Editor’s Note: Many of us can only dream of voyaging to the United Kingdom to join one of Alison Weir’s phenomenal guided tours. Susan Breen just arrived home from Alison’s recent “Tudor Tapestry” tour and had a fabulous time. Since most of us will never have such a delightful opportunity, I asked Susan if she would share her experiences with us. For those people out there who are interested in joining Alison Weir on a guided tour, do plan well in advance. They fill quickly!
On Tour with Alison Weir
By Susan Breen
Way back in 1991, when I was a young mother chasing after toddlers, I happened upon an intriguing new book titled The Six Wives of Henry VIII. By Alison Weir. Immediately I suggested to my children that they take a nap, and I began to read. From that moment, I’ve been hooked on Tudor history and Alison Weir. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that Alison Weir Herself was leading a tour focused on Tudor England.
I knew from the moment my husband and I signed up that this was a different type of tour because we immediately received a reading list of about 100 books. Some I’d read, some I’d never heard of, but it was thrilling to think about this voyage of discovery I was about to go on. We also received a list of dinner choices that was almost mind-boggling. This was the choice for our appetizer at Penshurt Place:
A ) Pressed Smoked Chicken, with guinea fowl terrine and Summer truffle dressing, B ) Seared Scallops, with cauliflower puree, spiced golden raisins and lightly scented curry oil, C ) Twice Baked Hall Place Farm Cheese Souffle with apple and roquette salad.
Immediately I went on a diet.
Then we waited and waited, because the tour was not to take place for a year and a half, and then finally the day was here, and we went to England, checked into our hotel, and received our tour package, from Alison Weir, who was sitting at a desk and greeted us so warmly, as she did everyone else on the tour. She also gave us copies of her new book, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession. It’s a novel, based on her new research, which offers an exciting and different view of Anne Boleyn. But more on that later.
Two other historians accompanied us throughout our ten days on tour: Sarah Gristwood, author of Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth Century Europe, and Nicola Tallis, author of Crown of Blood, The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey. All three of them, along with various visiting historians, gave lectures every time we got on the bus and every night after dinner. I learned so much!
The Tour Begins:
Our first stop was Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and possibly one of the loveliest places in the world. There we were greeted by Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII (or people who looked a lot like them.) When Henry met me, he said that I reminded him of Katherine Howard because I was small, like she was. Not sure that was reassuring.
We then went on a private behind-the-scenes tour of the castle. For those of us who love Anne Boleyn, there’s no place you feel closer to her than at Hever. Even though the castle has been restored and altered over the years, you still feel her presence. Especially moving is to see her prayer book and within it the inscription, in her own handwriting: “Le temps viendra!” (The time will come.)
We ate dinner that night in the sumptuous dining hall in which Anne Boleyn would have entertained Henry VIII when he came to visit. We ate by candlelight. There were tapestries on the wall and a gilt lock on the door that belonged to Henry. (He was worried about assassination.) We ate:
- A) Crispy Chicken and Truffle, Potato terrine, buttered ceps, chicken wing, onion puree, tarragon cream. B) South Downs Rack of Lamb, Parmentier potato, turnip puree, confit heritage tomato, fresh peas and broad beans, lamb jus. C) Pan Fried Brill, Lobster bisque, buttered asparagus, samphire, marinated jersey royals.
That night we watched a demonstration showing how Anne Boleyn got dressed, and what a complicated procedure that was, layer after layer, requiring two people to assist her. The demonstration took about half an hour, but our Anne Boleyn assured us that for the real one, it would have taken much longer. We also heard a talk from Tracy Borman about her book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, which is just as interesting as it sounds, with all sorts of info about Tudor views on hygiene, education and birth control. And so on.
We stayed that night in luxurious guest rooms located on the grounds of the castle, which meant that in the morning when I woke up, I could wander around Hever Castle by myself. You can see from the pictures how beautiful it is, but I also felt a sense of how far Hever was from the drama of London. I could feel how isolated Anne must have felt during those times she was exiled there. I could imagine her walking alongside me.
But not for long. Because then we were off.
To Penshurst Place
Penshurst Place is a mammoth palace that belonged to the Duke of Buckingham during Tudor times. It was so lavish, in fact, that Henry became suspicious of the Duke’s wealth and power and eventually had him tried for treason and beheaded. At which point Penshurst became the property of the Crown, which is to say, Henry VIII. He used it as a hunting lodge, and it’s likely that he stayed there when he was wooing Anne Boleyn, as it is not that far from Hever Castle. It is easy to imagine Henry in the Baron’s Hall, warming his hands by the fire, sitting at the dais, and perhaps admiring the carved chestnut ceiling that still remains. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the upstairs part of the palace, but scenes from Wolf Hall were filmed there, including the scene below.
Video Credit: British Broadcasting Company
One of the intriguing things about Alison Weir’s new novel on Anne Boleyn is that she suggests that Anne had two older brothers who lived to young adulthood. Alison postulates that one brother, “clever Henry,” was to go to Oxford University and join the church. The eldest brother, Thomas, was sent to Penshurst to “learn courtly manners and the martial arts.” Both brothers died young, making George the unexpected heir to the family name, and she suggests that because he was raised for so long without any expectations, that might have affected his character. All of this was in my mind as we toured Penshurst.
