#EdBookFest: Alison Weir

Earlier in the year I made myself a hazy promise that I would see something at the Book Festival this summer. It was the news that Alison Weir would be speaking that had me queuing for tickets as soon as they became available (by which I mean queuing online while eating breakfast in my pjs – I’m not that keen).

It took two more queues before I found myself seated in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre waiting to hear from my favourite historian. Weir began by talking us through Katherine of Aragon’s story. I won’t repeat this because I covered the basics in my earlier review of the novel. Suffice it to say that her telling was accompanied by portraits of the main players, and readings from the novel at appropriate points. She ended by telling us something that was new to me: I knew that Katherine had been buried as Princess Dowager of Wales at Peterborough Abbey (now Cathedral), but not that Queen Mary, wife of George V, had Katherine’s rightful title and banners restored to her tomb.

Grave of Katherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral.
Grave of Katherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral.

The audience questions fell into two categories: about the story/history, and about Weir’s writing process.

From the story/history questions we learned that Weir has looked into Canon Law and Henry was wrong in his interpretation. The passage in Leviticus that he chose to cite which forbade marriage with a brother’s wife, was superseded by a passage in Deuteronomy which ordered men to marry their brother’s widow if the marriage had been childless, as in the case of Katherine’s marriage to Arthur. Henry was also willfully ignoring that a lack of sons does not equate to childlessness – he had a daughter. There is also strong evidence that Katherine’s first marriage was not consummated, as she always maintained. Weir was asked whether Katherine’s public appeal to Henry might have been ‘medieval PR’. Weir noted that Katherine rarely saw Henry by this point, and may have been trying to jolt him into awareness of how his actions were affecting her, but no doubt believed everything she said (Katherine was celebrated and cursed for her integrity in equal measure by contemporaries). To the question of whether Henry might have regretted his actions with regard to the religious discord that had resulted,  Weir opined that Henry truly believed that he was restoring an authority that England had once possessed. A final question was raised of why Katherine resisted retiring to a nunnery, if she was assured of Mary’s place in the succession. Weir suggested 3 reasons: as the daughter of a Queen Regnant, Katherine would have believed that Mary could rule in her own right; she would have balked at the idea of her daughter, descendant of Kings, losing precedence to the grandchildren of a mere Knight; and, as she stated, she had no vocation. Weir did agree that Katherine might have responded differently had Henry been contemplating a marriage of State with another Princess.

When asked about her process, Weir revealed that she had been researching Henry’s queens for a revision of her book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and had been commissioned to write the historical novels from the perspective of each queen. When asked about balancing the roles of historian and novel, she agreed that it can be difficult, as novelists must show, not tell, while historians do the opposite.  She said that the challenge is finding her way into the novel – what will draw the reader in? – and then weaving in the historical information. Weir mentioned that she tends to write fiction in chronological order, once she has completed her research, while she might digress into other topics while writing history. Asked about the complexity of finding the voice of each queen, and making them distinct, Weir pointed to her earlier experience of writing Innocent Traitor (an historical novel about Lady Jane Grey), which has 8 narrators. She also noted how invaluable it was to study their actual words, where there is a historical record. Katherine of Aragon is well-represented in this way, due to the Great Matter, and her connections to Spain.

I greatly enjoyed the hour we spent with Alison Weir, and was intrigued by both the insight into her process, and the snippets of information about the next book in the series. And no, I didn’t get my copy signed, as I chickened out of lugging it all the way into Edinburgh with me 🙂

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