Alison Weir on her Six Tudor Queens series and the history of Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 June 2020
The historian and best-selling author discusses her latest novel and her affinity to Derbyshire
What a character!’ exclaims Alison Weir, the UK’s best-selling female historian who, by definition, knows a thing or two about figures of the past.
Our conversation has briefly touched on Elizabeth Talbot (formerly Cavendish), Countess of Shrewsbury.
Bess of Hardwick, as she is commonly known, is a character etched in the fabric of Derbyshire history; one of those fiendishly rare Tudor figures who rose to prominence from a relatively low base - and stayed there.
A female trailblazer in a male-dominated world she was, in many ways, ahead of her time.
The famous prodigy houses she is so synonymous with, Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House chiefly, helped cement Derbyshire’s reputation as a must-visit location for anybody with a penchant for history and heritage; a status that holds true over 400 years since she left her imprints on our county.
‘We’ve done several historical tours through Derbyshire, it’s a wonderful part of the world,’ says Alison, who has published 29 books since her 1989 debut title, Britain’s Royal Families.
‘It’s a county with incredibly rich heritage with fantastic places to visit. You have Bolsover, Haddon, Hardwick and of course Chatsworth; I have relatives who live near Chatsworth so we’re up there quite a lot. I love the area, it’s beautiful.’
Another famous Tudor figure, Katheryn Howard, is the focus of our chat on a bright sun-drenched late April day; a stark contrast to the considerably darker nature of the life we are discussing.
The ill-fated Katheryn, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, is the protagonist of Alison’s Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, the penultimate novel in her acclaimed six-book fictional series highlighting the life and times of Henry’s six wives from their perspectives.
And, judged against the four published books that precede it, Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen explores a very unique figure and set of circumstances.
‘There is a huge contrast between her and the four preceding queens’, argues Alison.
‘She was very much manipulated by the men in her life, she was quite wayward. Of all the men she got involved with the one who really loved her, the King, was the one who sent her to her death.
‘It was a very sad situation. She was manipulated, particularly by her family. Jane Seymour comes closest in that respect, but Katheryn hadn’t come from the stable family background Jane had. She had lost her mother early on, while her father died abroad having left her with a step grandmother who doesn’t seem to have taken much interest in her.
‘It was the Duke of Norfolk who pushed her into the King’s path amid the backdrop of two competing factions at Court, the Catholics and the Reformers, some of whom were secret Protestants; she was very much used as a pawn.
‘By the time the King became interested in her she was already involved with Thomas Culpepper, a member of Henry’s Privy Chamber and one of the King’s chief gentlemen. Thomas was pursuing her and there was talk of marriage before the King came along; she was naturally seduced by the splendour and glamour of becoming Queen.’
Katheryn’s fate – and Henry’s propensity to ruthlessly dispatching his wives if they displeased him - is well known. Likely to have still been a teenager, or at most in her very early twenties, she was painfully young when she was condemned to execution for treason in February 1542.
While there’s naturally sympathy for Katheryn’s cause – her treatment seems abhorrent in a modern context - the events that led to her downfall are baffling; especially given the precedent set by Henry when removing his second wife, Anne Boleyn, six years previously.
‘It beggars belief that she carried on an affair with Culpepper. She had known what had happened to her cousin Anne Boleyn,’ says Alison incredulously.
‘She knew she should be circumspect and that there should be no taint of suspicion about her. What does she do? She carries on a clandestine affair. I don’t think it went all the way, but the intention was there.
‘She doesn’t hear anything from Henry once she has been arrested, she’s taken from Court and is completely in the dark as to what is happening to her.’
Alison’s vision to complete the six-book series in as many years has been an ambitious undertaking that is edging closer to completion. The latest book is written – although its UK release date has been pushed back to 6th August due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While the writing of each novel is a meticulous undertaking, arriving at the concept for the series was an altogether more spontaneous affair.
‘It was a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment really,’ explains Alison. ‘I was sitting in my agent’s office in the autumn of 2014 discussing ideas for future novels. We had talked about a trilogy of novels on Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, but I found myself asking whether I really wanted to spend the next few years with Richard III!
‘Suddenly the idea came to me – six novels on the six wives of Henry VIII. I told my agent and his face just lit up; he knew it was a concept that would be of interest to publishers.’
For an historian renowned for carefully researched biographies, is the transition between fiction and non-fiction challenging, and how far does Alison veer from the perceived truth when writing novels?
‘I think you have to write what is credible within the context of what is known about the subject,’ she suggests.
‘In every novel there is a fictional thread based on some historical evidence, however dubious – it’s a case of asking the question ‘what if this had happened?’
