Interview with Historian and Novelist Alison Weir
Alison Weir, beloved British historian and novelist, is the United Kingdom’s most popular female historian. Renowned and greatly respected, her book sales tell the story. Alison sold over 2.3 million books — over 1,000,000 million in the United Kingdom and over 1,300,000 in the United States. Alison’s most current non-fiction work, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World will be launched at an exciting long “sold out” speaking engagement and publication celebration at the Tythe Barn, Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre on November 7, 2013. Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World provides readers with interesting new insights of Elizabeth of York’s magnificent and fascinating life story, also dispelling many long held misconceptions.
Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers recently had the privilege and honor of catching up with Alison Weir, discussing her thoughts on Elizabeth of York and a host of other topics.
1. Alison, Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers (QAB) understands you are in process of significantly rewriting and updating your non-fiction accounting of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Why did you choose to take on this major undertaking? Do you have updated research you will be including?
It’s now twenty-two years since that book was published, and a lot of new research has been done since, some of it by me for subsequent books. Also, much of my research for the original 1970s text was edited or left out of the text because of concerns about length. I am now revising, rewriting and re-researching the book, restoring some of the original version (which ran to 1024 single-spaced pages), and very much enjoying revisiting the project.
2. In your website biography you share with browsers that during the 1970’s you researched all the medieval Queens of England. To date you have chronicled the lives of the six consorts of King Henry VIII, Queen Isabella, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Mary Stuart (Scotland), and most recently Elizabeth of York. Do you plan to chronicle the lives of other medieval queens in the future? Are you willing to share with browsers who you find to be England’s most influential and intriguing medieval queen consort and why?
I am under contract for a book on the medieval queens of England in one volume, but the project is being shelved because I would prefer to cover this vast subject in three or more books, which would reflect the scope of my research. I am at present discussing another subject with my publishers. I think that Eleanor of Aquitaine was England’s most influential queen consort, if only because the transfer of her vast domains, on marriage, first to France then to England, set the pattern for European diplomacy and warfare for the next four centuries. And she has a more towering reputation than any other medieval queen consort.
3. Obviously many first time browsers to QAB venture to the website due to their interest in Queen Anne Boleyn. Why do you think so many people are interested in her? Do you have any strong opinions on how she is portrayed in novels, movies, television and the internet?
I will try to be brief here, as I have much to say! Anne Boleyn’s story is one of the most dramatic in English history, and she has always been the focus of much interest, not least because she was controversial and her fall is the subject of much debate. But interest has escalated in recent years in the wake of The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors, and what concerns me is that it is these distorted and romanticized portrayals that inform much of the current craze for all things Anne. They are very far removed from the historical Anne whom I am currently researching. Instead she is perceived almost as a celebrity, an icon for modern women. So yes, I have very strong opinions on how she is portrayed! There’s an article on my website called Anne, Superstar? You can read it here: http://www.alisonweir.org.uk/
(This is a one of four clips from an interview with Alison Weir back in April 2012. The interview was for a MA final project film, details of which can be found at http://theboleynproject.wordpress.com. Alison was interviewed by Charli Burden and filmed by Becca Attfield. What a fantastic MA final project!!! Congratulations to Charli and Becca on a fantastic interview!)
4. Alison, due to Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, along with research by historians such as John Schofield and Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell’s legacy recently has in large measure been “rehabilitated”. Have your opinions of Cromwell changed at all since you non-fiction accounting The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn? Was he a magnificent statesman or a manipulative despot?
He was both, in my opinion. Hilary Mantel’s is a very sympathetic portrayal, but it is fiction. However, a lot of people regard it as the truth – witness the many who queried my account of the historical Cromwell when I was giving talks on The Lady in the Tower. They didn’t recognise him because they knew him only from the character in Wolf Hall. Because the historical focus on Cromwell has often been from the perspective of studies of Anne Boleyn and others whom he brought down, he has been perceived as a Machiavellian villain, but there was far more to him than that. He was an administrative and financial genius, and an extraordinarily able man whose affability was praised by many. Yes, he was ruthless, but there was much to admire in him.
