Henry VIII's Palace of Whitehall is the last place on earth Joanna Stafford wants to be. But a summons from the king cannot be refused.
After her priory was destroyed, Joanna, a young Dominican novice, vowed to live a quiet life, weaving tapestries and shunning dangerous conspiracies. That all changes when the king takes an interest in her tapestry talent.
With a ruthless monarch tiring of his fourth wife and amoral noblemen driven by hidden agendas, Joanna becomes entangled in Tudor court politics. Her close friend, Catherine Howard. is rumored to be the king's mistress, and Joanna is determined to protect her from becoming the king's next wife—and victim. All the while, Joanna tries to understand her feelings for the two men in her life: the constable who tried to save her and the friar she can't forget.
In a world of royal banquets, jousts, sea voyages and Tower Hill executions, Joanna must finally choose her future: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier.
The Tapestry is the final book in a Tudor trilogy that began in 2012 with The Crown, an Oprah magazine pick. Don't miss the adventures of one of the most unforgettable heroines in historical fiction.
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Read an Excerpt
I was once told that whenever I felt suspicious of someone’s intent, no matter how faintly, I should trust that instinct, but since the man who issued this advice had himself tried to kill me, and nearly succeeded, it was difficult to know how much weight to give his words.
I felt this distrust in a place where all others seemed at ease, as I followed a page through the tall, gleaming rooms of the Palace of Whitehall, filled with the most prosperous subjects of King Henry VIII. To anyone else, it would seem the safest place in all of England.
But not to me. Never to me.
Only eight days earlier I’d received the summons, calling me back to London, the city where I had seen much cruelty and death. I read it in my small house on the High Street of Dartford, where I had come to serve as a novice at its priory of Dominican sisters and hoped and prayed to prove my worthiness to take vows and become a Bride of Christ. But, two years ago, by the king’s command, our exquisite priory was torn down, and I was cast out with the others.
“This missive is from the king’s council, Sister Joanna,” said Gregory, pushing it into my hands as if it were a loaf pulled fresh from the oven that was singeing his fingertips. Gregory was a clerk in the town. He married the vintner’s daughter just after Candlemas Day, and his face soon thickened, like a hunting dog turns fat and sleek when brought into the house at season’s end. But Gregory, no matter his station now, once served as porter to our priory and continued to take an interest in my welfare. He still called me Sister. When a letter came to town bearing the royal seal, Gregory insisted on delivering it to me.
I thanked him and closed the door on the bright noise of the High Street. My fingers heavy with dread, I found a knife to break the beeswax seal. It was light brown, with these words circling the figure of a man on horseback, holding sword and shield: “Henry the Eighth, by the grace of God, of England and France and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, and on Earth, of the English and Irish Church, Supreme Head.”
I smoothed the sheet of thick, creamy vellum onto my table. “Touching on the matter of the commission of tapestry, Mistress Joanna Stafford, daughter of Sir Richard Stafford, is hereby summoned to the Palace of Whitehall, in the third week of April in the Year of Our Lord 1540, to wait upon the Keeper of the Great Wardrobe of His Majesty, King Henry the Eighth, and receive the King’s command.”
I was dismayed but could not say I was surprised. I knew full well that the king took an interest in my tapestries. Bishop Stephen Gardiner had told me, with his usual gleam of bland menace, that King Henry was pleased with The Rise of the Phoenix, the first tapestry I wove on my own after leaving the priory. I sold it to Anne of Cleves, who came to our kingdom to become the fourth wife of Henry VIII, and she made a gift of it to him. Said Bishop Gardiner, “His Majesty dislikes everything about his new queen, with one exception: the present of the phoenix tapestry.”
A week after Bishop Gardiner told me that, the first letter from the king’s court appeared. Unsigned and unsealed, it was a simple request for my presence at court to speak of tapestries.
If I were of a more sanguine humor, I might find comedy in this. Henry VIII wished to commission a tapestry from a woman who’d treasonably opposed him, not once but twice. The king now lived because of what I did—or, rather, what I failed to do. Yet he would never know any of this history, never realize how tightly our fates were intertwined. No, to Henry VIII, I was but a distant cousin with an intriguing talent for weaving.
And the truth was, I did have another tapestry planned. I’d ordered a drawing from Brussels of The Sorrow of Niobe but had not yet stretched it on the loom. I did not wish to sell this one to the royal couple. For that and other reasons, I failed to respond to the first royal summons. Beset by a troubled marriage and rumors of foreign invasion, His Majesty King Henry VIII would forget about me, surely?
It seemed he would not.
