Thursday, August 13, 2009

Alison Weir

Perceptive and Vivid Accounts of Tudor Era England by Alison Weir
by Steven Williams

A black and white photo of Alison Wier.Alison Weir, born in London in 1937, currently lives in Surrey, England. Weir's formal education was in history at a teacher training college, the North Western Polytechnic, and she began her professional life began as a teacher for special needs children. Disenchanted with professional education's attraction to trendy teaching methods, Weir moved on work as a civil servant. In 1972 she married Rankin Weir and has had two children, a son in 1982 and a daughter in 1984.

Weir's first book, Britain's Royal Families (1989), was critically and popularly well received and she quickly gained a large popular following in the UK. As Weir's professional life as a writer developed, she became more and more interested in deep and thorough primary source research for her books. Between 1991 and 1997 she funded her research for her writing by operating a small school for special needs children. After 1997, Weir embarked on the career of a full time writer and Tudor Era historian. A color photo of a painting of Catherine of Aragon.Weir has acknowledged an early interest in history recounting how as a young teenager, after reading her first adult novel (Henry's Golden Queen by Lozania Prole) about Katherine of Aragon, she excitedly set off to read some real history books about the people she had read about in the novel. By the age of fifteen, she had even written her own three volume Tudor era reference book, a biography of Anne Boleyn based on contemporary sources, and several historical plays.

Weir continues to write carefully researched popular histories and historical fiction and is widely recognized for the quality of her research and the accessibility and popularity of both her non-fiction and her fiction. In February 2009, at a Houston Library System sponsored reading and signing at the Houston Central Library, Weir announced that her newest non-fiction book covers the last four months of Anne Boleyn's life. A color photo of the recumbent effigy or gisant of the tomb of Henry II at the Abbey of Fontevraud.This release date for the book is scheduled for October 2009. At the same event, Weir also revealed that she had two more biographies and two novels either in the final stages of completion or already into the editing stage. Since then, the historical novel The Eagle and the Lion has had its release date set for April, 2010. It is a story about Eleanor of Aquitaine, her second tumultuous marriage to Henry Duke of the Normans, later Henry II, King of England.

A color photograph of the front cover of 'Britain's Royal Families' by Alison Weir.Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy (1989)
WWeir's first book is a reference book that provides the complete genealogical details of all of the members of the royal houses of England, Scotland, and Great Britain from 800 CE to the present. The author draws on a her broad and deep professional historical research experiences of twenty-two years to provide an unprecedented comprehensive history of the royals. The biographical information is so complete that it includes every member each monarch's family from their parents to their grandchildren. This book has been revised and re-released in 2002.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' by Alison Weir.The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991)
A composite domestic history of all six of King Henry VIII's wives. Weir uses her broad, deep knowledge of Tudor era England to produce a vivid, detailed picture of English royal court life. Against the gorgeous backdrop of the court life Weir contrasts some of the basest human behaviors including ambition, treason, and violence. Weir presents each of Henry's wives is presented as a distinct and compelling personality in their own right. Each woman is brought to life with contemporary source material and without resort to allusions to any previous stereotypes. An especially perceptive insight is Weir's presentation of how Henry VIII compartmentalized each of his matrimonial experiences while he changed and developed throughout his life.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Princes in the Tower' by Alison Weir.The Princes in the Tower (1994)
Another of Alison Weir's carefully researched yet highly readable popular histories of Tudor era England. In this book, she examines the disappearance in 1483 of twelve year old King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York. Long attributed to the venal power hunger driven manipulations of Richard III, Weir provides no contrarian point of view. Though alternative theories as to the death of the two boys is presented, Weir writes convincingly of Richard III duplicity in the death of the boys. Weirs main concession to the overwhelmingly negative historical picture of Richard III is to provide evidence that Richard was not hunchbacked and no more evil than his contemporaries. She does argue though that Richard III's unpopularity was based in large part because of the murder of the boy king Edward V and his little brother.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Wars of the Roses' aka 'Lancaster and York' by Alison Weir.The Wars of the Roses (US, 1995)
Lancaster and York: The War of the Roses (UK, 1995)