5. Based on your comprehensive research, who do you believe was England’s greatest medieval monarch and why?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as I could make a case for several, and yet all are flawed on one way or another. Probably Henry II, because he had what it took to govern England and an empire that stretched from the Scottish border almost to the Pyrenees, and he established a sound legal system and was a brilliant strategist.
6. Is there a specific historian who most influenced your early understanding of medieval history?
There were several – as a schoolgirl I read the works of G.M. Trevelyan, Arthur Bryant and Sir Maurice Powicke, among others – but the most influential (when I was young) was Agnes Strickland, whose Lives of the Queens of England (which was then very hard to comer by) inspired me to delve further into the lives of women in history.
7. Alison, a few of our members are trying to research the courtiers close to Henry VIII. They are finding research for most of Henry’s inner circle, but beyond a PhD dissertation by S.J. Gunn, they have found nothing relevant about Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Do you have any suggestions?
Gunn’s is the only biography I know of. It was published in 1988, but is now rare, and the few copies that turn up are very expensive, but libraries should be able to obtain copies for their readers.
8. You have authored five historical fiction novels. What is your philosophy regarding the writing of quality historical fiction? Do you agree with some authors who chose to change known history or who choose to write implausible story lines in order to enhance the plot?
I think that, if an author is writing a novel about a real historical personage, they should keep to the known facts and use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Any deviations or inventions should always be explained and justified in an author’s note. Above all, what an author makes up should be credible within the context of what is known about their subject. I think it is irresponsible of historical novelists to write implausible story lines, because a lot of readers just accept it as the truth, and that muddies the waters in the media and in books. Much breath and ink has been wasted by historians in refuting these imaginary assertions.
9. Alison, through your tour company “Alison Tours”, you have planned and led magnificent historical vacation tours with varying themes, such as “Tudor Treasures”, “Gloriana”, “Lancaster and York”, and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”. QAB understands your next tours in June and October 2014 led by you in June and respected historian Sarah Gristwood in October focuses on “Mary, Queen of Scots”. What sparked your interest in providing such historically relevant and educational travel opportunities?
In 2000, I was lecturing at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where I was asked if I could give some advice relating to a forthcoming tour of Tudor England that was being planned by Smithsonian Journeys. I ended up not only devising the tour but leading it, and it proved very successful. I was told that it was their fastest-selling tour to date. Afterwards, my literary agent suggested that I set up my own historical tours company, and thus Alison Weir Tours was born. In three years we’ve gone from waiting for people to book to being unable to meet demand because of my publishing commitments, hence our expansion into tours led by other historians.
10. Your new non-fiction work, Elizabeth of York, A Tudor Queen and her World, will be launched on November 7, 2013 at an event at Bosworth Battlefield.What fascinates you about the previously rarely chronicled queen consort? Does any of your research change established perceptions about her?
I’ve always been interested in Elizabeth of York, and the large core of my research dates from the 1970s. She is the forgotten Tudor queen, overshadowed by the wives of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I, and she deserves greater prominence, as she is of crucial importance dynastically. Yes, my research proves that she was not the subjugated cipher that many have supposed, but a queen with influence whose patronage was worth having. I’ve re-evaluated her controversial relations with Richard III, and her marriage to Henry VII, especially the last year of it. I’ve also discovered fascinating links between Elizabeth and Sir James Tyrell, the man who is said to have confessed to murdering her brothers, the Princes in the Tower. I hope that this book will change established perceptions of her.
11. Do you have any new projects you wish to share with QAB members and browsers?
I wish I was at liberty to say, but a lot of ideas are presently under discussion!
Video Credit: Kiki (You Tube) http://historyinspiredmusings.blogspot.com