Not only was the second summons worded more forcefully, it was signed. As I stared at the precise strokes of ink slanting across the vellum, my throat tightened. Henry VIII did not write the command himself, of course. One of his secretaries composed the words. But the paper was signed by a different hand. The script was precise and clear, with each curved letter slanted to precisely the same height: Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal. The king’s chief minister, the man whom we, the faithful of God’s Holy Church, hated and feared above all other men, even the king.
I was in need of advice.
The summons carried a legal import, but I could not bring this matter to the constable of Dartford. Geoffrey Scovill was recently bereaved and still suffering. Three months ago, I stood with him beside the grave of his wife, Beatrice; weeks later, I attempted to offer further condolences, but was met with cold silence. I could not blame him, considering my role in his circumstances. He came to Dartford because of me. I knew that he’d wished to marry, and at times Geoffrey evoked strong feelings in me—equal parts longing and shame—but we often quarreled and clashed. It was Edmund Sommerville, a onetime friar in the Dominican Order, sensitive, erudite and kind, whom I chose to marry. Geoffrey then wed Beatrice, my friend and fellow novice, who had loved him from the first moment she saw him. Now Edmund was gone and Beatrice was with God. Constable Scovill and I were both alone, and lonely, but we did not turn to each other.
What should I do about the royal summons? I prayed for hours that day and far into the night, touching no food or drink. If only that feeling of certainty would fill me, the grace of God’s undoubted wisdom. But it didn’t come; I was unworthy. When morning came, I hurried up the High Street to Holy Trinity Church. There, the way forward could be revealed.
I always took a seat near the chantry chapel. Like a hand that by force of habit drifts to the ridge of a scar, my gaze lingered on the back chantry wall once beautified by a mural of Saint George. More than a year ago, the painting was whitewashed over, at the same time that the candles were snuffed and the altar stripped, but if I squinted a bit, I could still detect the outline of the saint on horseback, sword raised to fight the dragon.
Father William Mote, he who must disseminate the New Learning, preached a dry, cautious sermon that day. Ever since Parliament passed the Act of Six Articles, England no longer followed Martin Luther’s lead away from the Catholic Church. Yet, to my disappointment, there seemed no hope of returning to obedience to Rome, either. We now took some unfathomable middle path. From priests and landowners to humblest tinkers and carpenters, no one in Dartford could discern where we headed as a kingdom. But we did know that any mistake in religious practice, no matter how small, could bring savage royal punishment: a chopped hand was the best consequence.
Father William’s voice rose at the end of his sermon. “Not enough of you have opened the Great Bible kept at this very altar by instruction of Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer.” He pounded on the platform, his fist nearly striking the massive book resting atop it. This, at least, he was sure of. “You dishonor God, the creator of all things, if you do not shun evil and ignorance and idolatry for the profound wisdom of Scripture, written here for you in English.”
There were a few sighs, a few shrugs. The people of Dartford were a timid lot, willing to obey the king, but only a handful had been taught to read. Many could write their own names and add sums. Long stories of Scripture were beyond them.
“Christ deliver us,” whispered a woman to my left.
It was Sister Eleanor, unable to suppress her disgust over Father William’s outburst. When the king’s men closed our priory, six of the sisters, unwilling to forsake their vocation, formed a community in a house outside town. Sister Eleanor did not officiate over them as prioress—we no longer had a prioress—but she was the oldest of the sisters.
After Mass, I beckoned to her in the back of church. Startled, Sister Eleanor took a moment to follow me. She was uncomfortable in my presence, and always had been. My disposition was too riotous for her severe spirit. But it was that severity I now required.
Outside the church, it was raining, and we pressed against the wall so that its slanted roof would protect us. I slipped her the summons.
Sister Eleanor read it in seconds and made the sign of the cross.
“The king would commission you?” she asked.
“It seems so, Sister.”
“But your tapestries are a God-given talent,” she said. “To adorn the walls of the apostate king with one of your gifts . . . it is not to be borne.”
“To refuse to serve King Henry would bring criticism,” I pointed out. “Men of the court could follow. Even soldiers.”
Sister Eleanor clasped my hands. Her fingertips, callused from the labor of the nuns’ farm, dug grooves into mine, but I did not flinch. “Leave your house in town and come to us, Sister Joanna,” she urged. “You know you should live among us again—we are only safe if we are together.”
“I would not carry such risk to your house, Sister.”
Sister Eleanor said, “You would show yourself to no one, as if you were still enclosed. The king and his men would not know where you were.” Still gripping my hands, Sister Eleanor stepped back, heedless of the rain spattering her capped head. “But should they find you, we will be at your side. God in His Mercy will protect us. We will not submit.”
