Interview with English Historian Leanda de Lisle
Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers recently caught up with highly renowned English historian and journalist Leanda de Lisle. Leanda’s most recent published highly acclaimed work Tudor, The Family Story, is currently #6 on the Sunday Times Best Seller List, and with good reason. This highly readable and comprehensive history of England’s medieval Tudor family is engrossing and enlightening. Re-titled for American audiences, Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder… The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family, the book is now available in bookstores across the United States and Canada. If you are seeking a consolidated history of the entire Tudor Era of English History, look no further.
1. Leanda, you have an extensive journalism background, currently writing columns for the Daily Express, Daily Mail, Sunday Telegraph, and the New Statesman. You also write guest columns and blog extensively. Can you share with QAB members and browsers how your strong journalism background helped prepare you to author major historical works? And to follow-up, is transitioning from specialization is writing short works, such as articles and columns, to major works, such as your three highly regarded books, difficult?
“Journalism teaches you to write fluently and accessibly for all sorts of people. The Spectator in the UK has a reputation as a shop window for writing talent and my column there helped develop my literary skills. But being a columnist is also about spotting the story behind a story, and questioning received wisdom. That is a very useful skill in an historian. You notice things others have missed, be it a famous description of Lady Jane Grey that looks suspect and turns out to be a fake, or why Richard III and Henry VII might share a desire that the bodies of two little princes in the Tower never be found.”
2. In your research and writings, particularly in The Sisters Who Would be Queen: The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey and Tudor: The Family Story, you focus heavily on painting an accurate history of women living during Tudor Era England. Did you find it challenging to hear their voices? How were you able to find the research necessary to formulate your opinions of these women’s real contributions to English history?
“Research begins with secondary sources – that is other historians – you read and read, and you notice good historians foot note what they write, so you can then begin to follow the primary source trail – the manuscripts from the period they are writing about. You have to ask if these first hand accounts, letters and documents, fit what the secondary sources are telling you? It is amazing how the prejudices and misogyny of past historians can creep into modern works of history and fiction, so checking with what actually was said and done at the time is vital. In England, it is relatively easy to see manuscripts from the period. We are a small island, and it is not to hard to get to the British Library, for example, where many manuscripts from the period are kept. But it is always challenging hearing the voices of the women of the time. For me, the best way to do so is to understand what they believed, the culture of their times. It is like learning their language. You also need to have some generosity of heart and imagination. People are not black and white. While some people are kinder (for example) than others, we all have some good in us as well as bad, and it is important to try and understand the rounded person. Condemn evil, of course, but with human beings things are rarely simple.”
3. As Hilary Mantel so effectively did through her novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies with Thomas Cromwell, in your non-fiction writing you “rehabilitated” the reputations of Duchess Frances Grey and Queen Mary I. Can you share with us your thoughts on how real history was lost and how the common highly negative perceptions of Duchess Frances Grey and Queen Mary I developed through the years?
“The so-called Nine Day’s Queen, Lady Jane Grey, was executed for treason aged only sixteen in 1553. As a martyr of the Protestant cause, it was important to her ideological allies that her innocence be emphasized. In the sixteenth century she was seen as a pawn of the ambitions of her father and father in law. But from the eighteenth century her mother, Frances Brandon, came to be used as the counterpoint to the passive victim that Jane had become.”
“Elizabeth I’s former tutor Roger Ascham, writing after Frances and Jane were both dead, had recorded that Jane had once complained to him that her parents – both her parents – were overly strict. This was the basis for turning Frances into an archetype of female wickedness, one that would act like a shadow that cast Jane into more brilliant light. While Jane, (although married) was depicted as virginal, physically tiny (for which the evidence was invented) and gentle (rather in contrast to her ferocious writings) her mother was described as sexually predatory and domineering of men (for which the evidence was, again, invented), physically large (ditto) and cruel. It was said Frances’s hunger for power led to Jane’s death, a version of history that sends out a message that good girls are helpless, while bad ones are ambitious. The story line has been repeated ever since, because many historians did not – do not – go back to the contemporary primary sources.”
“Mary’s history has also been influenced by religious propaganda, and in her case she is always the dark cloud to her sister Elizabeth’s glorious sun. It suited later generations to describe her as a weak woman ruled by priests, but there was nothing weak about Mary. Her four grandparents were each the head of their royal house, and one was a ruling queen – as Mary was to be in England. Certainly she earned her later sobriquet ‘ Bloody Mary – burning hundreds of people for heresy, a terrible period that can never be forgotten. Her purpose was to reunite her kingdom – and Elizabeth would kill in even larger numbers (though not at the stake) to the same end. So, both were capable of great ruthlessness and you can judge them for that. But weak? That does not describe Mary any more than it does Elizabeth, who learned a lot from her sister. My purpose in Tudor is not to underplay the wrongs Mary did, but to bring a better balance to our judgment of the sisters, and a better understanding.
4. In your book Tudor, The Family Story, which will release in the United States on October 8, 2013 renamed Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder… The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family, you commendably researched and highlight the life stories of the “early Tudors” and their spouses, Owen Tudor, Catherine de Valois, Edmund Tudor, Jasper Tudor and Margaret Beaufort. Can you share with members and browsers your insights on these rarely explored founders of the Tudor Dynasty?
“I really enjoyed writing about these early Tudors – though covering the Wars of the Roses in a short space was a challenge! Owen Tudor was an ordinary man who married a Queen, and it is a fascinating and romantic story. Really, his life would make the most wonderful movie. He was handsome, he thumbed his nose at convention, he was brave, he had a sense of humor and the women in his life loved him. His legitimate descendants are some of the most famous in history – they include all the Tudor kings and queens. But I also enjoyed reminding the readers through the book (in a low key way) of the parallel story if his long forgotten and obscure illegitimate descendants who pop up at key moments, such as Henry VIII’s divorce, the death of one Elizabeth I’s great rivals, and again during the plots over the succession when she is dying.”
“Margaret Beaufort, who was married aged twelve and a widow and a mother at thirteen, was another woman whose reputation needed re-habilitating. It is really offensive that she has come to be accused of killing the princes in the Tower to clear the way for her son Henry Tudor. She was a remarkable woman, and no one would suggest that she was in any way a murderess until over a hundred years after she had died.”
5. Leanda, do you have any new and exciting projects or works in progress that you would like to share?
“My next book will be on the English civil war. It is not an area yet as popular as the Tudors, but just as the Wars of the Roses have recently gained a new audience so I believe this period will. It is full of human drama and romance, amazing women, and as for the men – their clothes are lot better than they were in the Tudor period. Wooly hose and puffy pants are just much less attractive than tall leather boots, and loose, ruffly shirts! I take a long time over my books so by the time it is done – three years probably – I hope people will be ready to try something new!”
Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder… The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family is now available for sale in all book stores throughout the United States. To purchase online, CLICK HERE.