It is 1535 and in the tumultuous years of King Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the religious houses of England are being seized by force. Twenty-year-old Catherine Havens is a foundling and the adopted daughter of the prioress of the Priory of Mount Grace in a small Yorkshire village. Catherine, like her adoptive mother, has a gift for healing, and she is widely sought and admired for her knowledge.
Catherine’s hopes for a place at court have been dashed by the king’s divorce, and she has reluctantly taken the veil. In the remote North, the nuns enjoy the freedoms unavailable to other women. England is their home, but the times have changed, and now the few remaining nuns dread the arrival of the priory’s new owner, Robert Overton. When the priory’s costly altarpiece goes missing, Catherine and her friend Ann Smith find themselves under increased suspicion.
Only the illness of Robert’s brother, William, preserves the nuns from immediate expulsion and arrest. Catherine heals him, and when she undertakes a quest across England, he offers to accompany her and Ann. They visit the deposed queen, and during their journey to uncover the truth, Catherine begins to doubt her church and her God. She finds herself drawn to William, even though he has spoken his oath to the crown and serves her greatest enemy.
King Henry VIII’s soldiers have not had their fill of destruction, and when they return to Mount Grace to destroy the priory, Catherine must choose between the sacred calling of her past and the man who may represent her country’s future.
I dove into Sarah Kennedys’ The Altarpiece with all kinds of enthusiasm; this is a book that should have been tailor-made for an art historian with a passion for the period. Sadly, for this art historian with a passion for the period, this book fell short of my expectations.
The Altarpiece opens in 1535 at Mount Grace Priory in England where the good sisters in residence have been told that Henry Tudor’s reforms are shutting them down. Furthermore, each and every one among them must make a vow to disavow the old ways, Rome, and fall in line with the new faith as determined by Henry Tudor. Oh, and they get to accept the new heir to the throne, Elizabeth and turn over anything and everything of value in their beloved priory to the crown. For some among the sisters, the choice to leave behind the priory is an easy one as they like their lives far more than anything else. For Ann, Veronica, Christina and Catherine, the choice is far, far harder and among the four, they vow to protect that which is theirs and what they believe in no matter the cost.
Christina is the aged Prioress of Mount Grace and the most vocal of the four; Veronica is also an aged member of the group and likely the most devout among them; Ann is a feisty bird who is absolutely devout yet also rather worldly despite having been in the priory for years and finally, there is Catherine, the youngest of the group and the one all turn to for healing when the need arises. Though they don’t always see eye-to-eye, the women care for one another and want only to be left alone to continue on as they always have, caring for their priory and the people of the village they live in. As we all know, there was no place for the Catholic houses in Henry Tudors’ England and the wolves were soon gathering at the door.
Of chief importance, the women of Mount Grace want to protect their beloved altarpiece, a work depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary and her son. Unfortunately, the altarpiece has gone missing and the women have no idea where it has gone to. The missing altarpiece is a grave misstep and as Henry Tudors’ men begin to ride into the village the problems mount for the sisters. There is a strange death in the village and a local man is both accused of the death and suspiciously missing, smallpox has come to the village frightening everyone and Catherine’s skills are both called upon and called into question. In order to clear her name and that of several others, young Catherine, Ann, and two male companions must journey beyond their small village and embark on an adventure none of them could have ever imagined. Not only is their adventure full of intrigue and answers but it is also a time when Catherine must come to grips with the fact that her way of life, her only life really, is coming to an end and she must make a dreadful decision that may change the entire course of her life.
The Bottom Line: Sarah Kennedy’s The Altarpiece is a title that I desperately wanted to like far, far more than I did and never once did I consider DNFing this book. However, I found both the characters and the plot problematic. As to the characters: with exception of Ann and Catherine, I found it difficult to care about the characters – it was incredibly difficult to connect to any of them. For example, Christina is stubborn and arrogant to the point that she literally gets herself and many of her sisters killed; the Overton twins are simply repulsive and most of the men with the exception of a few met a well-deserved end. As to the plot: I often found myself feeling as if I were running in circles as well as being lost in repetition – Christina and her complaints being the most repetitious. To be fair, there were a few moments that did surprise and please me but those moments were too few and far between for my liking. I never DNFed this title because I felt at any moment it was going to become the book I hoped and truly felt it could be.