By Nancy Bilyeau
I am thrilled to share my interview with not only one of the most successful historians writing today but also a personal hero: Alison Weir. My first Alison Weir book was The Princes in the Tower. It was fascinating--both provocative and convincing. Alison's books are history made compulsively readable; the research is extensive and yet it never, ever dulls the narrative.
One of my favorite aspects of Alison's writing is her shrewd, perceptive and yet deliciously stinging assessment of the major players in English history. I will treat you to her description of queen-to-be Elizabeth Wydville in The Wars of the Roses:
"Elizabeth had once been one of Queen Margaret's ladies, which firmly placed her in the wrong camp to start with. She was of medium height, with a good figure, and she was beautiful, having long gilt-blonde hair and an alluring smile. Edward was oblivious to the fact that she was also calculating, ambitious, devious, greedy, ruthless and arrogant."
Alison Weir has written extensively about Tudor and Plantagenet England, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth I. When she published The Lady in the Tower in 2009, covering the arrest, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, I wondered what new perspective she-- or anyone--could possibly bring to this thoroughly written about queen. I had my answer when I came to the last page of the book, moved to tears as I realized as never before how completely abandoned Anne was after her husband rejected her and how difficult it must have been to rally her strength and courage.
Beginning with the the bestseller Innocent Traitor, Alison also writes historical fiction. Her new book is A Dangerous Inheritance: A Novel of Tudor Rivals and the Secret of the Tower. It is the story of two women of history: Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, who was herself imprisoned in the Tower after a secret marriage during the reign of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Not only does the novel bring these women to life with poignant detail but it connects them in surprising--and suspenseful-- ways.
Without further ado...Alison Weir.
Nancy Bilyeau: After I finished A Dangerous Inheritance, I felt disturbed by how lost in their dangerous times these two women were. Was that one of your goals in writing the book, to illuminate how less-well-known women of that age could come to tragedy?
Alison Weir: Yes, it was. I am always interested in retrieving women's histories, and I wanted to show how the constaints of noble birth, royal blood and gender could impact on young girls.
NB: Did you become intrigued by Katherine Grey while researching Lady Jane Grey for your novel and decide then to tell her story as well? And how different she was from her sister!
AW: I became intrigued years ago when I read Two Tudor Portraits by Hester W. Chapman. I wrote Katherine's story in Elizabeth the Queen, but not in any great depth, but I knew enough of it to know that it was a very dramatic tale--and a tragic one. She was very different from Lady Jane Grey; she was beautiful where Jane was plain, placid where Jane was feisty; she was no bluestocking or formidably learned, as Jane was, and in some ways she comes across as lacking in common sense and forethought, but one cannot but feel sympathy for her.
NB: What do you think of the current theory that Frances Brandon was not as abusive to her daughter Jane Grey as historically assumed? Frances was a complex figure in your novel.
AW: I don't buy it! We have Jane's own testimony and other evidence. A historian friend, Nicola Tallis, is writing a biography of Frances, and she believes the traditional view is the correct one--although maybe Henry Grey was even more unpleasant!
NB: Elizabeth I is known to have disliked Katherine Grey and refused to name her heir even before the scandalous marriage and pregnancy. Do you think the dislike was at all justified and would Katherine Grey have made a good queen of England in the 16th century?
AW: Katherine's own behavior--her failure to convert back to the Protestant faith and her flirtations with Spain--was not conducive to Elizabeth thinking kindly of her, but Elizabeth was pretty paranoid about anyone with a claim to the succession, so Katherine was damned from the start. She was pretty and she was younger than the Queen--red flags to a bull!--and she acted very rashly in marrying Edward Seymour. It undermined Elizabeth's policy, threatened her throne, and must have been galling to a queen who rejected marriage for political--and probably psychological--reasons. Katherine did not have what it took to be a queen, neither the brains nor the resolve. She lived in a fantasy world. I can understand why Elizabeth was harsh with her--and in many ways I think it was justified.
NB: How much is known about Richard III's daughter, Kate Plantagenet? Was it more challenging or more interesting to develop her character and plot, since there is less documentation of her life than Katherine Grey's?
AW: Yes, she is mentioned in only four documents--a gift to any novelist, as her life is a blank canvas. But I knew the context of it, as I've studied Richard III's reign over many years. I had to rely on a lot of detective work, inference and probability.
NB: Why did you decide to tell their stories in one book, and not write a book on each of them?
AW: The idea for the book evolved gradually. It was originally going to be based on the premise that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard, Duke of York, but I couldn't make that work, given the source material and the flimsy premise on which he based his claim. I liked the idea of a mystery with a supernatural theme, possibly a timeslip. I wanted to find a new way in which to explore the fate of the Princes in the Tower, and I needed a love story to replace that of Perkin Warbeck and Katherine Gordon. I also wanted to write a sequel to Innocent Traitor. It occurred to me too that writing about Richard III from the point of view of the daughter who loved him would be a novel approach. Eventually, all these ideas came together--and after many nights spent lying awake wondering how to meld them!
NB: The character and actions of Richard III loom large in this book. He fascinates, if not obsesses, people of that time. And couldn't it be argued, with the archaeological dig in Leicester, that he fascinates us today? Why is that?
AW: People love a mystery, and they also love conspiracy theories. Yes, Richard fascinates--and many become obsessed, which concerns me. As a historian, I feel I must be objective and not emotionally involved. There is a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence that Richard had the Princes murdered and he was a ruthless operator. If there was convincing evidence to counteract that, I would go with it. But nothing I have read has changed my view.
NB: Your view of Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort was not positive in the novel. Have you always thought of them in this way or did research for the book form newer evaluations?
AW: Some see Henry VII as a Machiavellian ruler; it's trendy nowadays to view Margaret Beaufort as sinister. Historically, I take a different view, but this was fiction, and they are seen from the point of view of Richard's daughter, so naturally she would find them menacing.
Thank you, Alison Weir, for agreeing to this interview, and for more information, go to http://alisonweir.org.uk/
This interview originally ran on the site A Bloody Good Read in November 2012.