The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

The Crown

Nancy Bilyeau

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side.

While Joanna is in the Tower, the ruthless Bishop of Winchester forces her to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may possess the ability to end the Reformation.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must decide who she can trust so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life.


The Crown is an historical mystery based around the character of Joanna Stafford, a young woman from a noble family fallen on hard times, who is currently a novice at Dartford Priory.

When she learns her favourite cousin, Margaret Bulmer, has been sentenced to burn at the stake for treason, she breaks the priory rules by making the perilous journey to London to witness the execution. However, Joanna is shocked when her father suddenly intervenes and both are arrested for interference of the king’s justice. Joanna and her father are sent to the Tower, and after weeks of imprisonment, the Bishop of Winchester blackmails her into returning to Dartford Priory in search of a valuable relic: King Athelstan’s Crown.

Only the prioress is aware of the true location of the crown, however when Joanna returns to the abbey, she discovers Prioress Elizabeth has died and the traditional letter passed on to the new prioress has conveniently gone astray. With her father’s life at stake, Joanna searches the priory for clues to the crown’s whereabouts but her progress is impeded when a visiting nobleman is murdered. The murder investigation brings unwanted attention from the king who is dissolving convents and monasteries throughout England, and there is a real possibility the priory will be closed before Joanna finds the crown. Racing against time, Joanna has to uncover the priory’s darkest secrets before the relic falls into the wrong hands.

While The Crown was an interesting read, there were elements that seemed far too contrived to be remotely believable and each time it happened, it drew me out of the story. The first few chapters dealing with Joanna’s imprisonment in the Tower are particularly slow but reasonably well written until the author had me rolling my eyes in incredulity when Joanna managed to escape her cell, posing as a maid, to visit her father who is being held in a nearby building. Joanna ends up in the wrong cell and while making her way back to her own, she gets locked out and has to hide until the door is opened by guards, before making her way back to her own cell without anyone noticing.

The plot surrounding the crown with its supernatural powers is very unoriginal and the clues to its whereabouts are so weak, it’s downright insulting no one discovered it prior to Joanna. Joanna merely reads a couple of paragraphs in a few books before leaping to all sorts of conclusions, but fails to detect the location of the secret passageway which is literally staring her in the face. The supernatural aspects are never really properly explained but the idea the crown was responsible for the early deaths of prior kings or princes deemed unworthy is a fun one though. One can only imagine what it would’ve done to Henry VIII had he been given the chance to wear it.

Real historical characters are woven into the novel quite well with a few liberties taken with factual events, although that is to be expected in a work of fiction and isn’t too bad. The real life characters flit in and out throughout the story but sometimes they are used too conveniently to get Joanna out of a precarious situation, such as with the opportune arrival of Lady Mary at the Howards. Some are also used in a nudge, nudge, wink, wink way to those familiar with history, such as the introduction of Catherine Howard, future wife of Henry VIII.

Joanna, herself, is a feisty character who is likeable even though she makes many ill-advised decisions and is often quite belligerent. Joanna is regarded as quite the troublemaker in the priory, even before her ill-fated adventure to London, although Prioress Joan seems to have a complete reversal of opinion later on. The most interesting aspect of Joanna’s character is her journey of self-discovery, particularly in regard to her place in the world, which is by no means settled by the conclusion.