Reclaiming History

Renowned historian and author Alison Weir gives female figures from the past a voice in her upcoming series of novels that bring six of England’s most iconic queens—the ill-fated wives of Henry VIII—to life.

Published in S/ magazine, Spring 2016. Read it here.

As “the biggest-selling female historian in the United Kingdom,” Alison Weir doesn’t believe in rewriting history. Recently, popular books, films, and television shows like The Tudors have fostered much interest in some of history’s most important characters—and in particular, the often underrepresented female ones. Anne Boleyn, for example, has become a virtual superstar, and some have come to see her as a feminist icon. But the tendency of pop culture’s greatest hits to skew historical details in order to boost a story’s entertainment value has its risks. “I worry that the distinction between history and fiction is breaking down,” says Weir. “There is no justification in playing fast and loose with the facts,” says Weir. “And I don’t subscribe to the view that any history is better than no history.”

Weir has a number of published historical works under her belt: a comprehensive genealogical tome on Britain’s royal families and numerous biographies on historical female figures, from medieval monarchs like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France, to royal mistresses like Katherine Swynford and Mary Boleyn (the other Boleyn girl, immortalized in recent years by Scarlett Johansson in the film rendition of Philippa Gregory’s popular novel). However, it was discovering frustrating gaps in the history of Eleanor of Aquitaine—one of Europe’s most wealthy and powerful women of the 12th century—that inspired the historian to dabble in fiction, a genre that allowed Weir the creative freedom to fill in the missing pieces of this important story.

Traditional history lessons focus on the “great men” of the past, but often neglect the powerful women whose stories also deserve to be told. Creating an informative and enchanting story—while keeping factual details intact—can offer fresh perspectives that would not be permissible to a historian, but that “have a value of their own,” says Weir, describing her novels as “psychological journeys”that attempt to get inside her subjects’ heads to make sense of the facts from their perspective. The result offers women from the past an important voice.

Last year, Weir announced she was working on a series of novels that would breathe new life into the dramatic stories of the wives of England’s most notorious king, Henry VIII. Her first novel in the series tells the tale of Katherine of Aragon—Henry VIII’s first wife—and arrives in stores this spring. For this series, Weir followed new leads and dug up new clues for a fresh take on the King of England’s ill-fated wives: divorced, beheaded, died…divorced, beheaded, survived.

Weir asserts that all of her novels are underpinned by decades of meticulous research, but admits that this hasn’t always been reflected on the jackets of her novels. “I can see how some may perceive the genre as lowbrow,” she explains, a perception unaided by the images of sexed-up women in period gowns and corsets that cover of many of the genre’s novels. “I don’t like history being romanticized in this way: I think it dumbs it down,” she says. Weir maintains that there’s no justifiable reason to distort the facts because the truth of these women—or what we know of it, as history is always developing—is even more enthralling. “Their lives are dramatic and tragic,” she explains. “They have all the elements of pure theatre.” The first of Weir’s forthcoming Six Tudor Queens series, Katherine of Aragon: TheTrue Queen, is available May 31, 2016.

The first of Weir’s forthcoming Six Tudor Queens series, Katherine of Aragon: TheTrue Queen, is available May 31, 2016.