Excerpted from Henry VIII by Alison Weir. Copyright © 2001 by Alison Weir. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Alison Weir
When did you first become interested in history?
Alison Weir: In 1965, when I was fourteen, I read my first adult novel;
it was a historical novel about Katherine of Aragon, and I could not
put it down. When I finished it, I had to find out the true facts behind
the story and if people really carried on like that in those days. So I
began to read proper history books, and found that they did! It was a
short step from doing research to writing my own books, and by the
age of fifteen I had completed a three-volume compendium of facts
on the Tudors as well as a biography of Anne Boleyn, and had begun
to compile genealogical information for a dictionary of kings and
queens, which would, more than two decades later, be the basis of my
first published book, Britain's Royal Families.
At school, up to the age of sixteen, I found history boring, for we
were studying the Industrial Revolution, which was all about acts,
trade unions and the factory system, and I wanted to know about
people, because it is people who make history. My teachers were
unaware that I was spending all my free periods and lunch breaks
researching my own history projects in the school library. I did
pass my GCE exam, but was told my grade was not good enough
to study history at an advanced level. This was a great disappointment,
as the subject for the advanced course was the Tudors and Stuarts,
something about which I already knew a great deal. I would love
to think that the teachers who excluded me have seen my pub-lished
When did you begin to write professionally?
AW: During the early 1970s, after attending teacher training college
with a view to teaching history, I spent four years researching and
writing a book about Henry VIII's wives, but this was rejected by
publishers on the grounds that it was too long--something of an
understatement, since it filled 1,024 manuscript pages typed on both
sides and without double spacing. In 1991, a much revised and edited
version of this manuscript was published as my second book, The Six
Wives of Henry VIII.
In 1981, I wrote a biography of Jane Seymour, which was rejected
by Weidenfeld and Nicholson as being--wait for it--too short. The
publishers, however, put me in touch with my present firm of literary
agents who, in the course of a conversation about which subject
I should write about, rejected my suggestion of a book about Lady
Diana Spencer (who became Princess of Wales that year) on the
grounds that people would soon lose interest in her! Instead, it was
agreed that I should write a biography of Isabella of France, wife of
Edward II, but this was never finished because the births, very close
together, of my children intervened in 1982 and 1984, and I had very
little time for writing.
In 1987, it occurred to me that my dictionary of genealogical details
of British royalty--which I had revised eight times over twenty-two
years--might be of interest to others, so I rearranged the contents
once more, into chronological order. Britain's Royal Families became
my first published book, in 1989, from The Bodley Head, and the rest
of the story is--dare I say it?--history!
How do you go about writing your books?
AW: I research from contemporary sources as far as possible; fortunately,
most of those for the periods I have written about are in print.
I use secondary sources to see what views historians take on my
chosen subjects, but in the end I make up my own mind, basing
my conclusions as far as possible on contemporary evidence.
I transcribe my information into chronological order, under date
headings, so that when I have finished my research, I have a very
rough draft of the book. This method has the curious advantage of
highlighting discrepancies and often new interpretations of events,
chronological patterns, and unexpected facts emerge. Anyone who
has read The Princes in the Tower will know how startlingly well this
method of research worked for that particular book.
How would you describe your role as a historian?
AW: I am not a revisionist historian. I do not start with a theory and
then try to fit the facts around it. I draw my conclusions from the
known facts. As my research progresses, I gain some idea of the viewpoint
I will take, but I am always ready to alter it if need be.
You have to consider the known facts in detail and avoid supposition
in order to get as near to the truth as possible. You must not only
take into account what is written about someone or something, but
who wrote it, since many sources are biased, prejudiced, or unreliable.
Where possible, I verify my facts from reliable sources only, and if the
only source is suspect, I say so.
What is your aim in writing history?