I gently pulled my hands from hers, murmuring, “I thank you for your valuable counsel, Sister. Christ and the Virgin be with you.”
Before I’d reached the other side of the High Street, leaping over the spreading puddles, my decision was made. I could never expose the sisters of Dartford to danger. Such hot, eager anger in Sister Eleanor’s eyes—it sprang up because she had never witnessed firsthand the wrath of the king. I had.
To face royal condemnation alone—could I do that? Certainly. I had done it before. But would I? No. For there was a pressing reason to conform to the royal will. Arthur. I wanted to once again raise the orphaned son of my cousin Margaret Bulmer.
I’d written letter after letter to Margaret’s brother, the head of our family, Lord Henry Stafford, asking that Arthur, now eight, be returned to me in Dartford. I’d sent the boy north to Stafford Castle before leaving England. Now, despite the fact that he was a difficult child to raise, I missed Arthur greatly. His ready laughter, his determined step, I ached for them in my silent house. As much as it was possible to plan in a time of chaos, I planned to lead a quiet life: weave tapestries, honor friends, submit to God’s will. It would be an honorable existence; after all, I was the daughter of Sir Richard Stafford and Isabella Montagna. Living without honor was unthinkable. But there would be no more dangerous quests or conspiracies. My fervent hope was never again to hear the word prophecy, nor to find myself among spies, seers, and necromancers. That was the world of fear, of darkness. I wanted only light.
In devoting myself to another person, to Arthur, if I could bring that about, I would be truly blessed. I wanted to serve Arthur, too, in a way that only I, the guardian of the secrets of his parentage, could. It was so important that he learn how precious his mother was, learn of her kindness and her courage. I feared that as Arthur grew older, the horror of her death—burned to death for treason in Smithfield before the mob—would overshadow all.
At first, Cousin Henry refused to return him—stating again that he had never understood why my father placed Arthur with me, an unmarried woman of no prospects, rather than with Henry’s own large family—but of late I’d detected a softening. And he let slip in one letter that Arthur missed me. If I were the holder of a royal commission in tapestries, the head of my own budding enterprise, my cousin might relent. He hated trade, but he hated failure more.
“Your storm and fury”—that is how Beatrice once described my nature. But, for the sake of that small boy, I would quiet my storms. Now that I’d been forced to accept the triumph of King Henry and Thomas Cromwell, there would be no cause for anger. I’d travel to Whitehall, see no one but the wardrobe master who managed the king’s tapestries, and slip back home.
Thus I resolved to go on this journey. How could I know that it was not a journey but a dance? I was taking the first step forward on a vast dance floor, and on the other side, a partner would emerge from the darkest shadows to meet me—a partner who hungered for nothing more than for my death.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Tapestry 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.
Former Dominican novice Joanna Stafford occupies a precarious position—one that is all the more dangerous because, unbeknownst to Henry VIII, she has twice been implicated in plots to overthrow him. So when she is called to Whitehall Palace to oversee Henry’s valuable collection of tapestries, she is understandably wary. But even in her new position of favor, Joanna has much to worry about, and her worst suspicions are realized when an assassin makes an attempt on her life minutes after she sets foot in Whitehall. Meanwhile, her naive and beautiful friend Catherine Howard is being courted by the king, despite his still being married to Anne of Cleves.
When Joanna discovers that some of her closest allies have hatched a sinister plot with occult underpinnings, she is thrust into another high-stakes game of life and death that will take her from the highest offices in the Holy Roman Empire to the executioner’s scaffold on Tower Hill in an attempt to discover, once and for all, the life she is meant to lead.
Questions and Topics For Discussion
1. Upon her arrival at Whitehall, Thomas Culpepper tells Joanna that Henry VIII “desired a court built on chivalry.” Would you describe Hans Holbein as chivalrous? What about Culpepper? Cromwell? The king himself?
2. Though she is certainly a “woman of surprises,” as King Henry calls her, Joanna finds ways to use men’s assumptions about a woman’s role to her advantage. How does being a woman give Joanna advantages in court? Compare what Joanna does to the ways Catherine Howard uses her femininity as a tool for advancement.
3. Catherine Howard poses for a tapestry of The Sorrow of Niobe. In Greek myth, Niobe claimed that, because she had fourteen children, rather than just two, she should be worshipped instead of Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. Apollo and Artemis punished Niobe’s hubris by killing her children. Why do you think Henry chose this subject? Can you draw parallels to any themes in the novel?
4. Holbein says that Joanna is “someone who sees the world in black and white,” and she can be quite single-minded in her ideas about the court. How does Joanna’s view change over the course of the novel? Give examples of some issues that become more complex for her.