A masterful popular history of the English civil war from 1399 to 1500, euphemistically called the War of the Roses for the red and white roses symbolic of the two noble houses, Lancaster and York, who fought over the throne of England. The author provides a brief, beginning history of the House of Plantagenet with special attention spent paid to the reign of Richard II. Weir presents Richard's disastrous kingship as the event which triggered the conflicts that develop into the civil war between the competing noble houses. Her introductory, very accessible survey goes on to explore the relations between the Lancaster and York from 1399 to 1455. After discussing this, Weir goes on to concentrate on leading figures in the conflict: Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, Richard of York, Edward IV, the Earl of Warwick and others. While this book presents no new perspectives like many of Weir's other books tend to, it is appropriately detailed yet accessible to the general reader.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Children of Henry VIII' aka 'The Children of England' by Alison Weir.The Children of Henry VIII (US, 1996)
The Children of England: Heirs of King Henry VII (UK, 1996)

A well researched history of the three children of Henry VIII: Edward (Edward VI), Mary (Mary I), and Elizabeth (Elizabeth I). All three children, each by a different wife of Henry VIII, became rivals to the throne of England. Weir also includes Lady Jane Grey in this history because she was the three sibling's cousin and because, at the death of Edward VI, she was coerced to try to reign as Queen in an effort to prevent the accession of Princess Mary to the throne because of her fanatic Catholicism. During the eleven years between the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Elizabeth to the throne, England suffered additional turmoil created by various English nobles' greed and avarice. Weirs scholarship and deep knowledge allow her to place all the events very readably against the backdrop of Tudor England.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Life of Elizabeth I' aka 'Elizabeth the Queen' by Alison Weir.The Life of Elizabeth I (US, 1998)
Elizabeth the Queen (UK, 1998)

A biography of one of the best known, longest lived, and most personally powerful English monarchs, Elizabeth I. In this biography of the first Elizabeth, Weir brings her trademark deep knowledge of Tudor England along with her ear for detailed nuances and anecdotes that make the Elizabethan court come to life for the reader. Details abound from how the elaborate royal gowns were actually assembled from fabric panels buttoned together over linen shifts to the luxurious but unhygienic royal palaces to the huge meals heavily seasoned to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. Weir uses this richness of imagery and detail to broadly portray the backdrop onto which she provides an intimate and critically observant picture of the real Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen was an intelligent woman with, unusual in a woman of her time, formidable political skills. Her reign of forty-five years was spent in a balancing act that kept her weakened kingdom safe from the two great powers of the age, France and Spain. Both kingdoms were predatory towards England and Elizabeth, as a female ruler, had to hold together her own fractious nation state while at the same time protecting her own life. Weir explains how this remarkable woman came to the personal and very political decision to transform herself into the Virgin Queen, married to England only, and thus avoiding the intense political and social pressure to marry a strong man.

A color photo of the front cover of 'Eleanor of Aquitaine' by Alison Weir.Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life (US, 2000)
Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England (UK, 1999)

Atypical of Weir, this popular history of the great Plantagenet Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), is significantly earlier than Weir's more frequent focus on the Tudor era characters and events. Weir describes the world of medieval Europeans through the life of Eleanor, wife of both Louis VII of France and subsequently of Henry II of England. Eleanor played a prominent part in the politics of the 12th century and bore two kings of England, Richard 'the Lion-Hearted' and King John. Weir's attention to deeply researched detail provides absorbing background detail and contemporary anecdotes that make this history typically accessible to the general reader. This is despite Weir's concern for critical analysis of primary source materials, the myths about Eleanor that have endured into modern times, and the approaches and arguments of other modern biographies of Eleanor. This well-written biography that is especially insightful in present the energetic life of a determined and ambitious woman who lived in a male dominated culture that was almost primitive in its easy violence. Weir pays special attention to the relaxed south of France where Eleanor was raised amid the cult of courtly love.

