A Conversation with Alison Weir Random House Reader’s Circle
: What inspired you to write Elizabeth of York
? Alison Weir
: I have always been interested in women’s histories, especially those of queens, and in the 1970s I did a lot of research on medieval queens and Elizabeth of York. I’m hoping to write three books on the medieval queens, but I felt that Elizabeth deserved a full biography. Over the years many people urged me to write one, but after Sarah Gristwood included Elizabeth in her wonderful book Blood Sisters
, about the women who helped shape the Wars of the Roses, I held off. Sarah, most generously, encouraged me to go ahead with the project.
RHRC: What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
AW: Frustration at gaps in the sources. Sometimes it is just not possible even to speculate. That is the nature of medieval biographies, particularly of women.
RHRC: Do you have a specific writing style?
AW: No, I just do what I do and hope for the best! I think that each book is an improvement on the last in terms of writing style.
RHRC: How did you come up with the title?
AW: The title, Elizabeth of York
, was the obvious one; I wanted the subtitle, A Tudor Queen and her World
, to sum up the essence of the book.
RHRC: Do you think that historians bring to their work something of their own perceptions and moral codes?
AW: Perhaps, but I think it is important to be as objective as possible, and to look at the subject within the context and moral compass of the age in which they lived. I have been accused, for example, of calling Katherine Howard promiscuous, because she took lovers before and after her marriage to Henry VIII; in modern terms that probably doesn’t make her so, but people in Tudor England certainly made such a judgment. It is tempting to judge historical figures by our own standards, but it should be resisted.
RHRC: What books have influenced your life most?
AW: Possibly the Bible, The Complete Peerage
, and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots
. Reading that as a teenager, I decided that I wanted to write historical biographies.
RHRC: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
AW: Sarah Gristwood, who has kindly read over the manuscripts of my recent books and offered valuable and constructive comments.
RHRC: What book are you reading now?
AW: Norah Lofts’ Is There Anybody There
? She is my all-time favorite author.
RHRC: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
AW: Yes, several, notably Chris Laoutaris, whose new biography, Shakespeare and the Countess
, has fully fired my imagination!
RHRC: What are your current projects?
AW: I am writing a biography of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, called The Princess of Scotland
; I am completely revising my book The Six Wives of Henry VIII
(1991), as I want to update it. I am also planning several novels and a series of books on England’s medieval queens.
RHRC: Can you share a little of The Princess of Scotland
AW: Here’s a tiny taste of this work in progress:
“While the eyes of the world had been focused on Anne Boleyn’s fall, Margaret Douglas, now twenty, had been living in her fool’s paradise with Thomas Howard. For a woman of royal blood to indulge in a clandestine romance was to court scandal and disaster—as the world had just so spectacularly witnessed. Margaret was second in line to the throne, and a valuable counter in the intricate game of diplomacy and power politics; her marriage was in the king’s gift, to be made to his advantage. It was not for her to choose the man she would wed. All the same, when the court moved to Whitehall Palace on June 7, 1536 for the opening of Parliament, she dared to enter into a betrothal, or pre-contract, with Thomas Howard ‘in the presence of witnesses.’ ”
RHRC: Do you see writing as a career?
AW: Yes, absolutely—and a full-time one.
RHRC: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
AW: Getting started. The first paragraph is crucial. Once I have that, I’m away!
RHRC: Do you have to travel much in the process of writing a book?
AW: I visit the important sites of historical interest. It’s very important to immerse yourself in the environment in which events took place.
RHRC: Did you learn anything surprising from writing Elizabeth of York
? If so, what was it?
AW: When researching a subject in depth, you always learn a lot about them, even if you thought you were conversant with them beforehand. You never know what the sources will reveal or how they enable you to achieve new perspectives. In researching this book I discovered a link in the royal accounts that literally made my jaw drop. It connected Elizabeth of York with Sir James Tyrell, the man who apparently confessed to murdering her brothers, the Princes in the Tower. No one had made the connection before.
RHRC: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in the book?
AW: Not a thing.
RHRC: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
AW: A huge and heartfelt thank-you for buying and reading my books, and for all the lovely messages and letters that you send me.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. How important was Elizabeth of York dynastically?
2. Why was the fate of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower, pivotal to her future? What do you think became of them?
3. Do you think that the Buck letter was genuine? What were Elizabeth’s motives in writing it?
4. How far do you believe that the ballad “The Song of Lady Bessy” portrays real events?
5. What do you think was the significance of Elizabeth’s visit to the Tower in May 1502? Was it connected with Tyrell’s confession?
6. Would you agree that the author has succeeded in discounting assertions that Elizabeth lived under subjugation to Henry VII? Was she a more influential queen than has hitherto been assumed?
7. How much influence did Elizabeth have on her son, Henry VIII? Did her early death have lasting consequences for him?
8. Were you convinced by the theory that Elizabeth died as a result of iron deficiency anaemia rather than puerperal fever?
9. Would you agree that Elizabeth’s relationship with Margaret Beaufort was probably much as it is described in this book? Why do you think Margaret Beaufort is often portrayed as a sinister character? Is there any historical foundation for that?
10. Are you convinced by the author’s assessment of Elizabeth’s character? Did you think she was, as one reviewer suggested, “dull”?
11. Did anything you read about Elizabeth, or the events that took place during her lifetime, surprise you?