5. Holbein tells Joanna, “‘There is no one law in the German lands. Each kingdom, each dukedom, each principality has its own laws. It’s easy to make mistakes, but those mistakes can be hard to recover from.’” How is this similar to Joanna’s life at court? How does she have to juggle shifting sets of values and codes in order to survive in England?
6. What do you think of Joanna’s decision to involve herself in the dark magic necessary to undo the spell she believes has been cast on Culpepper? What does it tell you about her character? Were you surprised by her belief in Orobas’s power?
7. Joanna struggles with whether to tell Geoffrey about the prophecy that shapes her life. Do you think that she does this more for her own protection or for his? Why?
8. Transformation is a major theme of this novel, and Joanna is witness to many personalities who are changed by love (or lack thereof). Compare Catherine Howard, Thomas Culpepper, and Geoffrey’s transformations in the novel. How does love change these characters’ fates for better or for worse? Is love worth it for these characters?
9. Joanna is often torn between her duties as a subject of the king and her duties as a woman of God, one whose Catholic beliefs are directly opposed to the court’s mandates. At times, she must compromise in order to survive. Describe Joanna’s personal moral code. Do you respect her as an ethical character? Why or why not?
10. Joanna has a complicated relationship with Catherine Howard; and Joanna can’t quite bring herself to approve of Catherine’s choices. Yet at the end of the novel, Joanna is willing to lie in order to bring Catherine happiness. Did you expect this? Would you have done the same?
11. Near the end of The Tapestry, Edmund says that Bishop Gardiner “‘would do anything if it meant bringing him—and this kingdom—closer to God.’” Contrast this with Joanna’s personality and goals. How are Joanna and Gardiner alike and different in in the ways they stick to their moral codes? Who do you most admire?
12. What do you think will come next for Geoffrey Scovill and Joanna Stafford?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit the British Museum’s website at http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/h/hans_holbein_the_younger,_the.aspx. to view one of Hans Holbein’s woodcuts from The Dance of Death and go to http://www.hans-holbein.org/ to see his portraits of many of the people who appear in The Tapestry.
2. Tapestry-making is a fascinating art. Have your book club’s members research some famous tapestries of the period, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Unicorn tapestries from the Netherlands (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/467642?=&imgNo=0&tabName=gallery-label). As The Tapestry highlights, these ornate hangings often depicted allegorical scenes. Discuss what scenes from folklore, myths, or fiction you might choose to illustrate if you were to commission a tapestry. Tell the other members of your book club what significance these scenes’ themes hold for you.
3. Many dishes of the British Middle Ages—such as English trifle, and mincemeat, and shepherd’s pies—have modern counterparts. If you’re up for a challenge, you could try this recipe for apple and orange tart, adapted directly from a housewife’s instruction manual dating from 1588 (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/andrew.cmu.edu/org/Medieval/www/src/docs/apple-orange-tarte.html).
4. While Joanna Stafford is a fictional character, The Tapestry is peopled with dozens of historical figures from Henry VIII’s court and abroad. Research the fates of people such as Bishop Gardiner, Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Thomas Culpepper, Mary of Hungary, and Emperor Charles V. Find portraits of them online and print some to display at your book club meeting. Are their real stories and images what you expected them to be, based on Bilyeau’s descriptions?
5. Connect with The Tapestry’s author, Nancy Bilyeau, on Twitter @tudorscribe.
A Conversation with Nancy Bilyeau
You’ve written three novels featuring Joanna, and are an expert on the sixteenth century English court. Are you still surprised by what you are learning about this period and your characters?
There are always surprises. Most people who read about the Tudors have a certain assumption of who the major players were, but when I burrowed deep into the letters and documents of the reign of Henry VIII, I realized other people played important parts in what happened during this period. For instance, how many people know that Cromwell was executed alongside a man named Sir Walter Hungerford, and why? His existence has not been included in historical novels, films, and TV series. His life is shrouded in mystery. Also, after studying the historical records, I drew some of my own conclusions about the motives of people who are more well known, such as the king himself, his wives, and chief courtiers.
In addition to your work as a novelist, you’ve also written screenplays and articles for publications as diverse as Rolling Stone and Good Housekeeping. How have these different styles of writing affected your approach to your fiction?
Screenplays are built on visual descriptions and reveal character through actions and dialogue, rather than overtly stating things, and people see those influences in my fiction. As for my magazine work, it taught me to be diligent and creative in my research. I interview experts to find out things I want to know, rather than obtaining information solely from books.
The shifting role of women is a major theme in all of your novels. Do you draw parallels between women in this time period and women in the present day?