To Leeds Castle
The following day we went to Leeds Castle, which dates back to the Norman times. (I should note that I’m abbreviating our tour schedule to focus on Boleyn-oriented things. In fact, we did about three times the number of things as what I’m listing.)
Leeds Castle is a stunning building situated on islands in the middle of a lake. It looks like something out of an Arthurian legend. In 1520, King Henry and Catherine of Aragon, on their way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, spent a night at Leeds Castle. They had a retinue of more than 5,000 people! Some years later, it is possible that Anne Boleyn stayed here when she and Henry were on their way to France to meet King Francis. This would have been at the height of their romance, not long before they married.
There is also a dog collar museum at the castle, and judging by the Tudor dog collar below, the Tudors had a somewhat different relationship with their dogs than I do.
On to the Swan Hotel
Now we entered the second third of our trip, and we moved into the medieval village of Lavenham, which boasts more than 300 listed buildings. We stayed at the Swan Hotel, which was built in the 15th century. It’s a beautiful hotel, but the ceilings are low (and at 5’ tall, I don’t say that lightly.) To get to our room we had to go up a flight of steps, and then crouch down under two low doorways, turn to the left, and then to the right, and then to the left again. But the room was lovely.
The first place we visited was a church in Bury St. Edmonds which is where Mary Tudor (Henry’s sister) is buried. Anne served as her attendant in 1514 when Mary was briefly Queen of France. After his death, Mary married Charles Brandon, King Henry’s great friend, and there are stained glass windows in the church, donated by Queen Victoria, that commemorates her life. Eventually, she died and was buried at the Benedictine Abbey in Bury St. Edmunds, but when the Abbey was destroyed in 1539, her remains were moved to St. Mary’s church. It’s poignant to see such a prominent woman remembered with such a simple slab. Some centuries after her death, her tomb was opened and workers found her remains there, still with her vivid red hair. Some locks were cut off, and they are now on display at the Moyes Hall Museum. It’s a sort of grisly artifact but it is interesting to look at that red hair and think perhaps that’s what Henry looked like, or Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth.
Our next stop was Cambridge University, which is an absolutely gorgeous place to roam around. You can see from the picture that it looks a little like Venice. There we visited King’s College Chapel, which was started by King Henry VI. The choir was singing as we walked in and what a magnificent sound. The ceiling is fan-vaulted, but what particularly moved me were the carvings on the dark oak screen in the middle of the chapel. If you look carefully, you can see Henry VIII’s initials, and also Anne Boleyn’s. So much of her was erased after her fall. But these carvings, tucked away, escaped notice and so this small bit of her remains.
The last third of the trip
Now we moved out of The Swan and into the Oakley Hall Hotel, which is located right in the middle of Jane Austen territory. I have to confess I began getting my time periods confused and sometimes I imagined I was chatting with Anne Boleyn and other times with Elizabeth Bennet. In any case, our next trip was to Eltham Palace. There we heard historian Elizabeth Norton give a brief history of the place. (She is the author of The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor.) And what a history it had. Henry VIII spent much of his boyhood here. Elizabeth spent time there as a baby, and this was where Anne Boleyn spent her last Christmas. In fact, some of the crimes she was later accused of, were said to have taken place at Eltham. It’s sad to imagine her in this place, pregnant with her last child, hoping for a son, completely unaware of what was about to happen. I felt it a mournful place.
By now, as you might imagine, my mind and legs were wearing out, but we had a few more treats in front of us, one of them being a talk by Alison Weir on how she wrote her new Anne Boleyn novel. As a novelist myself, I was intrigued to hear about how she made the transition from historian to novelist. She made the point that being a novelist frees her to explore Anne’s character and life in ways she can’t as a historian. Historians have to stick to the facts, but novelists can speculate.
On the last night of the trip, we had a fabulous gala dinner at the Mary Rose museum. The Mary Rose was a ship that sank in 1545 and was preserved by silt in the Solent Strait. Discovered in 1971, the ship has been lovingly restored, and it now sits in this incredible museum, which we had all to ourselves. It offers a wonderful view of Tudor life. You can see the clothes and shoes and dice and musical instruments of the men who were on board. The well-known historian David Starkey gave us a lecture on Henry: Model of a Tyrant. And, of course, we had a fabulous dinner:
A ) Beef Fillet & Braised Ox Tail, Grilled Baby Artichokes and Beets, Thyme Baked Fondant Potato Morel and Port Reduction, Horse radish Foam. B ) Gigot of Monkfish in Parma Ham, Vegetable Ribbons, Curly Kale, Tomato and Red Pepper Passata C ) Glazed Goat’s Cheese Spinach and potato Rosti, Beetroot Carpaccio, Fresh basil oil.
End of the Tour
After ten fabulous days, we were back in London. I felt like I’d just earned a college degree. We shared lots of hugs with new friends we hope to see again, perhaps on another tour. There’s one coming up in 2019 on the Great Queens of England.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Breen is the author of the novel, The Fiction Class, which was published by Plume/Penguin. Susan is also the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series, published by the Alibi imprint of Random House. Her stories and articles have appeared in places such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and www.composejournal.com. She teaches novel writing for Gotham Writers in NYC and lives in Irvington, NY with her husband and two cockapoos (dogs). She has three fabulous children who are all off in the world, doing remarkable things. She’s at work on a mystery in which Anne Boleyn is a character. For more information, visit Susan’s website at SUSAN BREEN.
BOOKS BY SUSAN BREEN