Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Nancy Bilyeau, Author of 'The Crown' and 'The Chalice'

1 November 2023

Special Guest Post by Nancy Bilyeau, Author of 'The Crown' and 'The Chalice'

Available from Amazon UK: The Crown and The Chalice

The Crown 

London, May 1537. As those closest to the throne are locked in a fierce fight against those desperate to save England's monasteries from destruction, young Joanna Stafford faces a far more personal battle. When Joanna learns her cousin is about to be burned at the stake for rebelling against Henry VIII, she makes a decision that will change not only her life, but quite possibly the fate of a nation.

The Chalice

Cast out of Dartford Priory, Joanna Stafford - feisty, courageous, but scarred by her recent encounter with rebellion at court - is trying to live a quiet life with her five-year-old charge, Arthur. But family connections draw her dangerously close to a treasonous plot and, repelled by violence and the whispered conspiracies around her, Joanna seeks a life with a man who loves her. But, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny. She must make a choice between those she cares for most, and taking her part in a mysterious prophecy foretold by three compelling seers.

Soul Cakes: Magic and Mortality in Tudor England

What are soul cakes? Simple little biscuits, the size of cookies, dotted with dried fruit and blended with spices like cinnamon, caraway, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg and marked on top with a cross or an “X.” I enjoy baking them myself, as an alternative to the rich sugar- and chocolate-loaded treats for Halloween.

Soul Cakes

Soul cakes have a long history of popularity in England, one that easily extends back to the Tudor period, a time holding a special place in Halloween’s evolution. The first recorded use of the word “Halloween” was in mid-16th century England. It is a shortened version of “All-Hallows-Even” (“evening”), the night before All Hallows Day, another name for the Christian feast that honors saints on the first of November.

But the origin of soul cakes can be found centuries earlier than that, with some historians saying they were offerings for Norse deities to be left on a stone altar and others saying soul cakes played a part during Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival at Summer’s End.

After Christianity came to England, Catholics tolerated the traditions of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and put on costumes to scare away the spirits of the unfriendly dead. In fact, an Eighth Century pope named November 1st as the day to honor all Catholic saints and martyrs with an eye toward Samhain. 

In pre-Reformation England, the Catholic Church co-existed with belief in astrology and magic. It was quite common to attend Mass regularly and to consult astrologers. “The medieval church appeared as a vast reservoir of magical power,” writes Keith Thomas in his brilliant 1971 book Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Nothing shows the merger of Celtic and Christian beliefs better than “soul cakes.” These small, round cakes were offered as a way to say prayers for the departed (you can picture the village priest nodding in approval) but they were also given away to protect people on the day of the year that the wall was thinnest between the living and the dead, a Celtic if not Druid belief.

In the early 16th century, Halloween on October 31st, All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows Day) on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd were a complex grouping of traditions and observances. Life revolved around the regular worship, the holidays, and the feast days that constituted the liturgy. As the great Eamon Duffy wrote: “For within that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual observance and symbolic gesture, lay Christians found the paradigms and the stories which shaped their perception of the world and their place in it.”

The cakes were given out to “soulers” (mainly children and the poor) who went from door to door during All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day, singing and saying prayers for the souls of those who gave them the cakes and their friends and families as well as for the souls of deceased family who could be in Purgatory.
Henry VIII changed the perceptions of the kingdom forever when he broke from Rome. A guiding force in his reformation of the Catholic Church was the destruction of what his chief minister Thomas Cromwell scorned as “superstition.” Saints’ statues were removed; murals telling mystical stories were painted over; shrines were pillaged; the number of feast days was sharply reduced so that more work could be done during the growing season.

“The Protestant reformers rejected the magical powers and supernatural sanctions which had been so plentifully invoked by the medieval church,” wrote Thomas.
The fact that soul cakes’ popularity survived the Reformation is nothing short of amazing. The Protestant denial of Purgatory helped lead to the destruction of many religious foundations established to sing prayers for the souls of the dead. “A substantial proportion of the resources of medieval society were given over to ensuring the welfare of its dead members,” wrote Thomas.

When I was researching the priory of Dominican nuns in Dartford—the setting of my debut novel, The Crown—I found evidence of the important role held by the sisters in praying for the souls of the dead as well as protecting their remains. I discovered a will written in 1526 for a woman who would have no way of knowing of the destruction of the monasteries soon to unleash:

“Dame Catharine, widow of Sir Maurice Berkeley, late governor of Calais, by her will made September 5tli, and proved September 25th, 1526, desired to be buried in the Chapel of our Lady in the Monastery of Dartford, and that a tomb, price 13l*, 6s., 8d., should be constructed there to her memory; she gave to the Monastery a suit of vestments, price 20l.; and willed that a priest should be found to lead Mass there for her soul for four years, for which she gave 32l., being 8l. per annum. She was the daughter of Sir William Berkley of Stoke Gifford, co. Gloucester; and dying September 6th, was buried there.”

*A pound weight of precious metal was denoted with the symbol “l” for the Latin libra or pound.

In 1538, the priory of Dartford was surrendered to King Henry VIII and the building was demolished. What happened to the graves, tombs, and chapels established there since the priory was founded in 1351 is unknown.

Chantry chapel in Warwick

Singing prayers for the dead also took place outside the walls of the monasteries. There were an estimated 2,374 chantries at the Dissolution, places to celebrate Masses for the soul of the founder or his family. The wishes of people anxious about Purgatory were conveyed in wills that combined prayers for their souls with alms for the poor.

Some rituals managed to hang on after the Reformation. There is still bell-ringing on All Souls’ Eve, for example. And through it all we have soul cakes, a baked treat that appeared centuries before the Catholic Church dominated life in England and has long survived its decline.

Nancy Bilyeau

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About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. The series was published in the UK, North America, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Denmark. Orion Publishing is re-issuing The Crown and The Chalice in the UK with new covers for the paperback. In North America, the Joanna Stafford trilogy is available in ebook, paperback, hardback and audio formats here.  Nancy lives with her family in the Hudson Valley in New York. Find out more at Nancy's website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter @Tudorscribe

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