Henry The VIII
Alison Weir
History | Ballantine | Hardcover | May 2001 | $28.00 | 0-345-43659-8


A Conversation with Alison Weir, author of HENRY VIII: The King and His Court
When did you first become interested in history?

In 1965, when I was fourteen, I read my first adult novel; it was an 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 published work.


When did you begin to write professionally?

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?

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 an historian?

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?
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?

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 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 18, 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 researches.

What is your opinion of screen portrayals of Henry VIII?
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 book?
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 loved.
Was Henry VIII the lecher of legend?
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?
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.
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