‘For example, if you take my fourth novel in the series, Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets, there is evidence that she wasn’t as virtuous as people might have thought, so I put those hints together and constructed a tale around them.
‘But if you do that in a historical novel you have to explain why you have done it and what you have based it on, because these are real people, they really lived. With my historian hat on, I would of course be far more cautious about coming down on that side but as a novelist you can ask ‘what if.’’
As with all the novels in the series, Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, is a very personal look at these turbulent and history-defining times exclusively through the eyes and thoughts of Henry’s wife. That, coupled with the hours of research undertaken throughout her career, means Alison naturally develops an affinity to those she writes about.
‘My husband sometimes refers to Henry as the other man in my life!’ she jokes.
‘However, you have to remember that we don’t know these people really, they lived too long ago. You have to look at as much source material as possible to build a picture and get a perspective for what they were like.
‘With someone like Elizabeth I or Henry VIII that is easy because there is so much source material. When it comes to someone like Anne Boleyn it’s more difficult because we just don’t have the letters that we have for Katherine of Aragon, for example, so we can’t determine exactly what she was like.’
Alison is based in the south east, a veritable treasure trove of Tudor history given that the period’s monarchs and their respective courts largely based themselves in and around London.
However, wherever you are in the country you are unlikely to be too far from places that have been touched by the Tudor period. Equally, passion for the era is never far away; Derbyshire being no exception.
‘I’ve spoken at the Buxton International Festival several times – Buxton, of course, being associated with Mary Queen of Scots who stayed there, recalls Alison.
‘I also really enjoy doing the Derby Book Festival, it’s a big event and it’s always great to see such a knowledgeable and passionate audience; it’s a fantastic buzz. It’s cancelled this year for obvious reasons but hopefully it can return in 2021.
‘It’s a fantastic part of the world and one we always look to when we’re planning our tours. We’ll definitely do parts of forthcoming tours in Derbyshire moving forward; it’s a popular location.’
Centuries since this tumultuous but eminently fascinating period ended, the Tudor ‘brand’ is arguably as strong as it has ever been; the people and events as compelling as ever.
While other dynasties have retreated to the footnotes of history, the Tudors remain hugely evocative. Indeed, our thirst for knowledge and understanding of them remains relentless as the years, decades and centuries since Elizabeth’s death - she famously never married or produced an heir that would have continued the Tudor line - signalled the end of the dynasty slowly tick by.
But what makes this relatively short period of history – Henry VII’s unlikely victory at Bosworth to his granddaughter Elizabeth’s death spanned just 118 years – so enduring?
‘The Tudor Dynasty is a dramatic story with dynamic characters who are vividly brought to life, explains Alison.
‘Because for the first time in our history we have good sources to reference; go back just a few short years to Richard III’s reign for example and the sources are very sparse.’
‘The Tudor period comes with the growth of diplomacy and the spread of printing, while Henry VIII brought the Royal Marriage to the fore for the first time. Ambassadors were reporting every snippet of information, which they saw as fascinating.
‘Therefore we have access to diplomatic reports, we have a more literate society emerging and we also have a great visual record of the period. We have the portraits of Holbein, the remnants of the most sumptuous palaces such as Hampton Court and, of course, the great prodigy houses in Derbyshire. We know what these people looked like, we can see evidence of the magnificence in which they lived - it was an era where if you had it, you flaunted it; and they did.’
As someone who has dedicated her career to understanding this period of history, the answer to each question flows effortlessly from Alison’s lips. Just one has her momentarily stumped.
Of all the many Tudor characters she has researched and written about in a literary career spanning four decades, which has given her the most pleasure to write about?
‘Probably Elizabeth I,’ she says after taking a moment to consider.
‘It’s close between her, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn but Elizabeth showed such strength of character; a survivor with great staying power. She inherited a bankrupt kingdom and was still there 45 years later.
‘She’s such a gift to a biographer, she was incredibly eloquent and comes across so vividly in all her speeches and letters. She’s a dynamic character who allows you to get a very real sense of her as a person.’
Elizabeth is once recorded as proclaiming ‘There is no lady in this land that I better love and like’ than Bess of Hardwick. Alison’s choice is one that our own Bess would undoubtedly approve of.
About Alison Weir
An acclaimed historian and writer, Alison Weir has sold more that three million books worldwide; including more than two million copies in the USA. Her latest novel, Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, part of the Six Tudor Queens series, is available to pre-order now ahead of its release on 6th August.
For this and all other titles, as well as more about Alison’s career, visit www.alisonweir.org.uk