I am very interested in the lives of strong women, now and in the past. Although their roles were constrained, the women of Joanna’s time were less passive than I think some people assume they were. Within Dartford Priory, a substantial number of the nuns and novices wanted to be there—they were filled with religious commitment and chose to live in groups together after the priory was closed. I believe that every one of the women who married Henry VIII wanted to be his queen, even Anne of Cleves. The sisters of Henry VIII went after the men they wanted to marry. Look how much his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, accomplished after his death. One character in The Tapestry, Mary of Hungary, was an effective and intelligent regent of the Netherlands.
Do you have a favorite character in The Tapestry?
It’s so hard to choose one! Joanna always reigns supreme. But I do have a special fondness for Hans Holbein the Younger. He was not in my original outline; I was well into writing the Whitehall chapters, and he still had not made an appearance. He more or less jumped on to the page, and then he would not leave. Holbein appeared in more chapters and more—he even followed Joanna and Geoffrey out of England. The artist just captured my imagination.
Art plays a central role in this novel, whether it is in your scenes of Hans Holbein’s studio or Joanna’s own role as a tapestry weaver. Are you an art buff? Did you expect art to play such a large part in Joanna’s story?
My father was a watercolor landscape artist, so I grew up among paintings and art shows. I’ve always loved art, yes. I did not anticipate while writing The Crown that the tapestry weaving would grow in importance in Joanna’s story and become an integral part of the third book. It just seemed a natural evolution, especially when I discovered through my research that Henry VIII was the most obsessed collector of tapestries of his European contemporaries.
Readers of your previous novels really fell for Edmund Sommerville as a match for Joanna, yet she ends The Tapestry planning a life with Geoffrey Scovill. Were you surprised at this romantic turn? How do you think readers will react to this choice?
Both Geoffrey and Edmund have their fans, and I actually received a great deal of mail after The Chalice regarding Geoffrey. The theme was: “Why were you so cruel to him? He loves Joanna.” I am very fond of both male characters, and it wasn’t easy to decide, though I felt the time had come for Joanna to choose a way forward either alone or with one of them. Edmund is a kindred spirit, perhaps even a soul mate for Joanna, but does that mean he would make a good husband, that their marriage would be a happy one? I felt that Edmund’s commitment to a religious life was profound and that it would, in the end, be very hard for him to find happiness outside the calling that he’d willingly followed for most of his life. Also I believe that Joanna and Geoffrey are well matched. He stands up to her at the same time that he is incredibly devoted to her. And they are very attracted to each other. After a lot of thought I concluded he is the right husband for her. I would be interested in hearing what readers think of my choice.
Were you always an Anglophile? How did your obsession with the Tudors begin?
I’ve been a hopeless Anglophile since I was eleven years old. I became interested after seeing Elizabeth R on television. I started reading historical novels and nonfiction about the sixteenth century—and I have never stopped.
What is your writing routine?
With this book, I didn’t have one. I wrote it whenever I could grab some time—weekends, vacations, and early morning before I had to wake the children up for school. I worked as a fulltime staff editor at DuJour magazine the entire time that I wrote this book. I don’t have a home office or even my own desk. I wrote on my laptop at the kitchen table, sitting up in bed, on the apartment balcony, the couch. And I wrote parts of it at the New York Public Library, in the Wertheim Study, when I was doing research there. Also I find it conducive to write in coffee shops—I have no idea why. I plugged in my computer at Starbuckses all over New York City for all three books. But for The Tapestry, my word count ranged from a few sentences a day to, at the most, two thousand words a day.
Has feedback from your readers affected the direction of the Joanna Stafford series?
As much as I love my readers, no. I haven’t made changes in Joanna’s personality or choices because of anything a reader has said. She comes from my mind and my heart. I will say that the support of the readers has encouraged me to be true to my vision. I hoped that the character of a Catholic novice in sixteenth-century England would be of interest, and she was!
If you were a member of Henry VIII’s court, what do you think your role or position would be? Who would you ally yourself with, and who would your confidants be?
That’s a hard question, because what I am today—a college-educated and independent female editor and novelist, married with two children—could not exist in a sixteenth-century court. My present skill set would mean I’d be best suited to be a tutor to a royal or high-born child. Perhaps I could be a tutor to Lady Mary! If so, I would be allied with her friends and supporters among the aristocracy. Unfortunately, that would mean I probably would not survive the reign of Henry VIII. The king imprisoned or executed many of the people who supported his older daughter. But if you take my present skills and background out of the equation and ask me what position I’d like to fill, it would be fool. I’d love to live by my wits, like Will Somers, Henry VIII’s famous fool. He did a splendid job of it, too. Despite teasing and needling the king, Will Somers survived his reign—and even showed up in a few paintings of the royal family.