AW: I want to bring history and its characters to life by including as
much personal detail as possible, by inferring new ideas from the
known facts, and by researching the political and social background so
thoroughly that my subjects are set in an authentic context. Many
people have told me that my books read like novels. Perhaps this is because,
when I write, I feel I am really there, so strong is my feeling for
my subject. On occasion, I have been so moved by the events I have
been describing that I have felt like crying. The old adage that truth is
stranger than fiction is more than true for me, and if (as a couple of
recent reviewers have complained) it is old-fashioned to recount history
as a rattling good story--which in many ways it is--then I am
happy to be thought outdated.
When you were researching and writing about Henry VIII,
did you come to like him?
AW: Surprisingly enough, yes! Actually, I've liked him for a long time.
I've always felt that he has been greatly misjudged and perceived as a
caricature of his real self. Therefore, this book is a sympathetic study
that looks at events from the King's viewpoint. For example, most
historians have focused on Anne Boleyn during the days leading up
to her execution. I've focused on Henry. Few people have taken into
account the fact that his only son was dying a lingering death from
tuberculosis at this time.
I think, when it comes to historical characters, you have to judge
them by the values of their own time, not by ours. Henry was no
tyrant, as Richard III was; only in his last years did he become the
fat, diseased autocrat of popular perception. In fact, I wanted to use
a little-known portrait of the young Henry, painted when he was
eighteen, slim and long haired, on the jacket, but my publishers
felt--probably quite correctly--that no one would know who it was!
Yet my aim was to present to my readers a different view of Henry:
the real Henry, whom I had come to know very well through my
What is your opinion of screen portrayals of Henry VIII?
AW: I suppose the enduring image is that created by Charles Laughton
in Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), but it's the
classic caricature, and very far removed from the real Henry. A far
better portrayal is that by Keith Michell in the BBC drama series The
Six Wives of Henry VIII (1969), followed by a film of the same name.
Here is a pretty authentic Henry: an acting tour de force and a delight
to watch! Robert Shaw's portrayal in A Man for All Seasons (1966) was
very different but equally convincing.
Did you uncover anything new while you were researching the
AW: Yes, quite unexpectedly. I certainly didn't set out to be controversial,
but I discovered a letter written by Henry VIII containing
evidence that places a whole new construction on the reasons for
Anne Boleyn's fall. This evidence makes sense of something that historians
have puzzled over for centuries: why Henry could have consented
to the destruction of a woman he had so greatly desired and
Was Henry VIII the lecher of legend?
AW: Possibly, although if he was, he was very discreet about it. For
this reason, we have only fragments of information about his sex life,
but I've uncovered enough of them to make me revise the opinion I
arrived at in my earlier book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
One historian has famously described Henry VIII as "that
great puppet." Do you agree with this assessment?
AW: Not at all. Henry was certainly suggestible and sometimes swayed
by the opinions of others, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests
that for the most part he remained firmly in control. In fact, he was
the one usually doing the manipulating. Given his grasp of affairs, his
powerful intellect, encyclopaedic memory, and efficient communications
network, it was not easy for any man to rule him. He was the
King, and he never let anyone forget it.
1. 1. At the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII, his virtues were extolled
by those who served him. How does the adulation the
young King initially inspired of the court compare to the subsequent
attitudes his courtiers held toward him? In which ways was
he burdened by unrealistic expectations? How did the King
manipulate his early reputation to his advantage?
2. It's an adage that a man can often be judged by the company he
keeps. How did this prove true of Henry VIII? How much choice
did he have over who comprised the court, and how much of
it was determined by external factors (for example, tradition, custom,
blood ties, or the influence of others)?
3. How did the rich physical appearance of the court and his various
palaces reflect the way that Henry VIII felt about himself and his
place in the world? Why were opulent surroundings, including
innovations in architecture, so important to him? How did the
physical arrangement of the King's palaces establish the hierarchy
of his courtiers?
4. What characteristics of a courtier do you think that the King held
in highest regard? Which characteristics were undesirable? Can
you apply these to advisors of leaders in modern times? In your
opinion, which of the King's courtiers was most successful in
serving Henry VIII? Who was the most successful in advancing
his own personal interests?
5. How did the itinerant nature of the court and its constant movement
from place to place affect its makeup? How might it have
been different--both physically and politically--if it had been
permanently situated in one spot?
