the Reformation. And the dissolution of the monasteries has been written about and depicted onscreen. But what was more challenging to research was the daily life in a priory or monastery in sixteenth century England. At the time nuns did not keep diaries or write letters describing their everyday experiences. But I kept at it and found a few books and papers written by some very determined and resourceful scholars. There was one letter I read from Elizabeth I’s reign that was very moving. It described a monk who had been displaced and found a new life for himself suddenly seeing another ex-monk from the same monastery, out on the road, decades after the dissolution. And they were so joyful at seeing each other again that they wept while standing together in the road. I have to say, that brought tears to my eyes as well.
Henry VIII dissolved 825 religious communities, raising more than 1.4 million pounds, which has been calculated as worth 481 million pounds in today’s money. His treasury was nearly empty before this enormous transfer of wealth to the monarchy. Only a few monasteries escaped Cromwell’s attention to detail, such as St. Benet’s Abbey in Norfolk. Sir John Fastolf, reportedly the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff, was buried there.
What remains of Dartford Priory today?
Henry VIII demolished the priory so that he could build a royal manor house on the twelve acres of property. All that remains of England’s single order of Dominican nuns are the stone foundations of the wall that surrounded the priory.
Anne of Cleves lived in the manor house after her divorce. It remained a crown property and Elizabeth I slept there in 1572. In 1606 James I gave Dartford to Robert Cecil. It belonged to various families until the eighteenth century, when it was torn down. There is an engineering works on the property now, but the manor house’s impressive gatehouse still stands and is owned by the Dartford Borough Council. There is a museum in town and a strong sense of pride in the priory.
Several archaeological digs have yielded exciting finds, including window glass, coins, rings, part of a nun’s leather belt, and a silver pomander. I like to think the pomander dangled from the waist of a prioress.
If you could cast any actress as your heroine in a movie version of The Crown, who would it be and why?
I never thought of any particular actress while creating Joanna. There are some talented women who could portray her, though I don’t want to single anyone out in case a movie is made and that actress doesn’t get the part! Among the actresses of past generations, I think Vivien Leigh and Merle Oberon had the kind of dark fire a woman would need to play Joanna. And Deborah Kerr played a great nun in Black Narcissus!