Historical author Alison Weir on best-selling books, Henry VIII's wives and Carshalton life
PUBLISHED: 11:35 01 June 2015 | UPDATED: 16:43 23 April 2018
One of Britain's best-selling historical authors, Alison Weir has sold more than 2.7 million books worldwide - and has recently unearthed new evidence about Henry VIII's famous queens for the next. Claire Saul went to visit her at home in Carshalton...
If the Through the Keyhole cameras were allowed to visit Alison Weir’s Carshalton home, the panel would have no trouble in identifying either the owner’s career or the driving passion behind it. Row upon row of reference books, including multiple editions of the many titles penned by the lady herself, as well as historical prints on the walls and even cushions bearing the portraits of six famous wives, bear witness to the author’s considerable expertise.
With a writing career that has seen sales of 2.7 million books to date, Alison is one of our best-selling and most admired historians – but it all started, rather inauspiciously, with a doctor’s note.
“I was 14 and off sick and the doctor signed me off school for a week,” recalls Alison. “So my mother told me to go and get a book from the library next to the surgery. My parents had always encouraged me to read when I was young, and she was upset because I had stopped reading books and was reading comics and pop magazines instead.
“Anyway, I was attracted by the cover of a book called Henry’s Golden Queen, by Lozania Prole, about Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. At home, I devoured it in two days – they couldn’t get me out of the chair! It was really trashy, but I was just absolutely hooked by this incredible story. When I went back to school, I went straight to the history books in the library to find out what happened next.”
And so a lifelong fascination began, sparked further with the teenager’s compilation of a three-volume history of the Tudors, complete with contemporary sources, family trees mapped out on rolls of wallpaper, projects, plays and records of useful information, and even her own biography of Anne Boleyn.
“My mother really encouraged it,” says Alison. “She was on her own then and there wasn’t much money, but I remember that she scraped enough together to take me to Hampton Court Palace and Hever Castle in Kent. Of course, there was no internet or anything like that then. It was also harder to get hold of reference books, so my early writing is quite patchy. However, I started the work then that actually became my first published book in 1989, Britain’s Royal Families. It went through eight editions over 22 years before I actually submitted it for publication.”
A potted history
Having originally trained as a history teacher, Alison became disillusioned with the education system and joined the Civil Service, where she worked for nine years, before becoming a full-time mother to her son John and daughter Kate (named after Katherine of Aragon) in 1983. She started writing again in earnest once her children began nursery, sealing her first publishing deal after several attempts in 1988, and writing alongside running her own school for children with learning difficulties.
Then in 1997, with three more books, The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses; and Children of England: the Heirs of King Henry VIII, added to her portfolio of published work, she became a full-time writer.
That portfolio has expanded considerably over the last 18 years, now tallying 21 books, with the 22nd, The Lost Tudor Princess, on Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, due later this year. Also in the pipeline are six novels on Henry VIII’s wives, to be published in 2016. It seems the public fascination for the Tudor era remains unabated, fuelled by the success of historical dramas, book titles, anniversaries and events.
“This is the first period of history for which we have a large range of documented source material,” explains Alison. “This is due to the growth of literacy and also the growth of diplomacy, which provides us with numerous ambassadors’ reports. And Henry VIII’s matrimonial affairs, particularly his Great Matter (the annulment of his marriage to Katherine, for which he needed a dispensation from the Pope), become a legitimate matter of public interest. It was controversial then and it remains controversial now. Yet although we have much information, there is still quite a lot we don’t know for certain, and so there is huge room for discussion and debate, and historians can differ wildly on it.
“This is also a period for which we have an amazing visual record. We have the remains of marvellous palaces such as Hampton Court, and vivid portraiture, thanks to great artists such as Lucas Horenbout and Hans Holbein. It is an era of magnificence and conspicuous display and I think people find it totally fascinating.”
But for all the information available to us on the Tudor royals and their court, Alison believes that there is still plenty of mileage for new work in this well-mined area of history. Indeed, she has revisited the research for her original 1991 book on Henry and his matrimonial affairs and updated it with new observations and facts plus brand-new evidence that has since come to light. Anne Boleyn is a case in point, although guests at her September talk in Richmond shouldn’t hold their breath for the ‘big reveal’.
“I have found something quite startling about her but you will have to wait for my book to find out what that is!” Alison laughs. “When I wrote The Lady in the Tower in 2009, I studied the four months before Anne’s fall in unprecedented detail. When I looked at the source material, I realised that people hadn’t mined it properly and that what it was telling us actually puts a rather different complexion on what was happening at the time.”
Spreading the word
Alison greatly enjoys her talks, which take her to speak to enthralled audiences all over the country. This month, she is giving a talk on Elizabeth I at the National Archives in Kew, an historical character for whom, above all, she professes great admiration.
“She was a great survivor, a woman in a male-dominated age who inherited a bankrupt kingdom. She was a bastard, a heretic and a usurper in the eyes of Catholic Europe, yet 45 years later, she was still there! That is incredible, it really is. She was flawed, like any other person, but she was a great and inspirational queen.
“I love doing my talks because it means that I can meet people who are as passionate about history as I am, discuss it with them and get a feel for what they think. For me, Hampton Court Palace is the ultimate place to speak. I remember the first time I spoke in the Great Hall there and I was thinking, ‘What can I do now? This is it...’
“I’ll be talking there again this month. The Prince Expected in Due Season is about Henry VIII’s quest for a son. It will be about my fourth or fifth talk in the Great Hall now and I have to pinch myself. It’s still hard to believe that it’s really happening!”
My Favourite Surrey...
Home… My husband Rankin and I moved to Carshalton because we had relatives here going back on both sides of the family to the 1920s. We thought it was a perfect area in which to bring children up and had a lovely, villagey feel. We moved to Scotland for two years in early 2002 and had to come back!
View… The Hog’s Back near Guildford is absolutely beautiful; also Box Hill is lovely. I can remember when I was living in London and working at the top of Archway Tower in the early 1980s; on a clear day, you could see the North Downs, the Surrey Downs and even the faint line of the South Downs too. I used to yearn to be out there. Whenever I see the Surrey Downs now, I think, “Yes, I got here!”
Shop... M&S in Sutton! It is very accessible, just 10 minutes up the road and it is a very good shop. While I like Kingston too, it is a bit of a hike from here and the car park I used to use has closed.
Restaurant… Il Toscano, near Sutton Station. It is the most wonderful Italian restaurant. We measure all restaurants against it; it is so good and they know us well.
Place to visit... Hampton Court Palace! It draws me all the time. I think you could spend a lifetime studying the palace and you would never find out everything about it. It is just pure magic as far as its historical appeal is concerned.
Relaxing spot... Home! Where else? Rankin and I watch a couple of hours of DVDs or catch up on television dramas or films after I stop work at 9pm. I often go back on the computer late at night and I’m enjoying going through the BBC’s online collection of Your Paintings at the moment.