The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

Today I am taking part in a blog tour for The Butcher’s Daughter, a novel set in Tudor England during and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s a time period and subject that interests me, so I had high hopes for this book, my first by Victoria Glendinning.

It’s 1535 and Agnes Peppin is the ‘butcher’s daughter’ of the title – a young woman from Bruton in Somerset who, after giving birth to an illegitimate child, has been sent to live with the nuns at Shaftesbury Abbey as a novice. Agnes can read and write, having been taught by the canons at her local church, and these skills make her useful to the abbess, Elizabeth Zouche. Before she has time to take her vows and become a nun herself, however, Shaftesbury Abbey, like other great religious houses across the country, becomes a target of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to dissolve the abbeys and monasteries, seizing their assets for the crown and then demolishing the buildings.

The Butcher’s Daughter is narrated by Agnes herself in the form of a memoir as she first describes her life at the abbey and then tells us what happens afterwards as she and her fellow nuns and novices find themselves facing uncertain futures. It’s a slow-paced novel and definitely one which is driven more by character than by plot, but I still found it quite gripping because Agnes pulled me so thoroughly into her world. The chapters set within the abbey are informative and detailed; as a novice, Agnes has a lot to learn, from how to dress herself correctly to studying the Lives of the Saints, as well as getting to know the other women with whom she will be living within the confines of the cloister.

The second half of the book was even more interesting. While the inhabitants of Shaftesbury Abbey have been watching the downfall of other smaller, less profitable houses, telling themselves that ‘in our case, of course, surrender is unthinkable and indeed unthought of’, it eventually becomes evident that they will not be spared and must prepare to suffer the same fate. We see the final days of the abbey through our heroine’s eyes, before following her through a series of adventures as she rejoins the secular world and attempts to find a place for herself in society again. Although Agnes has spent a relatively short time at Shaftesbury, there are others who have known no other sort of life and who find it much more difficult to cope with the changes enforced on them.

Although Agnes is a fictional character and her personal story is invented, Shaftesbury Abbey was real and characters such as Elizabeth Zouche really existed too. Towards the end of the novel, Agnes crosses paths with Sir Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet of the same name), bringing more real historical events and political intrigue into the story, but the focus is always on Agnes herself and the things she experiences during this traumatic and eventful period of religious history. And yet, despite the upheaval Agnes goes through and the challenges she faces, there is still a sense of optimism…a comforting knowledge that, whatever happens, life must go on, “Beans will sprout. Children will be born. There will be butterflies”.

Thanks to Duckworth Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

19 thoughts on “The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

    • Helen says:

      I loved Dissolution and the rest of the Shardlake series. This book is interesting because it looks at the same subject from the point of view of the monks and nuns.

      • Nish says:

        It must have been so very hard for them to suddenly change their entire way of life – especially when they lead such sheltered lives to begin with.

  1. Jo Shafer says:

    Thanks for this book review. Most of the books on my summer reading list were set in the Tudor era and before, so this one should follow up, eh? That is, after I finish the August beach reads! From your description, Glendinning’s novel sounds like a good book for chilly fall days.

  2. FictionFan says:

    I always felt a bit sorry for the monks and nuns who were tossed out into the world at the Dissolution – it must have been very hard for the older ones especially. This sounds like an intriguing look at the subject – I’m tempted!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it must have been a shock for the ones who had known no other kind of life. This was a fascinating book – after a slow start I really enjoyed it!

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    This sounds great! I knew about this from Hilary Mantel’s books. Was it in Bringing Up the Bodies that this happened? But this gives the story from one of the victims of such upheaval.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it was a fascinating book and really helped me to understand how difficult it must have been for all those nuns and monks who lost their homes and their way of life.

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