A color photo of the front cover of 'Henry VIII' by Alison Weir.Henry VIII: The King and His Court (US, 2001)
Henry VIII: King and Court (UK, 2001)

A history of Henry VIII that make a clear picture of Henry as the embodiment of the Renaissance ideal of a King. His talents included musician, composer, linguist, scholar, sportsman, and warrior. Weir provides a detailed yet very readable description of this Henry and the life of his court. Everything is included from courtly fashions to political factions to elaborate meals to tournament etiquette. Though the author presents the full scope of Henry's life, there is intimate and personal detailing that keeps Henry human and comprehensible. There are stories of his beloved dogs as well as what the duties were of the Groom of the Stool. There are also stories that tell of Henry's boyish delight in dressing up in costume and how Henry and Katherine still hunted together even while Henry was desperately working to have their marriage annulled. Another great read and an excellent immersion into Renaissance English high culture.

A color photo of the front cover of 'Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley' by Alison Weir.Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley (2003)
A well-written and well-researched popular history of the spectacularly involving life of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). Mary's life story, with its episodes murder, rape, adultery, abdication, imprisonment and execution, is the stuff of tabloids and has remained fascinating stuff for modern readers. Weir's approach focuses on the circumstances related to the fate of Mary's second husband, Lord Darnley, his participation in the murder of Mary's favorite advisor, David Rizzio, and eventually Darnley's own murder. Many historians have considered it likely that Mary had Darnley murdered so that she could marry her lover, Bothwell. The argument presented in this book focuses on how much of the evidence that historically been used to convict Mary was contrived by rebellious Scottish lords to cover their own treachery. This book goes on to describe includes Mary's flight to England, her expectations of help from her cousin Elizabeth I, her captivity for sixteen years by Elizabeth, and Mary's eventual execution for plotting Elizabeth's assassination. Not surprisingly, this historian's well informed, developed, and presented argument comes down to ascribing Mary's fate to her own consistently poor judgment, especially regarding the men she chose to place her hopes and trust in.

A color photo of the front cover of 'Queen Isabella' aka 'Isabella' by Alison Weir.Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England (US, 2005)
Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England (UK, 2005)

Isabella of France married the bisexual king of England Edward II when she was only twelve years old. They remained married for seventeen years and Isabella had four children by him. Weir describes how her fear of her husband's lover, Roger Mortimer, lead her to flee to France and then return leading a rebellion to place their son on the throne. Weir's abilities as a scholar and writer allows her to present a convincing and interesting narrative that retrieves Isabella’s reputation from earlier historians' tendencies to condemn medieval women who pursued power. This bias is reflected in Katherine being labeled the She-Wolf of France by centuries of historians. The scholarship behind this book is especially useful in providing Weir with the material to be able to provide a broad picture of Isabella’s activities within the context of where and how she lived. The book also effectively presents the timing of Isabella's turn against her husband. The most difficult events of Isabella's life, the murder of Edward II and particularly the horrendous way in which he was reputed to have been killed, are presented with a new perspective by Weir. She is able to convincingly argue that Isabella most probably had no knowledge of the pending murder of her husband. Weir is also able to very reasonably argue to the reader that the rumored horrific murder of Edward II was actually propaganda against Isabella and her lover Mortimer and that Edward actually lived out his life as a hermit. As an added compliment to the quality of this book, Weir relates the story of Isabella to the decline in power of the English monarchy and the beginnings of democracy.