6. The Privy Council and the Privy Chamber formed the most elite
core of Henry's courtiers and advisors. Was this similar or different
to the setup of the King's father, Henry VII? What were the
differences between the two groups? How did these individuals
wield their influence? How did Henry VIII's mistrust of the
gentry shape the court, and how did it prove less constrained
by a strict social hierarchy than the outside world as a whole at
8. At the time of Henry VIII's kingship, the ideas of the Renaissance
were flourishing. Which of these ideas were most influential to
the King and his court? How did influential humanists--for
example, Petrarch or Sir Thomas More--shape the thoughts and
policies of the King? How was the King's warlike spirit at odds
with the opinions of his humanist friends and confidants?
10. Thomas Wolsey enjoyed a spectacular rise to power, becoming a
cardinal who was considered as powerful--or even more--than
his master, Henry VIII. Which attributes make him indispensable
to the King? How does he arouse antipathy from the others
around him? What role does his background, breeding, and personal
ambition play in his rise and eventual downfall? What purpose
did Wolsey serve for both his friends and his enemies?
11. How could the King's favor--or displeasure--toward a courtier affect
their fortunes? Examples to discuss could include Cardinal Wolsey,
Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Sir Thomas More, the
Duke of Suffolk, Sir Nicholas Carew, and Fray Diego Fernandez.
12. Henry VIII's love for Anne Boleyn changed not only the
court, but also the path of England. It led to the King's "Great
Matter"--his desire to nullify his marriage to Queen Katherine of
Aragon. How did this issue factionalize the court? What issues do
you believe it eclipsed, and which did it bring to the forefront?
How did the religious climate of the time, and Luther's 95 Theses
in particular, also affect the question of religion?
13. Anne Boleyn positioned herself as a paragon of virtue and
morality. How did this contrast with her ascent to the throne and
some of her own personal characteristics? How did her influence
compare to that enjoyed by Katherine, and how did pomp and
patronage play into her reign? How did the opinion held of her
by the courtiers evolve, and how did that compare to public's
view of her? What attributes that initially attracted Henry to her
proved to be her undoing?
14. Thomas Cromwell was the second powerful figure to take precedence
in the court of Henry VIII. How did he compare to
Wolsey? In which ways did Cromwell wield more influence on
the King and on the policies of England than Wolsey? Why? How
was his downfall similar to that of Wolsey? How was he merely
the victim of his adversaries?
15. How did the question of succession shape not only Henry VIII's
marriages and liaisons, but also the court in general? How did the
birth of Prince Edward affect this? What type of relationship
do you believe that Henry's children by three different mothers
enjoyed with one another? In particular, how did the relationship
between Mary and Elizabeth thrive? What restrictions were
placed upon it?
17. How did the lavish spending on coronations, palaces, queens, and
wartime activity affect the later years of the King? How did he
react to the constant scourge of plague and illness?
18. How was the Reformation of Henry VIII a dividing point between
the conservatives and the radicals of his court? How was
the Act of Six Articles, which established the doctrine of the
Church of England as law, received by both groups? What elements
of the Act most reflected Renaissance thinking?
19. How did Henry's advisors use the King's faith to their own advantage,
often in ousting their enemies? How did his position of head
of the Church influence the King and his way of thinking? In
your opinion, how much of his faith was motivated by personal
desires (for example, the nullification of his marriages)?
20. How did the various wives--particularly Katherine of Aragon
and Anne Boleyn--wield power and influence? How were they
employed to advance the interests of particular courtiers, especially
in regard to alliances with other countries? Which causes
were advanced by each Queen?
21. How were at least three of the wives removed from power by the
maneuverings of the King, the court, or both? Do you think that
the influence enjoyed by women in Henry VIII's court was unusual
based on the gender attitudes of the time? Why or why not?
22. At the close of his life, Henry VIII had grown quite ill. How did
this affect the day-to-day workings of the court and the King's advisors?
How would you characterize the management style of the
King? Would you say that Henry VIII was by nature a laissez-faire
manager, or was he merely forced to become one because of his
failing health? Why or why not?