Interview with Alison Weir

Alison Weir is one of the best-selling authors of history in the world, publishing both non-fiction and fiction. She concentrates largely on the Tudor period, but has also written about the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in her biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Katherine Swynford.

Her nine non-fiction books on the Tudor and Stuart period include: Henry VIII: King and Court; The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Elizabeth the Queen; The Lady in the Tower (Anne Boleyn); Lost Tudor Princess (a life of Lady Margaret Douglas) and Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley.

In addition, Alison has published extremely popular novels about the period, including Innocent Traitor and A Dangerous Inheritance about Lady Jane and Lady Katherine Grey respectively as well as The Marriage Game, about Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley.

Alison’s latest project is a series of novels on each of the wives of Henry VIII. The first, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen will be released on 5th May 2016. I am sure we are all waiting with bated breath!

TT: You began as a non-fiction writer, only beginning to write fiction after some 10 non-fiction books. What made you want to expand your writing?

AW: It began when I was writing my non-fiction book, Eleanor of Aquitaine. I was frustrated because so much of what we have is fragments written by monks, which gives a very skewed perspective. Of course, we’ll never be able to fill those gaps now, so I started thinking about how writing fiction could be used to fill them – I’d done lots of fiction projects previously, but nothing that was suitable for publication. I thought I’d start with something quite short, so I began a project just for fun on Lady Jane Grey, which I wrote very quickly. I later updated it, put it in the present tense, and the first person perspective – and that became my first novel. I still enjoy doing both. My current project on the Six Wives as fiction was absolutely my own choice – but I wanted something I could live with for years!

TT: You have said in the past that you think fiction writers should stay with known facts, rather than changing events?

AW: Absolutely. There is enough interest in the real stories for writers not to need to invent anything. I think it does a real disservice, not just to those who know a lot about the subject, but also to those who know very little. People believe that what they read in novels is based on fact, and so historical fiction should reflect the facts where they exist. Where there are no records, I use my imagination to invent thoughts or actions that are credible in the context of what we know about the character.

TT: You have said that your fiction series on the Six Wives has grown out of the research you are doing for a new edition of your non-fiction The Six Wives of Henry VIII. What led you to want to revisit the wives?

AW: I wrote the original book in 1989-90 (on a typewriter!) and there has been a lot of new research since then, both my own and other people’s. The research I did for my book Henry VIII: King and Court superseded some of what I wrote in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and also my work on the fall of Anne Boleyn (The Lady in the Tower) uncovered a lot of new material, so the book is almost a total rewrite. I have a lot of other projects on, so it is a long-term project.

TT: You have hinted (and we know you won’t want to give away too many secrets), that your new research had uncovered some interesting facts about Katharine of Aragon’s life and death. Can you tell us about the sources you have been using, that might be different from previously used ones?

AW: The new research I have used is from the Spanish sources used by Patrick Williams in his biography of Katharine. Most British writers have just used the Calendars of Spanish State Papers, because of language difficulties, but he went back to original unpublished archive sources.

TT: One of the key questions about Katharine of Aragon is the question of whether she and Arthur consummated their marriage. Has the new research shed any light on this?

AW: Katharine maintained that the marriage was not consummated and I believe that – she was a woman of integrity. But it is also supported by the sources. Evidence from her doctor in the Spanish archives reveals that Arthur was very thin and lacked the strength to consummate the marriage as he was in the last stages of consumption. There is also the evidence of Katharine’s maid-of-honour, Francesca de Caceres. Katharine told her, on the morning after the wedding, that the marriage had not been consummated and that she doubted it ever would be.

TT: You mention Arthur’s poor health. Is there any other evidence of that?

AW: Yes, in July 1500 it was reported that Henry VII was worried that his son would not be strong enough the following year for marriage. Also, he was an eight-months baby and for up to the first two years of his life he stayed at Farnham (near Winchester, where he was born), probably because it wasn’t thought safe to move him. Of course, the consummation, or not, of the marriage was not really the issue in theological terms. It was Henry VIII who kept making that the crux of the argument.

TT: Can you explain more about that?

AW: The theological issue should really have centred on whether Arthur and Katharine had had children. Deuteronomy insists on the brother marrying a widow if the original husband had not had children by her. This was the rule that was usually followed in Biblical times, and wives sometimes married several brothers in succession. But Henry VIII relied on Leviticus, which forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow, although the ban in Leviticus did not apply when the brother had died childless, as Arthur had. Henry was an intelligent and well-educated man, but he was not as good a theologian as he thought he was.

TT: What research have you been able to do that rounds out the characters of the queens about whom less is known – Jane Seymour and Katheryn Howard in particular. Is it difficult to make the later queens more than just afterthoughts to the great Katharine of Aragon/Anne Boleyn rivalry?

AW: The books are looking at the whole lives of the women, not just their time as Henry’s wives, so there is a whole back-story, particularly for Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr (who had four husbands). And there are, of course back-stories, for Jane Seymour, and the very sad life of Katheryn Howard. She was used by men – and there are indications she was being black-mailed by people who knew about her relationship with Francis Dereham – who was at least sixteen years older than her. Thomas Culpepper, who was accused of committing adultery with Katheryn, was not a nice man – he had raped a woman whilst his men held her down, but Henry had pardoned him because he liked him.

