A Talk with Alison Weir
How would you compare Elizabeth with your previous subject, Lady Jane? In some respects they seem very similar, yet it's difficult to imagine Elizabeth was ever as naïve or blind to political realities as her younger cousin.
When I began writing THE LADY ELIZABETH, I feared I was in some peril of writing a very similar book to Innocent Traitor, because Elizabeth Tudor and Jane Grey were young Tudor princesses, both dangerously near in blood to the throne. Both had difficult childhoods and devoted nurses, both were incredibly intelligent and clever–being the products of a forward-thinking Renaissance education–and both were converts to the Protestant faith in an age of religious dogmatism in which heretics were burned at the stake. And they were both feisty red-heads! Yet their characters were so dissimilar, and their ambitions too. Elizabeth wanted power and to be the star of the court; Jane was a scholar who wanted to be left in peace with her books, and the prospect of queenship was repellent to her. Elizabeth was a survivor, Jane wasn’t. And the courses–and outcomes–of their lives were very different. They were surrounded and influenced by different characters. Elizabeth, bastard status apart, was essentially a princess, Jane a private gentlewoman. And yes, Elizabeth was far less naïve than Jane, and had a far more astute grasp of Tudor realpolitik.
In Tudor times, children were often considered to be, and treated as, miniature adults. But the young Elizabeth as you portray her really seems to have been more than just the product of her social environment–there is a remarkable adult perspicacity to her insights and judgments from a very young age.
That is historically true. Elizabeth was indeed formidably intelligent and highly precocious. We know that through her early letters (one of which is quoted, in slightly modernized English, in the novel) and her recorded utterances. There was little concept then of childhood as a separate phase of development–children were to be civilized as soon as possible so as to be able to take their place early on in the adult world. This makes sense when you remember that life expectancy was shorter (around 30 years for women, 36 years for men). Infant mortality was high, and girls could be married and cohabit at twelve, boys at fourteen. Boys could fight in battle as young as age eleven. And children were schooled early on to have an awareness of religion, morality and death. When people question the precocity of these Tudor princesses, I often quote the example of Anne, the three-year-old daughter of Charles I, who, on her deathbed in 1640, prayed unprompted, ‘Lighten mine eyes, O Lord, lest I sleep the sleep of death.’ It was an entirely different mindset from today, but children are like sponges–whatever you fill them with, they will soak up.
Your portrayal of Elizabeth's relationship with the ambitious rogue Thomas Seymour seems likely to stir controversy. How could her governess, Kat Astley, have allowed the situation to go on for so long? What was the risk for her, and for Thomas Seymour? And finally, was this the strongest influence on her determination to remain unmarried?
As the law stood, it was high treason for any man to marry Elizabeth, and for her to enter into such a marriage, without the Council’s consent. I don’t want to give away too much here, but suffice it to say that most of what happened between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour is a matter of historical record, as is Kat Astley’s involvement, about which I have my own theory, which is explained and justified in the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book. The “Author’s Note” also addresses the controversial aspect of my story, which is likewise based on (rather more dubious) contemporary sources. Elizabeth had resolved never to marry long before this episode, but I am sure that her experience with Seymour went a long way to cement that resolve.
Why did Elizabeth come to embrace the Protestant faith so strongly when her half-sister, Mary, was such a devout Catholic?
Elizabeth had been brought up and educated by religious reformers, and was influenced by them and by her stepmother Katherine Parr. Mary (who was much older) had been educated under the auspices of her mother, the devoutly Catholic Katherine of Aragon, who had instilled in her a deep devotion to the old faith. I am convinced that, having had such a desperately unhappy life after her father, Henry VIII, repudiated her mother, Mary clung to the faith of her childhood not only because of her religious convictions but also because it represented the old ways in which she had been brought up, and the security she had known as a child. Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had been a champion of reform and religious tolerance, and that may have had a bearing on her own views.
Surrounded by fanatical believers of one faith or another, Elizabeth as you portray her seems surprisingly modern in her recognition that religious belief should ideally be a private matter . . . even though circumstances compelled her to behave otherwise.
Yes, she was remarkably enlightened for her day, which is why I admire her so much. I have used her own words to illustrate her religious views. She really did say, as queen, that she would not make windows into men’s souls, and that ‘there is only one Jesus Christ; the rest is a dispute over trifles.’ I have used these and other insights to inform her developing opinions in the novel.
What is the true story behind Queen Mary's pregnancy? It seems like such a bizarre episode.
The story is just as I tell it in the book. Mary did have a phantom pregnancy, and it was not until eleven months had passed and the gas in her abdomen began to dissipate that she was forced to accept the fact. When I researched this episode for The Children of Henry VIII, I referred the matter to a senior gynaecologist, who confirmed that it was indeed a phantom pregnancy, and that a woman can long for a child so much that she can deceive her body into producing all the signs of pregnancy. It’s a condition that is virtually never seen these days because of the advent of early ultrasound scanning.