A color photo of the front cover of 'Innocent Traitor' by Alison Weir.Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey (2006)
This book is the author's historical fiction debut. The novel is in the form of a coming-of-age story about Lady Jane Grey who briefly ascended to the English throne as a Protestant ploy to prevent Mary, a fanatical Catholic, from becoming Queen after the death of her half-brother Edward VII. Jane had been betrothed to the young Edward from infancy. The story tells of her parent's, the Marquess and Marchioness of Dorset, ambitions and their resulting careful grooming of their brilliant young daughter in the care of her nurse while they immerse themselves in the politics of the English court. Eventually, when young Edward VII is dying, Jane's parents begin maneuvering their sixteen year old daughter onto the throne, risking Jane's life in the violent political contest between England's Protestants and Catholics. The story is told from multiple points of view in an effort to provide the reader with insight the various perspectives of the time. This and the brilliantly detailed settings make the period come alive. The story benefits by Weir's depth of knowledge and painstaking research about the subject with a vividly lifelike detailing of the English Tudor era food, manners, clothing, recreation, and especially the cutthroat marital politics of the ennobled class.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Lady Elizabeth' by Alison Weir.The Lady Elizabeth: A Novel (2008)
The author's suspenseful historical novel is about Elizabeth I, England's most famous queen by Weir, a noted British historian and writer about Tudor England. The novel follows Elizabeth’s life from her early childhood to her coronation as Queen. The story especially focuses on Elizabeth's childhood after the execution of her mother. For the most part this period of her life is spent being moved back and forth between royal estates while being raised for a life as a great lady. Weir uses the telling of this period of the future queen's life to develop the idea that Elizabeth's ideas about women's roles, religion, politics, and especially her vow to never marry, were developed by her life experiences before the age of fourteen. Weir also uses the fiction form to give fresh perspectives on major characters and events in British history, especially the fates of her father's six wives and the short reign of Lady Jane Grey. 'The Lady Elizabeth' benefits from Weir's depth and breadth of knowledge of Tudor England by her ability to include vivid descriptions of the English Court, royal attire, and the Tower of London.

A color photo of the front cover of 'Mistress of the Monarchy' aka 'Katherine Swynford' by Alison Weir.Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster (US, January, 2009)
Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess (UK, September 2007)
A book about the life and times of the woman who was both mistress and then wife to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. John was the third son of Edward III, one of the most charismatic and accomplished English Kings. Weir's scholarship and very readable writing style allows her to build a convincing complete picture of Katherine as an intelligent, poised, and talented woman who, because of her talent and drive, was able to manage her own destiny in a heavily male-dominated era. Katherine became the mistress of the married John of Gaunt after the death of her first husband. During this period they had four children. After the Peasants Revolt in, John broke off the liaison but, after his wife's death, he married Katherine. As his wife she was stepmother to the future Henry IV. Typical of Weir's work, the book is well-researched yet very readable, particularly because of her ability to place the story of the Katherine and John against the broader backdrop of the age of chivalry and the many people connected to their story, including Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer.

A color photo of the front cover of 'The Lady in the Tower' by Alison Weir.The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn (October, 2009)
Another of Weir's well researched histories of important and historically maligned or misunderstood Tudor women, this book about Queen Anne Boleyn describes the circumstances leading up to her imprisonment and eventual execution. After Henry and Anne became estranged, Henry became involved with Jane Seymour. It has been long believed that in order to marry Jane, Henry instructed his Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to fabricate evidence against Anne and her political faction so that he could re-marry. Weir explores the various alternate interpretations behind Anne's accusation and trial for high treason and presents alternative views, particularly that Cromwell was motivated by his own political maneuvering to construct a case of treason and adultery against Anne and present this 'evidence' to the king. A richly researched and detailed portrait of the last days of Anne Boleyn that helps explain how the drama of her story went on to inspire so much English art and writing keeping her memory vivid in English popular culture into modern times.

A color photo of the recumbent effigies or gisants of the tombs of Eleanor and Henry at the Abbey of Fontevraud.The Eagle and the Lion (April, 2010)
Another highly researched and vividly detailed historical novel by Weir. In 'The Eagle and the Lion' Weir imagines the life of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, from 1152, the year she left her failed marriage to King Louis of France ('Saint Louis'). Eleanor, a powerful ruler of large holdings in southern France, Duchy of Aquitaine and the Comté of Poitiers, intends to marry Henry Plantagenet, the eventual Henry II. She was an uncommon woman for her age, intelligent, strong-willed, and politically very capable. The combination of Eleanor's possessions with those of Henry created one of the greatest European powers of the high Medieval era. Their union also resulted in the birth of two of the most well known kings of England: Richard C'ur de Lion (Richard the Lion Hearted) and the notorious King John sans Terre (Lackland). The characters in this broad novel of the Plantagenets and the life of Eleanor, incorporates other strong, richly imagined and historically relevant characters as Thomas Becket and Henry's mother, the formidable Matilda. Weir recounts the conflicts, personal, political, and military that erupted between Henry and his sons and eventually between Henry and Eleanor.

Newer Article: V is for Verbal Violence


Older Article: The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, the Historical Reality Behind the Myths

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