Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Altarpiece by Sarah Kennedy

The year is 1535, and King Henry's martial issues and his defiance of the Pope and Catholic Church is having far-reaching consequences for his people.  As he sets himself up to be the religious power, he decides to break the settings of the Catholic Church and orders the nunneries and monasteries to be closed; their inhabitants required to renounce the vows they made before God to now shift their allegiance to the King.

The Altarpiece tells the story of one such convent.  The nuns are faced with soldiers in their holy house.  All the treasures that were used to honor God in their ceremonies are now forfeit, either going to the Court or to the local landowner who will receive the land.  Most of the nuns are frightened enough to take the renunciation oath and be turned out to find work as servants or even to marry if a man will have them.  Others take to the roads, begging for their food.  Four nuns refuse the oath and attempt to salvage part of the treasures given to them to watch over. 

Tensions grow higher as the soldiers demand the nuns comply.  The village folk, who revered the nuns, now curse them and accuse them of witchcraft, blaming them for bringing the soldiers to their village.  An epidemic of smallpox erupts, killing some and laying others low.  The nuns are the ones with medical knowledge, especially the young nun Catherine.  While asking for her services, the locals and the law also accuse her of using witchcraft to heal.  Then several individuals die of what looks like poison.  How will this all be resolved?

Sarah Kennedy has written a well-researched history of this turbulent time when vows were broken and allies became enemies overnight.  The reader is taken to a time when nothing is sure and anyone or anything could mean death and destruction.  This book is recommended for historical fiction readers.

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