Alison Weir is one of the UK’s best-loved and best-selling historians. She’s published seventeen history books and five historical novels, selling over 2.7 million books worldwide. Her latest project is ambitious – a re-telling of the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, in six novels, over six years.
The first, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, is published on 5th May. Packed with rich historical detail it’s an impressive piece of work that gives new insight into the Tudors’ most infamous love triangle and dangles tantalising hints of what’s to come. It’s sure to be one of this year’s bestsellers.
And we have five signed first editions to give away! Just subscribe to Historia by the 31st May 2016 and you’ll automatically be entered into our prize draw.
Historia had the pleasure of talking to Alison on the eve of publication…
In your new series of novels you’re returning to the wives of Henry VIII – the subject of your second book. What is it about the Tudors that keeps you coming back for more?
It’s the dramatic stories. I read a trashy novel about Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – devoured it in two days at the age of 14. It sent me flying off to the library to look at the history books and find out what really happened. It was the drama of that particular story, that love triangle, with the drama of Anne’s fall coming on top of that.
The Tudor period itself is the most colourful in our history. It’s the first period for which we have a really rich record, visually and in terms of documents. With the growth of literacy and portrait painting people are portrayed vividly for the first time. Henry VIII’s matrimonial problems brought the royal marriage to the political fore, which meant that the private side of royal life became public property. With the burgeoning of diplomacy there were some very good, observant ambassadors in England at the time, so we’ve got a lot of personal insights. Unfortunately we don’t have the intimate details we really want – there weren’t witnesses in the bedchamber, unlike there were on occasion on the continent!
I’ve heard you describe Katherine of Aragon as our ‘last medieval queen’ and Anne Boleyn as our ‘first modern queen.’ What sets them apart?
Anne is actually quite unique – there’s no other queen like her. What sets them apart is that Anne was a radical, probably the only radical queen we’ve ever had. None of Henry’s other wives were like that. Katherine Parr held heretical views, but she kept them to herself. Anne pushed things. If you look at the banned books that she was getting Henry to read, you’ve got the seeds of the Reformation. She’s incredibly powerful but also she doesn’t conform to the ideal of medieval queenship that Katherine embodied in every respect other than bearing a son. You can see why Anne was considered shocking by many of her contemporaries. Of course, you can’t apply modern perceptions to the sixteenth century. Religion governed most people’s lives, and now we live in a secular society. Actually, since 9/11 I’ve found that people understand the religious fundamentalism of the sixteenth century much better.
You’ve been writing about these women for a long time. Has your perception of them changed?
I’ve finished the Anne Boleyn novel, and my perception of her has changed, but I’m not going to say too much at this stage.
Has public perception of Anne changed as well?
As a historian it’s a matter of concern because so many perceptions of Anne are based on The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl. At one time, if you Googled Anne Boleyn you got the portraits – now you get Natalie Portman and Natalie Dormer. She’s become a celebrity and people project their own fantasies and expectations on her. She’s also become a controversial figure. We all have a different Anne Boleyn, but many are far removed from the one who appears in the historical sources.
Like you, I’m interested in bringing women’s history to the fore. What changes have you seen in this area over your career?
When I first started looking at history books – we’re talking about the late 60s and early 70s – women like Katherine Swynford or Mary Boleyn would have been footnotes to history. Nobody would have considered a biography of either. Women were not considered to be influential. You’ll have heard David Starkey’s view that most history is made by European white middle-class males – it’s actually true – but retrieving women’s histories doesn’t mean overstating their importance, it just means they’re interesting in their own right. When I started there was no way that Anne Boleyn was considered the catalyst for the Reformation and now you’ve got people like Diarmaid MacCulloch saying she’s one of the chief causes. There was a lot of chauvinism in historical writing and anything by women was considered lightweight. When I was first published in ’89 there was still a big divide between popular and academic history.
Your books are often described as ‘popular history’. Do you like or loathe that tag?
I write narrative history, basically, and I make it accessible, but I’m using the same sources as academic historians. I’m quite happy to be called a popular historian because history is for us all. It’s not the property of one person or body of persons. Every book is a contribution to the debate at a given time and it’ll soon be out of date in one respect or another.
Moving on to fiction – why did you decide to make the jump from non-fiction to fiction?
In the late 90’s I was researching Eleanor of Aquitaine for a biography. With medieval women you’re dealing with fragments of information that you have to piece together to make a credible whole. It came to me that the only way you could fill those gaps was to write fiction. When I was young I tried all kinds of projects and wrote a few novels for fun, so I decided to try again. I chose Lady Jane Grey as a subject – a very poignant, romantic story I was familiar with. I wrote a novel called ‘Light after the Darkness’ and sent it off to my agent, who said it was ‘faction’. He told me to get off the fence and be a novelist. So I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. I was also told that novels about historical figures were not selling. This was the late nineties and it was seen as an old fashioned genre. But, in 2000, The Other Boleyn Girl was published and I decided to have another go. So I rewrote that novel and it was taken by Hutchinson. Then they wanted more.
You’ve spoken often about the importance of accuracy in historical fiction. It’s a never-ending debate. Why is it so important to you?
Because I’m a historian and it’s my trade. I’ve spent my career devoted to finding the truth, or as near the truth as we can ever get. So I do care very much about accuracy. In historical fiction I think if you’re writing about real characters you should use the facts where they exist and use your creative imagination to fill in the gaps or invent intimate details. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people did the things they did, and that’s tricky as a novelist because you’ve got to come down on one side or another and it’s got to be credible. I think if you make things up or indulge in flights of fancy then you’re selling short those who know a lot and those who know a little. And a lot of people prefer to get their history from novels.
Have you ever had any situations where you’ve been torn between the historical facts and the creative possibilities as a novelist?
In my second novel, The Lady Elizabeth, about the young Elizabeth I, I showed her having an illicit pregnancy – which has been suggested by historians – by Thomas Seymour, her stepfather. He definitely ‘romped’ with her and was caught by his wife Katherine Parr in a compromising situation – we don’t know the details – but Elizabeth was sent away and he ended up executed. As a historian I’ve argued that there is some evidence on which to base this storyline, but it’s not good enough to support the theory that she was pregnant. There were rumours of a child being born, but as I historian I would discount them. Yet, as a novelist, you can ask, What if?
Do you read historical fiction or do you find it easier to read a completely different genre for fun?
I tend to read more mystery novels when I’m reading for fun. And I like to read older authors – Norah Lofts, Anya Seton, Edward Rutherfurd. I lose patience if I pick up a book and the author hasn’t done their research. One book I’ve enjoyed recently is The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader – it’s very good.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished the Anne Boleyn novel and I’ve got another project running concurrently with the Six Tudor Queens series, which I can’t talk about – a non-fiction project of four books – so things are pretty busy!
To win one of five signed first editions of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, simply sign up Historia. And don’t worry, if you’ve already subscribed, you’ll automatically be entered. Winners will be selected at random and will be notified in June.