The Butcher’s Daughter Victoria Glendinning, Duckworth Overlook, 2018, ISBN 978-0-7156-5291-6, 327pp
The events of the reign of Henry VIII still fascinate us today. He was a larger than life figure both in stature and in terms of his influence on British history and, by extension, our own. Perhaps his greatest contribution was that he sired Elizabeth I whose reign marked the change from medievalism to something that more approached the modern age. At the very least we can thank Henry for siring the woman who was perhaps the ultimate #metoo figure. Continually pressed to marry because, of course, no woman was capable of living life without a man she managed to confound her counsellors at nearly every turn. She was, I suspect, red hair and all, a chip off the old block. That old block was a man who had no doubt about his place in the scheme of things. He sired two sons: one illegitimate and one legitimate. The legitimate one was Edward VI who reigned for a brief 6 years before dying at the age of 16. Edward was a fierce Protestant who took forward his father’s path of religious change. That change, of course, started with Henry’s difficulties in producing a male heir (there are many theories about this: Kyra Kramer’s Blood Will Tell (2012) provides a credible medical explanation of Henry’s behaviour). To cut a long story short there was no way (in his mind) that Henry was responsible for the failure of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to bear him a son. This meant he needed to trade her in for a new model in the shape of Ann Boleyn. This all led to the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. It is the dissolution of the monasteries that provides the backdrop to Victoria Glendinning’s wonderful historical novel The Butcher’s Daughter. Much history is written either through the eyes of the great men and women who made it or through the artefacts they left behind. The humble peasant or the middle class farmer or the goodwife generally left little or no record. The opportunity for the historical novelist is to speculate what would have been the impact of changes made by kings and queens and dukes and chancellors on the ordinary person. In The Butcher’s Daughter Glendinning attempts to describe what it was like for the nuns and other ecclesiastics who were closeted in a monastery or an abbey. The 1 hero of her book is the butcher’s daughter of the title; her name is Agnes Peppin. Agnes is impregnated by one Peter Mompesson. The resulting child is, as was the way then, taken from her and in 1535 she is forced to become a novice at Shaftesbury Abbey. The Abbey, which was the second wealthiest nunnery in England, was dissolved four years later in 1539. Agnes is a sharp cookie and manoeuvres her way to become the Abbess’ assistant. The last Abbess was Elizabeth Zouche who had been elected to the position in 1529. Agnes is required to take notes of the various meetings that this last Abbess has as she attempts to negotiate her (and the Abbey’s) way out of a situation that is inevitable. We can see the hopelessness and despair caused by Great Events through the eyes of Agnes Peppin. There were political and religious forces at work that were way beyond the capacity of anyone to influence. Once the walls of the Abbey came tumbling down the nuns had to make their own way in the world with admittedly, a small pension. This was something for which they were ill-equipped. After all, their life as a nun was highly regulated and highly ordered. The frontispiece of the book quotes from a 1913 Catholic Encyclopaedia: “with the dissolution of the monasteries, the nuns were cast adrift.” The strength of Glendinning’s book lies in the narrative and the way that it draws you in to the events and their impact on ordinary people. It is easy at this distance to view the great religious houses of the mediaeval age as being non-productive at best and at worst, perhaps, just places of sanctuary for people who had leverage and needed a safe place to be. Yet they weren’t non-productive; they provided employment for many local people and they provided the social security safety net of the day, however imperfect that was. There was no thought as the monasteries were dissolved of what would replace or repair that social fabric. The novel has its darker moments as Agnes weaves her way through the many obstacles that were placed in the path of women in the 16th century (I think that perhaps not a lot has changed). But she is a likeable heroine and I finished book with a feeling of hope rather than despair. Whether or not you are interested in the history of the period, this book is a great read. Find a copy, read it and you will not be disappointed.