One of the most enigmatic and tragic figures in your novel, as in the history itself, is Elizabeth's half-brother, Edward. What is your take on him? What kind of king would he have made had he not died so young?
My take on Edward is that he was a little boy who had grown up in splendid isolation because he was the precious, longed-for heir to England. Consequently, he was cold, devoid of emotion, unduly precocious, conscious of his position and the need to emulate his father Henry VIII, and priggishly fervent in the reformed faith. Had he lived, I am convinced that he would have been as fanatical a Protestant as Mary Tudor was a Catholic, and that he would have been another autocratic king like his father.
As in Innocent Traitor, you continue to portray Henry VIII with unusual sympathy. For all his excesses and cruelties, he seems himself a victim, caught in a snare that was by no means entirely of his own making.
Yes, I do see Henry VIII to some extent as a victim of fortune; it was the frustrations and disappointments in his life that made him what he was. His quest for a son was a political imperative, his quest for love in a fruitful marriage a personal one. Of course, much of the novel is written from Henry’s point of view, and Elizabeth’s, so it is bound to be sympathetic, although I have tried to convey to readers that there is a darker thread to the story than these subjective aspects might convey. However, popular misconceptions about Henry VIII are still widespread, and it seems to be my life’s mission to debunk the caricature of modern myth without detracting from the less lovable aspects of this King!
Is there any possibility that Elizabeth was not really his daughter, as was rumoured at the time?
No. Henry himself never questioned it, nor was the issue ever raised at the time of Anne Boleyn’s imprisonment and trial, when it could have been used against her to advantage. Many people commented on Elizabeth’s likeness in character to Henry, observing that it was plain to see whose daughter she was; and you only have to compare their portraits, and facial profiles, to see the familial similarity.
In your “Author’s Note” to THE LADY ELIZABETH, you write: "I am not, as an historian, saying that it could have happened; but as a novelist, I enjoy the heady freedom to ask: What if it had?" Can you expand a bit on this "heady freedom"?
It is incredibly liberating to be able to fill in the gaps in our knowledge and get inside the heads of historical characters, and it’s also gripping to have the freedom to construct a tale from fragments of gossip or romantic legends, which a historian should be wary of doing. But at the same time, what you come up with as a novelist must be credible and convincing within the context of the known facts and the cultural, social and moral ethos of the period. It’s an advantage to be a historian and to have studied the subject in depth.
Tell us a bit about your technique of using original quotations, modified for the contemporary ear, as much as possible in dialogue. What is the source of the quotes that you use? How rich in primary-source material is the historical record of the Tudor era?
The sources of the quotes I use are far too numerous to mention! I can do no better than refer you to the extensive bibliographies in my non-fiction books, notably The Children of Henry VIII. The Tudor period is incredibly rich in source material, and for the first time there is a wealth of evidence for the private lives of royalty. So I have based many quotes, and often whole conversations, on the contemporary record, although I have modified the language in places so that it fits seamlessly into a modern text. I’ve been working with Tudor sources for more decades than I care to remember, so I am very familiar with spoken and written idioms, to the extent that I have adapted speech from many sources for my novels, sometimes out of context.
What, in your opinion, is the best, most accurate film portrayal of Elizabeth? Not just in terms of historical accuracy, but in capturing the essence of her personality and character.
Without a doubt, Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971). Her consummate skill as an actress conveys the many complex facets of Elizabeth’s character. Moreover, the series is well researched and the script based on original sources. After that, Helen Mirren, who is a fine actress. You can forget the rest!
You have been writing historical novels "for fun" since the 1960s, then putting them away in the drawer to concentrate on your straight historical work. Did your current novel, THE LADY ELIZABETH, have its origins as one of these trunk novels? And if so, is this a source from which you'll continue to draw?
No, the suggestion for this novel came from my British editor, Anthony Whittome, and I’m indebted to him for it, as it’s a subject that had enormous instant appeal for me. But there are quite a few other novels hidden away in my drawer, some of them unfinished, quite a few about Anne Boleyn, and several more crying out to be rewritten! I’m working on one in my spare time, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. I think it’s important to have extra projects that are just for me, because history was a hugely enjoyable hobby for many years before I got into print, and I want it to remain that, as well as a profession.
What’s next for Alison Weir?
I’m returning to non-fiction with the first biography of Katherine Swynford–a project I’ve wanted to pursue for many years. This remarkable woman became the lover, mistress and eventually wife of John of Gaunt. Her brother-in-law was Geoffrety Chancer; she lived through the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt; and her children were the direct forebears of the Yorks, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and every other British sovereign since.