TT: Do you think there are any character traits that Henry VIII found attractive, that are common to the wives?

AW: I think he was looking for women who were like his mother – the perfect mediaeval queen. Katharine was the last of the truly mediaeval queens. Anne Boleyn was a radical – you can see why people at the time were uncomfortable with her. The banned books that she persuaded Henry to read had a huge influence on him. With Jane Seymour, he was reverting to the pattern of a wife like his mother. Sir John Russell described his marriage with Jane as coming from hell into heaven.

TT: I am sure you have been asked already whether you feel a stronger emotional resonance with one of the queens. Do you have such a preference?Is this changing as you work through the series and become involved in the lives of the individual women?

AW: You have to dissociate your own feelings, or even your opinion as a historian, and try to think about the situation from the woman’s own point of view. With the series about the Six Wives, there is a lot of overlap, so I have tried to enter into the mind of each queen and see her behaviour from her own perspective, even if to an observer things she did are hard to comprehend. Anne Boleyn was very unkind to Katharine’s daughter Mary, but when the reader understands that she was frightened for herself and her own position, it becomes more understandable.

TT: Katharine was only fifteen when she left Spain – what part of her upbringing do you think stayed with her longest?

AW: Her mother. Isabella of Castile was a strong, pious and powerful monarch, which explains why Katharine could not understand why Henry would not accept their daughter Mary as a suitable heir. Isabella was also very fond of her children. There was a lot of her in Katharine.

TT: Although the purpose of the marriage between Arthur and Katharine, and then that of Henry and Katharine, was to cement an alliance between England and Spain, her father, Ferdinand of Aragon, double-crossed Henry more than once. What effect does that have on Katharine and her marriage in your book?

AW: Henry took a long time to get over his anger. He had pursued a Spanish alliance because he trusted Katharine and respected her opinions – so he was shocked at Ferdinand’s behaviour. I think this is where the rot began to set in in the marriage.

TT: One of the greatest tragedies in Katharine’s life must have been the loss of the little Henry, Duke of Cornwall.What do you think would have happened to Henry and Katharine’s marriage had he lived?

AW: I am sure that, if there had been a son, Henry and Katharine’s marriage would have continued and the whole history of the period would have unfolded quite differently – the Reformation would not have happened, or not in the way it did, for example.

TT: As well as writing about Henry’s wives, you have also published a book on his mistress, Mary Boleyn. Does your research into Katharine suggest that she was of a jealous nature – did she mind about Mary and her predecessor, Bessie Blount?

AW: I don’t think Katharine ever knew about Mary. If she had, she would have used Henry’s request for a dispensation to allow him to marry Anne, even though they had an affinity through his relationship with Mary Boleyn, as a weapon. The fact that he wanted the same kind of dispensation to marry Anne as he had had for the marriage to Katharine would have shown him as a hypocrite and undermined his case completely. Although the Emperor’s Ambassador, Chapuys, had heard rumours about the affair with Mary Boleyn, neither he nor the Emperor seemed to take it seriously. As for other relationships Henry might have had – Katharine was certainly angry the first time he probably strayed, with Anne, Lady Hastings, and she was upset about the promotion of his bastard, Henry FitzRoy to the dukedom of Richmond, but Renaissance kings were often unfaithful, and she just had to put up with it. Henry generally strayed when she was pregnant as marital relations were forbidden then.

TT: We also have a question from Joy, one of Tudor Times’ readers:

Can I have some fun and ask, if your book were made into a film - who would you like to see as Katharine and Henry?

AW: Oh, goodness, now you are asking. Perhaps Andrew Lincoln or Jared Harris as Henry. I am not sure about Katharine…Maria Doyle Kennedy was very good as her in The Tudors – but I do wish she had been given fair hair. Katharine is always portrayed as dark, but she had red-gold hair.

TT: The picture that has been claimed to be of Katharine as a young woman, has now been shown probably to be of Mary, the French Queen, so we have no certain likeness of her in youth. Can you shed any light on what she might have looked like?

AW: According to descriptions, she was very like her sister, Juana. A later picture of Katharine in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston shows her as having a very strong jaw. She was considered beautiful when she was young, but by 1515, reports were not so flattering. Having several pregnancies close together, and losing five children, may have aged her.

TT: This is a question from Dianne, another of our readers:

Katharine was a staunch Catholic and yet has continued to be respected and admired by non-believers as well as believers - flowers are frequently left at her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral – what is it about her that arouses such loyalty even today?

AW: She was a woman of integrity, who stood up for a principle. She endured a huge amount to stand up for what she believed to be right, and people still recognise that. She could have had a much easier life if she had given Henry what he wanted. He was very generous to Anne of Cleves when they divorced, even though the marriage was never consummated and lasted only six months. I am sure he would have done much more for Katharine. But she was fighting, not just for herself, but for her daughter. Of course, if she had accepted that the marriage was invalid at the beginning, Mary could still have been counted as legitimate, as Henry and Katharine had married in good faith, but she would have ranked behind a son in the succession. But that is really why Katharine is still admired – she stood up for what she believed in.

TT: Thank you so much for talking to Tudor Times, and sharing your insights into this much-loved queen.