Report from Alison Weir seminar

Here is Kathy’s report on the seminar with Alison Weir last week. BIG thanks for the write-up Kathy!

This was a very long and very interesting day. The venue at the Smithsonian, a very large auditorium, was completely sold out. I had gotten there early with a friend, so we had fairly good seats for the morning lecture on Elizabeth I. I have never seen anybody read a speech for two hours without pausing for at least a drink of water, but Alison Weir did that and made it interesting. She concentrated mainly on what she thought were the main forces that shaped Elizabeth’s character from her birth on up until she was declared queen. As there was an afternoon session and there was a programmed time for lunch, we had a brief question period after this. The main interest here I thought was that she expressed her opinion that Elizabeth was actually a virgin and died one, but this wasn’t brought about by the death of her mother (which she could scarcely have been aware of at the time) but because of the death of Katherine Howard and of Katherine Paar, love/childbirth coming to be equated with death. She also expressed the opinion on the death of Amy Robsart (Leceister’s wife) that if it wasn’t a natural death due to breast cancer that Cecil had a part in it because his actions at this time were very much out of character and that he could have had her killed to rein in Leicester’s power.

My friend and I decided to hike over to the National Gallery of Art for lunch, which was probably a mistake, as the lunches were nothing special and we got back to the auditorium too late to get the good seats we’d had that morning. But the lecture on Katherine Swynford, I thought, was riveting. I enjoyed it very much, though I have to say that in neither lecture did I learn anything that I hadn’t known before.

As there was more time, we had a longer question session in the afternoon and I asked bearded lady’s question which I phrased as, “As a writer of history aimed at popular audiences, have you ever had any criticism from academic historians?” She laughed and said she had had that problem intially back in the ’90’s when she was just starting out. But that had changed in recent years as academic historians were seeing the light and were beginning to publish more popular history. But she always expects at least one negative academic review of every book she published. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She also told a funny anecdote of a program she had been on back in the ’90’s with an academic historian who had criticized her work a great deal. They met in the “green room” beforehand with a very frosty handshake and he said, “I suppose you get a great deal of money for you books?” She protested that that wasn’t why she wrote and he never said another word to her!

A few questions later, somebody else brought up the topic again and asked if she thought David Starkey was getting criticisms from the academic community as well. She said yes, and that at one event she was at not too long ago, a university historian was on the program as well and somebody brought up Starkey’s name. “Oh, him,” the man said, “he used to be a historian!”

The other questions that I remember most was one on which portrayals of various Tudors she liked the best. She likes Glenda Jackson best as Elizabeth and Keith Michell as Henry VIII. She didn’t like The Other Boleyn Girl at all or the Cate Blanchette movies. She has seen The Tudors and thought it was good drama and had some excellent acting, but that was about all that commended it. And she has yet to see an actress in there that was wearing a period-appropriate costume. Also there is/was a series on television in England starring Ray Winstone as Henry. She was acting as an advisor to the show, but said they ignored everything she said, so she asked to have her name taken off the credits. (Has this been on in the US? I haven’t seen it.)

Also, somebody asked about whether she thought there was something wrong with Henry VIII, that his wives had so many stillborn children or miscarriages. She doesn’t think there is any evidence of it, that the Tudors were just not a very prolific race. She also pointed out that Katherine of Aragon’s mother, Isabella of Castile had lost something like ten out of fifteen children, so if there was a problem with Henry and Katherine, it was as likely to be her problem as his.

At the booksigning aftward, I kept to my plan of getting many books (I had to buy half a dozen for various friends of mine), being last in line and trying to convince her to write a book about Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor. It turns out she had already done a proposal for a novel on them, but it had been rejected by her publishers. That was some time ago and she does believe there is more interest in them since The Tudors, so she just might put a non-fiction proposal out there. She seems to have lots of ideas for things she would like to write, but it all depends on what her publishers want at the time, so I think I need to start lobbying with the publishers. She just turned over her latest book, one on Anne Boleyn (nonfiction I think, though she didn’t specifically say so) and has six other books in the works!

Overall, I found her to be a very interesting person who genuinely loves meeting her readers and loves to talk about all of English history.


  1. A few more things I recall:

    Asked if she does all her own research, she said yes, except if there is Latin involved as she doesn’t know any at all. For the Katherine Swynford book, the documents she needed translated, she sent to a researcher in Lincoln and then ran that translation by another researcher in London just to make sure the translations were accurate.

    Also somebody asked about her book, The Princes in the Tower, she had laid out every theory she could find on what happened to the princes and researched them. The one she ended up accepting was one she hadn’t accepted at first, but ultimately did because it was the only one that had any facts to support it and is, by far, the most likely scenario to have happened.

    As for novels, she says she enjoys writing those because it enables her to cast as fiction items that come up as supposition in history, but are really unlikely to be true or to have any evidence backing them.

  2. Thanks, Kathy! Very interesting information! Ms Weir sounds like a very personable author, willing to share in a friendly fashion…not like that guy who ‘used to be a historian’. I laughed aloud at that!

    The Ray Winstone program is available on DVD. It’s the two parter which starred Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn. I believe it was on U.S. television (it’s a 2003 Granada International/HBO video), but now I can watch it anytime as it was good enough, and believeable enough to me, to put in my collection. Winstone took some hits for his portrayal, as did Carter, but then doesn’t every actor/actress go through that when they put on the costume of a real character?

    How interesting that it is publishers who determine what an author will write. ‘Course, the author doesn’t want to persue a subject which won’t ever see the light. Unfortunately, our own PhD Historian has come up against that 🙁

    A book about Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor, in a non-‘hys’terial fashion would be excellent! Did Ms Weir mention what her other six books consist of?

    Oh dear…now I’ve just thought of a question you can ask her (grin) Maybe somebody did…which does she find easier to write- fiction or non-fiction?

  3. Kathy, thanks for the recap and asking my question. It’s funny that David Starkey gets the same heat. I guess you just can’t make everyone happy.

    Sign me up for the Mary Tudor/Charles Brandon book petition! I think it’s one of the greatest love stories ever. She did such a good job with Kathryn Swynford…this is right up her ally.

  4. Thanks for letting us know about her talk. It sounded fascinating. That is good news that she has finished her Anne Boleyn book, ‘The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn.’

    A book about Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon would be great!

  5. I looked on Alison’s website and it states for her upcoming book:

    Alison’s next non-fiction book, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, will be published in the UK on 1st October 2009, and in the USA in December.

    Alison has just signed contracts with her UK and US publishers for three new novels, one of which will be a sequel to The Lady Elizabeth

    Alison has begun work on her next novel, about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, which is scheduled for publication in the spring of 2010.

  6. Alison has her work cut out for her as far as a novel on Eleanor and Henry. Sharon Kay Penman’s two works on that famous couple will definitely be hard to beat!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *