Read historical novelist Anne Clinard Barnhill's very kind article, 'Alison Weir and Me', at

(Broadway to Vegas, September 2012)

Those Tudors were an amazing group. Sex, murder, mistresses, intrigue. A dysfunctional family if there ever was one. But, oh, so interesting. Riveting as brought to life by best-selling author Alison Weir, who spoke with Broadway To Vegas about her own interesting life, as well as the antics of those who flow from her prolific pen. Her history books, and latterly historical novels, mostly in the form of biographies about British royalty from the Tudor period have made her a best-selling author.
  The Tudor period was dramatic, vivid with strong female personalities. It is also the first one for which there is a rich visual record, with the growth of portraiture, and detailed sources on the private lives of kings and queens.
  Weir has sold more than 2.3 million books: with more than a million of those sales coming from the United States. She is also the 5th best selling historian in the United Kingdom. The top four are Antony Beevor, Stephen Ambrose, Simon Schama and Peter Ackroyd.
  Weir's fourth novel, A Dangerous Inheritance, is the stand-alone sequel to Innocent Traitor. It tells the story of Lady Katherine Grey, and is a suspenseful tale about one of history's most controversial mysteries, approached from a new angle in an intriguing sub-plot, with a hint of the supernatural. The paperback edition of Alison's latest biography, Mary Boleyn, was published in America on September 4, 2012.
   Weir specializes in writing about a century of raw power and rude humor. As to whether any of the relatives of figures in her books have contacted her with their opinions, Weir replied: "Anya Seton's daughter contacted me after I had written an appendix about her mother's novel, Katherine, in my biography of Katherine Swynford. She was happy with my portrayal of her mother and said I'd got it mostly right!"
   Some people not only appear to have it all, but make it look so easy. Underneath the success is a lot of talent and tenacity.
   Meet the personal side of Alison Weir. Born and bred at Westminster, London, she has also lived in Norfolk, Sussex and Scotland, and now resides in Surrey.
   'My parents split up when I was young, and my father died many years ago," Weir told Broadway To Vegas. "He instilled in me a love of classical history when I was a child, and introduced me to the works of Robert Graves and Mary Renault."
   Weir has been interested in Tudor history since the age of fourteen, when she read her first adult novel, a rather lurid book called Henry's Golden Queen, about Katherine of Aragon. She was so enthralled by it that she dashed off to read real history books, to find out the truth behind what she had read, and thus her passion for history was born. By the time she was fifteen, she had written a three-volume reference work on the Tudor dynasty, a biography of Anne Boleyn based partly on contemporary sources, and several historical plays. She had also started work on the research that would one day take form as her first published book, Britain's Royal Families.
   Alison was educated at the City of London School for Girls and the North Western Polytechnic, training to be a teacher with a major in history. However, she quickly became disillusioned with trendy teaching methods. Before becoming a published author in 1989, she was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother.
   It should come as no surprise that super-mom Alison Weir did what a lot of mothers are required to do - rise to the occasion.
From 1991 to 1997, while researching and writing books, she also ran her own school for children with learning difficulties. "My son has special needs and we couldn't find a suitable school for him," she told Broadway To Vegas. "So, I set up my own!"
   She's been married to Rankin Weir since 1972, and they have two children, John who was born in 1982 and Kate who came along in 1984. "My husband was a civil servant until 2001; since then, he has worked for me. He is the bedrock of our lives - I couldn't do this without him," she stressed. "My children, indeed my whole family, are all marvelously supportive."
   Alison Weir will take part in a book reading and signing of Captive Queen on September 28 to benefit the The Friends of Northampton Castle, a volunteer group established to publicize the castle and provide information about the history of the site and the castle itself. In July 2012, FONC commissioned a 3D reconstruction of the castle which has been published on youtube. Thomas Becket was tried at the castle in 1164.  
   Being an organized pack rat can be important to a successful author. "I save most things, and yes, I have used a huge amount of my earlier research in my books," she said answering a Broadway To Vegas question. "I'm now rewriting two early novels, and am about to base a book on England's medieval queens on research I did four decades ago."
   In the 1970s, Weir spent four years researching and writing a non-fiction biography of the six wives of Henry VIII. Her work was deemed too long by publishers, and was consequently rejected. A revised version of this biography would later be published as her second book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
   In 1981, she wrote a book on Jane Seymour, which was again rejected by publishers, this time because it was too short. Weir became a published author in 1989 with the publication of Britain's Royal Families, a compilation of genealogical information about the British Royal Family. She revised the work eight times over a twenty-two year period, and decided that it might be "of interest to others".
   What Weir's writing has done to encourage an interest in history is magnificent. However, she hasn't attempted to get her books turned into movies or a PBS special because, frankly, "Normally, broadcasting companies approach me."
   Those who are successful authors of romance novels know there is a formula. What about historical fiction? "It all depends on your publisher, and editors vary widely in their opinions," she answered. "I was given a lot of excellent advice (e.g. show, rather than tell), so I do bear that in mind, but by now it's virtually become second nature."
   As to whether she has a favorite character that she'd would like to spin off into a series of books, Weir replied: "Not yet, but I'm thinking about it! A female detective who solves historical mysteries would sing to me!"
   Weir's writings have been describing as being in the genre of popular history, which has attracted criticism from academia.
Weir is not apologetic. "History is full of wonderful stories and amazing characters. I feel very privileged to be able to bring them to life in both my non-fiction books and my novels. In both cases, I feel that an author has a responsibility to be as true to the facts as is possible. And in an age in which history is increasingly perceived to be 'dumbed down' in schools, on television and on film, we can all learn from a study of the past. We can discover more about ourselves and our own civilization.
   "History belongs to us all, and it can be accessed by us all. And if writing it in a way that is accessible and entertaining, as well as conscientiously researched, can be described as popular, then, yes, I am a popular historian, and am proud and happy to be one."

(Unsubmitted proposal, 2014. This book was also proposed as a biography.)

Perkin Warbeck; Elizabeth MacLennan as Katherine Gordon in the BBC TV series 'The Shadow of the Tower' (1972). No contempory image of Katherine exists.
Lady Katherine Gordon is the daughter of a Scots nobleman, George Gordon, Earl of Huntly. She was born in Aberdeenshire in 1474. Her story begins when she is brought to the court of King James IV at Stirling Castle in November 1495. James has welcomed a controversial young man to his court. Handsome and gallant, the newcomer insists he is Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower (whom many believed to have been murdered twelve years earlier) – and therefore Richard IV, the rightful King of England. Wishing to discountenance his enemy, Henry VII of England, James has offered Richard his support and received him with royal honours, and offered him his kinswoman, Katherine, a young lady of extraordinary beauty, to be his bride.   
   Richard proves an ardent suitor, sending her passionate letters, and she falls in love with him. They marry in Edinburgh the following January, amidst great celebrations. Katherine is now styled the Duchess of York. One day, she dreams, she will be queen of England.
   A son, Richard, is born to them nine months later. Meanwhile, plans have been laid for Katherine's new husband to invade England. While Katherine lies abed recovering from her confinement, James and Richard ride into Northumberland, where Richard issues a proclamation as king of England. But no Englishmen rally to his banner. When the Scots start raiding Northumberland and engaging in border warfare, Richard excites ridicule by entreating James to spare those whom he calls his subjects. Richard is so disgusted by the mayhem that he returns to Scotland after three days, leaving James with no option but to follow.
    By July 1497 Henry VII has begun peace negotiations with James, which makes it impossible for Richard to stay in Scotland. Leaving many debts behind, he and Katherine embark with their two children from Ayr in a Breton merchant vessel. The plan is to land in England and seize the English crown, but Richard has no weapons or soldiers. 
   First they visit Cork, remaining in Ireland more than a month. But Richard fails to rally any support there. Instead the citizens of Waterford fit out vessels at their own cost, and nearly capture him at sea during his crossing to Cornwall. When Richard and Katherine land at Whitesand Bay in Cornwall, he proclaims himself King Richard IV of England, and installs Katherine within the safety of the castle on St Michael's Mount. At Bodmin, he raises three thousand men, with more joining him on his march eastward. Katherine waits in trepidation to hear news of him. Her youngest child has been ailing, and she fears for her life. Then news comes that Richard has been forced to withdraw to Taunton after failing to take Exeter. That same day, her child dies, and she is plunged into mourning.
   Then news comes that the King’s army is on the march. Fearful for her son’s safety she arranges for him secretly to be taken to Wales and hidden in a humble farmstead. Soon afterwards she hears that, abandoned by his followers, Richard has surrendered himself to the King's mercy.
   Soon the royal soldiers come for Katherine. They tell her that her husband, having been promised his life, has made a full confession of his imposture. He is really Perkin Warbeck, the son of the Controller of Tournai, and he had been persuaded by the Irish to impersonate Richard of York. Katherine is now the King’s prisoner and is to be brought to him at Taunton. Her fears are somewhat allayed when she is provided with mourning attire for her child.
   As she rides to Taunton, she wonders if Richard has merely repeated what he was told to say. With his wife – and, he believes, his child - in Henry’s custody, he has little choice. Not knowing what to think, she is in turmoil – and terrified in case Richard (the name she will always call him) will reveal that he has a son, forcing her to divulge the child’s whereabouts.
   When Katherine comes into Henry’s presence, he is struck by her beauty and is more than kind to her. Deferring to her rank, he pays her much attention; it seems he feels sorry for her for having married an imposter. He summons Richard and makes him repeat his confession in her presence. Now she is even less sure what to believe.
   Henry sends Katherine, under escort, to his Queen, the kind and gentle Elizabeth of York, assuring her of his desire to treat her like a sister. Richard is taken under guard to London, an object of ridicule. At first, he is imprisoned in the Tower, but after publicly repeating his confession in London, he is allowed to live at court. He begs Henry to send Katherine home to Scotland, and even James IV tries to gain her freedom, but Henry fears more plotting will ensue; he has also taken a fancy to Katherine.
   Richard is given a place in Henry's household. He is under light house arrest, and has his own servants, a horse and a tailor. He is allowed to see Katherine, but not to sleep with her. She warns him not to reveal that they brought a child out of Scotland. Rightly she fears that any son of the pretender would be in danger, and might be shut up in the Tower like the young Earl of Warwick, who is too near in blood to the throne.
   Katherine is made very welcome in Elizabeth of York's household, and becomes a favoured lady-in-waiting. She resumes her maiden name of Gordon and is treated with all the deference due to her noble birth. Soon she is known popularly as ‘the White Rose of Scotland’. The King pays her expenses from his own privy purse. He awards her a pension and gives her lavish clothing. She knows what he wants, and is tempted because she has come to like this man who was once her enemy.
   After a year, Richard grows tired of his silken chains and escapes from the court to Sheen Abbey, but the prior informs the King that he is there. This time, Richard is imprisoned in the Tower for good, in a dark cell.
   Henry has betrothed his heir, Prince Arthur, to Katherine of Aragon. Her parents, the Spanish sovereigns, will not let her come to England while the Earl of Warwick lives. Henry decides to kill two birds with one stone. An agent provocateur is planted in the Tower, and Richard and Warwick are drawn into a plot. In November 1499 Katherine, disguised, is watching in the crowd when Richard is executed.
   After his death she remains at the English court. The King is still giving her lavish clothing. In 1503 she briefly returns to Scotland in the train of Henry’s daughter Margaret, to attend Margaret’s wedding to James IV. By now, Henry is a widower, and on Katherine’s return they become close, spending so much time together that there is speculation they will marry. But Henry is a sick man. He dies in 1509 and his son, Henry VIII, becomes king.
   The new King is fond of Katherine, who was much loved by his mother. He appoints her a lady-in-waiting to his queen, Katharine of Aragon. The following year Katherine obtains letters of denization and becomes an English subject. The King grants her lands in Berkshire, on condition that she will not venture within 100 miles of the Scottish border. It is a strange condition to impose, and Katherine wonders if he has found out about her son. All these years she has suffered heartache on account of the boy, denying herself even a glimpse of him to ensure his safety. King Henry, more ruthless than his father, must never know of young Richard’s  existence.
   In 1512 Katherine marries James Strangeways, one of the King’s gentleman ushers.  The Strangeways were once a Yorkist family. Although it is not a happy marriage, it brings Katherine the manor of Fyfield, Berkshire, with its rambling timbered house, which she comes to call home. Here she will live when not at court.

Katherine before Henry VII; Fyfield, Berkshire

In 1517 James Strangeways dies, leaving his estate to his wife. By then, Katherine has fallen in love with an older man, the kindly Sir Matthew Cradock, a Welsh gentleman who has secretly watched over her son for her. They marry soon after James’s death, and the King gives her leave to dwell with her husband in Wales. Cradock is a knight of some standing, and they lead a comfortable life, dividing their time between Cardiff, Swansea, Abertawe and haunted Candleston Castle, near to which there is said to be a lost village buried in the sand dunes. At last Katherine is able to see and get to know her son.
   But Queen Katharine has not forgotten her. When her young daughter, the Princess Mary, is sent with her household to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border in 1525, the Queen appoints Katherine chief lady of the Princess's privy chamber. Again, Katherine realizes she must be circumspect about her life in Wales. She serves the Princess until Mary is recalled to court in 1527. Henry VIII is divorcing Katharine of Aragon, and the Queen begs Katherine to stay with her daughter to support her during this difficult time. Reluctantly, Katherine returns to court, and Matthew takes a house in London. Neither of them are happy to see Anne Boleyn queening it over the court, or to see Mary so unhappy.
   In 1530 Matthew’s health breaks down. Katherine is now fifty-six. Her son is a grown man, and she longs to see him again. The Queen gives her permission to go home, and the couple return to Wales. In July 1531 Matthew dies.

Matthew Cradock's bomb-damaged tomb in St Mary's Church, Swansea, now lost; Katherine Gordon's tomb in St Nicholas's Church, Fyfield.

Katherine retires to Fyfield, where she spends the last six years of her life; still beautiful, she becomes a familiar sight, riding her horse around the parish. In 1536 she marries for the fourth time, to a local man, Christopher Ashton, another royal gentleman usher. Nineteen years her junior, he is a widower, and Katherine becomes stepmother to his two young children. She dies at Fyfield in October 1537, much loved by her husband and all who know her.
   What had happened to her son? That is one of the central themes of the book. There are hints that the real Katherine Gordon had a son by Perkin Warbeck, and that this Richard Perkins was sent to a family in Wales for safety. It is possible that Katherine spent her whole life concealing his existence, while retaining the affection and respect of the Tudor monarchs. Another theme in the book is how Katherine came to regard Perkin Warbeck, the only one of her husbands not to be mentioned in her will. Did she truly believe he was Richard of York? Or did she feel betrayed by his imposture? The third theme is the nature of her relationship with Henry VII. How close were they?
   Katherine Gordon’s is an extraordinary story spanning two rich periods of history, two courts and all four corners of the British Isles. It is a tale of love, ambition, tragedy and intrigue – and of a beautiful and remarkable woman.   

by Alison Weir, 2012

In the wake of the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their first child, and the new legislation to give their daughters equal precedence with their sons in the order of succession, it is interesting to speculate which princesses would have reigned in England had this law been enacted in past centuries, when several monarchs left daughters who were older than the sons who succeeded them.
   Until Elizabeth I proved that a woman could rule successfully, the concept of a a female monarch was unacceptable to the male-dominated society of medieval and Tudor England. It was a world in which women were regarded as inferior to men physically, intellectually and morally, and were legally infants. It was seen as against the laws of God and Nature for a woman to wield dominion over men: such a thing was an affront to the perceived order of the world.
   Setting aside such prejudices, and the necessity in earlier times for a ruler to be an active war leader, who were the queens England - and later Great Britain - never had? 
   In 1135, the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, was actually her father’s thrice acknowledged heir, but on his death the barons opted for her cousin Stephen instead. Matilda launched a civil war in defence of her rights, but her bid for power failed in the face of her perceived arrogance, and the Londoners wasted no time in kicking her out.
   In 1307, instead of the weak and vicious Edward II, there would have been Margaret I, former Duchess of Brabant, the eldest surviving daughter of Edward I. She is a shadowy figure about whom there is little to say, but her accession would have seen closer links with the Low Countries and put a strong foreign dynasty on the English throne.
   Had the law been passed later – which we will suppose in each future case - the next Queen would have been Elizabeth I – not the Gloriana of legend, but Elizabeth of York, who was the rightful Queen of England after the probable murder of her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, in 1483. She and her siblings had by then been declared legitimate, but on dubious grounds. Their bastardy was ratified in law in 1484, but reversed by Parliament in 1485, by which time Henry VII, Elizabeth’s future husband, was king. She had the better title, and since her bastardy had been nullified, her rights should have taken precedence over his. But because she was a woman, no one even considered supporting her claim, and Elizabeth herself certainly did not press it. She was seen chiefly as the heiress of the House of York, through whom the right of succession could be transmitted by marriage.   
   Under today’s legislation, we would have had no Henry VIII – at least not until 1541 - and England’s history would have been very different. Henry VII would have been succeeded in 1509 by his eldest surviving child, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, as Margaret II – ‘Henry VIII in a dress’, as Sarah Gristwood has described her - and that would have united the crowns of England and Scotland almost a century earlier than in reality, and the Tudor dynasty would have lasted just twenty-four years. Had Margaret died childless in 1541, Henry VIII would have succeeded at the age of fifty, and Scotland would have come under Tudor rule.
   If the law had been passed by Henry VIII – although he would be spinning in his grave at the thought – his eldest daughter, Mary I, would have succeeded him in 1547. She would then have been thirty-one, and more likely to have borne children than she actually was when she came to the throne in 1558 – and England may well have remained a Catholic country.
   On her death, assuming she was childless after all, the succession would then have followed its historical course, passing to her half-sister, Elizabeth II (I) – we will use these regnal numbers on the assumption that the issue, or lack of it, of these queens made little impact on the historical succession; if it had, the course of history naturally would have been very different.
   In 1625, Elizabeth’s successor, James I, would have left the crown to his eldest surviving child, Elizabeth III, titular Queen of Bohemia. That would have established the prolific Palatine dynasty on the throne, and probably averted the English Civil War, although it might have dragged Britain into the gruelling Thirty Years War.  
   Had the legislation been passed later, Mary II and Anne would have reigned anyway, but in 1760, instead of passing to George III, the crown would have gone to his sister, Queen Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick, which would have brought another German dynasty to the throne. There might have been no American War of Independence and certainly no Regency. 
   If the new law had been passed in the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria would still have succeeded in 1837, but on her death in 1901, instead of Edward VII, there would have been – for a few months - Victoria II, the former Princess Royal and Empress Frederick of Prussia. When she died of cancer later that year, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II would have become King of Great Britain, and there would have been no Great War, and probably no Second World War, because the Kaiser would never have been forced to abdicate. His dynasty, the Hohenzollerns, would have continued to rule Britain and Germany, and the House of Windsor would never have existed. Today, the Kaiser’s descendant, Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia, current head of the House of Hohenzollern, would reign here as George VII.
  Much of this is purely speculative, of course, yet it is fascinating to wonder what would have happened if each of these ladies had succeeded to the throne.

by Alison Weir

The four Howard dukes of Norfolk, with Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (second from right).

Everyone familiar with the history of Tudor England will have heard of the Howards, or the dukes of Norfolk, England's premier Catholic family. Katherine Howard was Henry VIII's fifth wife, while his second, Anne Boleyn, had a Howard mother. John Howard, first Duke of Norfolk, a descendant of Edward I, fell fighting for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His son, Thomas, a soldier and statesman, had to fight his way back to royal favour under Henry VII and Henry VIII, and was not restored to the dukedom until shortly before his death in 1524.
   His son, Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke, was the Norfolk so renowned as Henry VIII's henchman. As Earl Marshal of England, he presided over most of the great events of the reign, including several state trials, and he was at the centre of many court intrigues. A blunt, ambitious and ruthless character, he cared for little but his own and his family's advancement. After the execution of his niece, Katherine Howard, in 1542, he and his family fell from favour. Further intriguing brought Norfolk to the Tower and a sentence of death, which he narrowly escaped because the King died before he could sign the warrant for the execution. Norfolk remained in the Tower during the six years of Edward's reign, but was released by Mary and, at the age of 80, helped her to put down Wyatt's rebellion.
   Norfolk married twice, firstly to Anne of York, daughter of Edward IV; his second wife was Anne Stafford, who complained he ill-treated and abused her, preferring the company of his mistress, Elizabeth Holland.
   Norfolk's son and heir was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the renowned poet and courtier, who was brought up in the company of Henry VIII's bastard son, the Duke of Richmond. Suspected of treason, Surrey was sent to the Tower with his father in 1546, and was the last man to be beheaded in Henry VIII's reign.
   His son, Thomas Howard, was later restored to the dukedom of Norfolk and married three times. During the reign of Elizabeth I, he foolishly intrigued to marry the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, with a view to setting Mary on the English throne with himself as her consort. The plot was discovered and Norfolk went to the block in 1572.
   Thereafter, the fortunes of the Howard family diminished, as they identified themselves with the Catholic cause, which was tantamount to treason at that time. Norfolk's son, Philip, spent most of his life in the Tower for his faith, died there, and was later made a saint. Only towards the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign did the Howard fortunes begin to revive, but the family never regained its former prominence.



Alison is supporting the Friends of Northampton Castle, who are dedicated to ensuring that the importance of Northampton’s medieval heritage is recognised and celebrated. 
   Visitors arriving in Northampton today may be forgiven if they do not realise that the town ever had a castle. There is very little of it that remains to be seen.  We hear too often that the castle has been lost, that nothing remains.  In fact there is a great deal of it left underground, which could be explored and restored. Northampton Castle was of major historical importance as a seat of Parliament and the fourth biggest castle in the country in its time.  but does that mean it should be forgotten?
   Erected by Simon De Senlis in 1084, the castle was located on the site of Northampton Station, where the postern gate is still visible. It became an important seat of power, playing host to kings. Parliaments were held there and the castle was the setting for the famous trial of Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was later murdered in 1170. In 1205, King John is known to have moved the royal treasury to the castle, and in 1460 Henry VI stayed there before the Battle of Northampton. The castle met its literal downfall in 1662 when, resenting Northampton’s parliamentary support, the restored monarch Charles II ordered the building’s defences to be destroyed, so that it could not again be used as a castle. Thereafter it was used as a court and a gaol but, as the years went by, it fell into decay. In 1861 the land was finally sold to L. & N.W. Railway and the majority of the castle’s remains were demolished in 1870 to facilitate the building of the station.
   Excavations were carried out in the 1960s, and experts now believe that the site could still hold some interesting archaeological finds, with the potential to reveal more about the castle’s past. FONC aims to bring new life to this great period in our local and national history.  To find out more or to get involved visit:


Across Scotland and beyond, 26 writers have been exploring ways of bringing treasures from the National Museum of Scotland to life in words. At the Winter Words Festival at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in February 2012, a panel of contributing writers, including Linda Cracknell, Jamie Jauncey and (guesting) Alison Weir will discuss how tapping into the rich story of Scotland’s past through objects can connect them not only to social, political, cultural and religious history, but to the powerful emotions of people who lived at the time. Each of the 26 writers had contributed a piece of creative writing (not exceeding 62 words long) in response to the treasure assigned them. Being a guest contributor, Alison was allowed to choose her treasure, and opted for the Leisian gneiss, a rock hundreds of millions of years old. It inspired her to write the following poem, an abbreviated version of which she recited at the Festival.  


Here in God's theatre
Nature has writ in marvellous words
in one ceaseless brave scenario
the play of the ages,
and with a crooked finger carved the lines
so long ago, in acts too changing for men to stop
and think and listen.  For
the hills unit in silent chorus,
the lochs reflect unspoken odes,
primeval echoes down the centuries,
the unsung exit of the last volcano.

And we, the watchers,
do we yet applaud this great performance,
never so divine
as when each new eye doth see it?
Do we gaze in wonder,
dazzled by the vastness of this celestial amphitheatre,
the aweful magnificence of Heaven's scripting, Nature's cast?
Do we tremble, knowing that when we are long gone,
the words, the play, the song -
they still will last?

For more information, go to


Original book proposal by ALISON WEIR
(This book was commissioned in 2001, but never written, because Sarah Bradford, an expert on the Borgias, published an excellent biography, and Alison chose to write about Katherine Swynford instead.) 


Say the name Lucrezia Borgia, and it conjures up images of sex, orgies, incest and murder. During the five centuries since her death, Lucrezia Borgia has become a byword for feminine infamy, immortalised in the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Johannes Burchard, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and Guillaume Apollinaire. Yet although her life was touched by notoriety and scandal, when she died in 1519, she was lauded for her piety and gentleness. Hence, she is an enigma: who was the real Lucrezia Borgia? 


Lucrezia was born in 1480 in Rome, one of four bastard children born to Cardinal Roderigo Borgia by his Roman mistress Vanozza Catanei. Her three brothers (above) were Giovanni (Juan), Duke of Gandia, the brilliant but infamous Cesare Borgia (born 1475), whose brooding good looks, magnetic charm and ruthless ambition made him one of the most feared and villified public figures of his day; and Goffredo (Joffre), Prince of Squillace. In fact, the corrupt, avaricious and nepotistic Borgias would bring the Vatican into such disrepute that, not only did their name become synonymous with wickedness, but the reputation of the papacy was irrevocably tarnished, which was one of the chief causes of the Reformation.
   The Borgias were of Spanish origin (the name was originally Borja or Borya), but moved to Italy in the 15th century when one of their number became Pope Calixtus III in 1455. Roderigo Borgia was his nephew. In 1492, when Lucrezia was 12, her father in turn became Pope, as Alexander VI (below), and it was only now that he publicly acknowledged his illegitimate children by Vanozza. His ambition was such that he desired to match Lucrezia only with the greatest of Princes; before she was 11, he had already turned down two suitors as being not grand enough for her.


Now, he placed her in the care of his celebrated new mistress, Giulia Farnese, and her mother-in-law, Adriana di Mila, who lived with Lucrezia in the magnificent Palazzo di Santa Maria and prepared her for the duties of matrimony. At 13, Lucrezia was ripe for the marriage market, graceful, golden-haired and slender, with teeth like pearls, and her father offered her hand to Giovanni Sforza, the handsome young Lord of Pesaro (below). Sforza eagerly accepted, and the cream of Roman society attended the wedding, which took place in 1493 - not without censure, however, since it was celebrated with a play by Plautus featuring libertines, prostitutes and pimps. Lucrezia was nevertheless apparently delighted with her new husband.


But after four years, the Pope and his sons realised that they could have made a more advantageous match for her with the influential House of Aragon, who ruled Sicily and Naples. Sforza was now an inconvenience who would have to be disposed of, and it was presently announced to the world that he had been unable to consummate his marriage to Lucrezia because he was impotent.
   Outraged and humiliated, Sforza protested that he was a normal man who had 'known his wife carnally on countless occasions'. When it was suggested that he prove it in front of members of the Borgia and Sforza families, he indignantly refused. But he could not withstand the power of the Borgias, who had Lucrezia examined and declared virgin by a panel of matrons, compelled her luckless husband to sign an admission of his impotence, and annulled the marriage. Sforza very prudently fled from Rome, lucky to escape with his life.


Lucrezia had long since become bored with her husband, but she was utterly dominated by her father and her brother Cesare. She agreed without protest to the dissolution of her marriage. It was essential that the pretence of virginity be maintained, so she was sent to the convent of San Sisto on the Appian Way to prepare for a second marriage. When the time came for her to leave, the nuns were sorry to lose her because they would miss the sophisticated and worldly pleasures to which she had introduced them.
   It soon became apparent that Lucrezia was pregnant, and certainly not by her husband. Rumour had it that she had taken a lover, a Spaniard who had conveyed letters between the Pope and his daughter whilst she was at the convent. His name was Pedro Calderon, but he was commonly called Perotto. There is no doubt of his charisma or his desire for Lucrezia. Yet her jealous brother Cesare first attacked him in the Pope's presence, then had him thrown into prison for presuming too far with his sister; six days later his body was found in the River Tiber, along with that of Lucrezia' s maid, who was thought to have acted as a go-between for the lovers. 
   The affair gave rise to sensational rumours. It was said that Cesare Borgia was the father of his sister's coming child. Certainly his love for Lucrezia was abnormally intense for a brother, and probably incestuous, although there is no evidence that it was reciprocated. The rumours were fuelled by Giovanni Sforza, who, anxious to take revenge on the men who had robbed him of his bride, put it about that Lucrezia was the mistress, not only of both her brothers, Cesare and Giovanni, Duke of Gandia, but also of her father, the Pope, who was then 67 years old.
   On balance, it appears that the father of the child Giovanni (later Duke of Nepi ) , who was born in Rome in 1498, was Calderon, but Lucrezia would never even admit to being his mother, let alone disclose who had sired him. Although she kept the boy with her, she always referred to him as her brother. Publicly, he was referred to as 'the Roman Infante'. Three years after his birth, the Pope officially declared that Giovanni was the son of Cesare by an unknown woman, but soon he followed this with a declaration that the boy was in fact his own son, again by an unknown woman. It was claimed at the time that Lucrezia herself had requested the Pope to make these announcements as she herself did not know which of them, her father or her brother, had sired her child.


(Above: the sumptuous Borgia apartments in the Vatican)

Later in 1498, despite the scandal, the Borgias achieved their ambition and married Lucrezia to the King of Naples' nephew, Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie. The bridegroom was 17, fair-haired and dazzlingly handsome, and an entranced Lucrezia fell in love with him almost instantly. Cesare welcomed him to the family in the friendliest manner, and the Pope spared no expense in giving the young couple a splendid wedding. In return, Alfonso promised the doting father to stay with Lucrezia in Rome for a year before taking her south to his estates. There was one son of the marriage, called Roderigo after his grandfather.
   Before long, however, Cesare's jealousy once more manifested itself, and to such an extent that prayers were being said in Rome for the safety of the Duke of Bisceglie. In vain, for one night, after leaving the Vatican, he was set upon by assassins in St Peter's Piazza.  Fortunately, his friends came to his rescue and carried him home, half-dead, to the Palazzo di Stota Maria; his skull had been split open, and he had suffered dreadful wounds to his legs and body. A shocked Lucrezia nearly fainted when she saw him, but rallied to the occasion and nursed him devotedly back to health. She was well aware of whom it was that had ordered his murder.


Cesare Borgia (above), however, was determined to kill Alfonso, and one night in 1501, as the Duke lay convalescing in the Palazzo, he arrived with a gang of cut-throats and ordered Lucrezia out of the room. One assassin, a professional garotter, strangled the Duke before he could cry for help. Cesare afterwards excused the attack on the grounds that Alfonso had threatened to murder him, but no one believed this.
   A grieving Lucrezia was sent to the Castle of Nepi to mourn in private for her husband, and shed many bitter tears for his loss. But when her father summoned her back to the Vatican, she dutifully obeyed him, and prepared herself to submit to whoever he might choose as her third husband. Casting off her sorrow, she threw herself into a hectic round of pleasure, devised by Cesare in order to cheer her. Gossip-mongers had a field day exchanging lurid tales of these scandalous goings-on in the Vatican. On one occasion, Cesare was said to have stewn hot chestnuts across the floor of the Pope's apartment, then made naked prostitutes crawl on hands and knees with lighted candles to retrieve them. There were fertility contests, orgies, and obscene masques. It is nowhere recorded, however, that Lucrezia took part in any of these diversions. On the contrary, people were beginning to speak of her piety and her gentleness. But this was possibly mere flattery. 
   In 1501, Cesare chose to ally his family with the ancient and noble House of d'Este, who ruled Ferrara. But when the then Duke's son, Alfonso d'Este, aged 24, was offered Lucrezia as a bride, he refused to take to his bed a lady of such notoriety. However, his father, eager to ally himself with the powerful Borgias, threatened that he would marry Lucrezia himself if his son did not accept her. In the end, the Pope offered such a fabulous dowry with Lucrezia that d'Este was unable to refuse. A splendid wedding followed, at which the radiant bride was observed dancing with her brother Cesare, who had rid her not only of a lover but also her two previous husbands.
   But Lucrezia was soon to be removed from the orbit of the dangerous Cesare. After her wedding, she bade a final farewell to her father and brother: Pope Alexander was to die in 1503, Cesare Borgia in 1507. Lucrezia had by them embarked on her new life as Duchess of Ferrara; her husband succeeded to the title in 1505. She brought to the marriage a magnificent dowry of sumptuous clothes and jewellery, exquisite works of art and luxurious furnishings. She and Alfonso d'Este (below, left and centre) made their home in the Castle of Vecchio. Against all the odds, the taciturn, promiscuous d'Este was charmed with his bride, whose grace and modesty would always captivate him.


Yet the gossip persisted. Before long, Lucrezia's name was being linked with that of the poet, Pietro Bembo (above, right), who may have been her lover. It was said that his erotic poetry was inspired by the passionate hours he had spent in her bed; some evidence suggests, however, that their relationship was entirely platonic. Nevertheless, Lucrezia's husband's suspicions were sufficiently aroused for Bembo to deem it wise to remove himself to Venice in 1505. Then there was the tragic Ercole Strozzi, another young poet, who wore his devotion to the Duchess like a heart on his sleeve. There was the most appalling scandal when Strozzi was found dead in the street, hacked to death with a dagger. Lucrezia's enemies accused her of having him killed out of jealousy, as Strozzi had been about to marry another lady. Others said that he had been silenced to prevent him from revealing just how often, and in what manner, Bembo and himself had enjoyed the Duchess's favours.
   Lucrezia further angered her husband when she brought to Ferrara Roderigo, her son by Alfonso of Bisceglie, and the mysterious Infante Giovanni, who were both brought up with the ducal children. When Roderigo died in 1512, Lucrezia was devastated, and retired for a while to a convent before being reunited with her husband. Giovanni lived until 1548.


As the years passed, the old scandals were forgotten, and thanks to the efforts of the poets and men of letters whom she patronised, or who admired her, Lucrezia Borgia's image metamorphosed into that of a godly and virtuous matron, without spot of sin, merciful and kind, and a gracious patron of the arts. When she died in childbed, of puerperal fever, in 1519, bearing her eighth child, her husband the Duke deeply mourned the passing of his 'dearest wife'. She was buried in the convent of Corpus Domini, Ferrara, where he was later laid to rest beside her (above, right).
   So what is the truth about Lucrezia Borgia? Was she the notorious femme fatale of popular rumour, or was she indeed a virtuous woman much wronged by those about her? Today, many think she was more sinned against than sinning, and that she was the innocent victim of ruthless, unscrupulous men. There is plenty of evidence that the truth may be rather different, and that the original verdict of historians on Lucrezia Borgia is the correct one.
(Film stills are from The Borgias, B.B.C. TV, 1981)

Proposal (never submitted) for an unpublished novel by Alison Weir, 2014, with a brief extract.

The idea for this novel was born in 1987 when I visited Chambercombe, an ancient historic manor house in north Devon. There I first encountered the legend of the secret room, a legend that may be based on fact, because certainly the room exists, although there is now no entrance to it.  And there are many tales of ghosts at Chambercombe, and echoes of a past stretching back for nearly a thousand years…
  In the years that followed my visit I spent a lot of time researching Chambercombe and the historical context of the legend, immersing myself in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Devon and the story of the unfortunate Kate Oatway.
    The tale I propose to tell begins in 1865, when a farmer doing roofing repairs noticed the outline of a blocked-up window. The following is part of the original draft of this story:
If it hadn't been for the poor condition of the roof, John Robins would never have had cause to wonder if there was something amiss in the farmhouse. Just after lunch he had gone out into the garden and looked up, intending to ascertain exactly which tiles needed replacing. He had been about to position his ladder against the eaves when he noticed, between his bedroom window on the upper storey and the window next to it, what seemed to be the outline of - yes, another window.  A window that had  at some time been blocked up and distempered over.  A window that - and now his imagination was running away with him, yet the fancy would not leave him - a window that had been purposely obliterated.
   He could not understand how there could be a window in that particular place.  His bedroom and the living room lay behind it, but he had never noticed the outline of another window in either. But when he went upstairs to investigate, he realised to his surprise that there was a gap of at least six feet between the two rooms. There was no doubt about it.  What lay behind his bedroom wall was not the next room. 
    He also discovered that that section of the passage wall sounded hollow, although the walls on either side were as solid as the rest.  Local tradition held that Chambercombe Manor had been built in the year of the Norman Conquest of England, and certainly it dated from a time when houses had been built with walls as thick as nine feet. But this wall, made of cob, sounded hollow. He discovered that when he tapped it, with a mounting sense of excitement and, strangely, fear. To think that he'd lived in this farmhouse for fifteen years and had never ever suspected, nor asked himself why there was a passage, six feet long with steps up, between his own bedroom and the next room. 
   He scratched his head, wondering what to do.  Should he contact Mr Trumbell, the managing agent for the manor farm, who would advise whether the landlord should be notified? Or could he, should he, take matters into his own hands and make haste to relieve his curiosity?
   He frowned.  Two rooms away at the opposite end of the corridor lay his wife, resting through the sultry afternoon. Two miscarriages she'd suffered, and was now three months gone with another pregnancy.  He did not want to risk her taking a fright, or suffering any needless anxiety.  But thanks to the thick walls of the manor and the heavy doors of great antiquity, he doubted that Mary Ann would hear if he took a pick-axe to the wall. 
   Well, he could not stand about all day dithering.  A farmer had work to do, animals that needed to be fed, and he still hadn't noted down all that needed to be done to the roof. The tiler was coming on the morrow to name him a price for it. Even so, he knew now that on the other side of that wall there was a room that had been hidden for God knew how long.  Why?  Someone had deliberately sealed that room off, and bricked up its window.  Someone who must have had a very good reason for doing that.  And maybe, just maybe, there would be a clue as to why behind that hollow wall.
   John Robins made up his mind.  He descended the living room stairs to the store-room where he kept his tools – a cold little room with whitewashed walls and, incongruously, a stained-glass window at one end.  Legend said it had once been a chapel when noble folk had lived at the manor, but John Robins knew little about the history of Chambercombe, and until now had been content to let the old walls keep their secrets. He took his pickaxe and went back upstairs.
   In the split second before he wielded the axe, he knew again a frisson of fear, had a premonition that something bad was concealed behind the wall. Yet he was not a man to shirk the unpleasant, and of the two warring elements in his mind, curiosity and trepidation, curiosity was by far the more lively.  He swung the pickaxe without further thought.
   The cob wall shattered easily, as he had known it would. In a few minutes John Robins had made a hole in it about eight inches square. But he could as yet see nothing: the manor was still holding on to its secret.                                                                      
   Just then Mary Ann appeared at the door of her bedroom,
   ‘I couldn't sleep, it's so hot; the child is active today,’ she said, then stared at the hole in the wall.  ‘What are you doing, Mr Robins?’
   'It's nothing,' John said.  'Get back to bed, Mrs Robins, and don't bother yourself.’
   But his wife's curiosity had been aroused. ‘There's a hole in it!’  She hastened to his side and peered into the opening. ‘Ugh, what a smell!’  She wrinkled her nose. ‘Rats!’
   ‘Go back to bed,’ John said again, more harshly than he intended. The awful smell seeping into the passage from the cavity in the wall did not, in his opinion, emanate from rats.  What he suspected was something far worse, and if he was right, Mary Ann must be kept away at all cost.  But Mary Ann had other ideas.
   ‘I'll not be treated like a child,’ she said, ‘and I think, as it's my home you're smashing up, that I've a right to know what it is you're
about.’                                                                                                                                                                                                       ;
   John sighed. There seerned to be only one way to make Mary Ann see reason, and that was to tell her the truth. So he described how he had noticed the bricked-up window and discovered that the passage wall was hollow, then voiced, somewhat gently, his suspicion that something rather nasty lay behind the wall.  Mary Ann's hand flew to her stomach, as if to protect her unborn infant from whatever horrors were concealed nearby, and backed away. 
   ‘I must know what it is,’ she said.
   ‘Knowing is one thing,’ said her husband, ‘but you must allow me to judge whether you must see.  I'll get a light.’  He passed by her into his bedroom, lit the little lamp that sat in the recess by his bed, and, holding it aloft in the passage, peered through the hole, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the stench beyond, where the air was stale, foetid and cold.  He could see something large blocking his view of the room.  A bed?  Yes, surely, a four-poster bed, of all things. He would have to make the opening bigger.
   A few moments later he looked through again. Yes indeed, there was a bed, hung with dark crimson curtains, which were pulled together, and on the walls there seemed to be ancient tapestries of the sort found in old farmhouses, usually in the best bedroom or parlour.
   ‘What do you see?’ Mary Ann asked from the doorway where she had retreated.
   ‘An old bed, some tapestries. Nothing else.  I’m going in.’ John again took his pickaxe and struck at the wall. Soon he had made a space made big enough for a man to climb through.  He clambered through it reluctantly, unwilling to go near that bed, and fearing what might lie within it.  That smell!  It hung about him in the disturbed air like a miasma, thick as the dust that had fallen in piles when he hacked through the wall. 
  He made himself approach the bed and take hold of the curtains; as he pulled them apart they started to disintegrate in his hands.  Then he saw what lay in the bed.            
   ‘Great God!’ he cried. ‘Oh, merciful God!’ He turned away, shaking, as Mary Ann’s anxious face appeared at the opening in the wall.t
   ‘What is it?’  she cried, then her eyes travelled past John to the bed and what it contained.    
Downstairs in the kitchen the cook was just putting the finishing touches to an apple pie when she heard her mistress scream. Mrs Miles was a motherly soul, twenty years older than young Mrs Robins, and she shared the general anxiety about the latter's delicate condition. Presuming on her long service she ran upstairs, her hands still floury, took her mistress by the shoulders and shook her, not roughly, but with authority.
   ‘Hush! Hush! Ye'll harm the babe! Quiet now, Madam!’ Mary Ann stopped screaming and fell into her cook's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. 
   ‘Horrible! Horrible! was all that she seemed capable of uttering. Mrs Miles soothed her, patting her on the back and murmuring appropriate noises, until she suddenly noticed Mr Robins emerging from the wall - a place from which he had no right to emerge, to her mind. But one look at John Robins' ashen face told her that there was trouble here. Bad trouble.
   ‘Help your mistress to bed, please, Mrs Miles,’ the farmer said in a strangled voice. ‘She's had a bad shock.’ What the shock had been he did not say. Mary Ann was still sobbing on Mrs Miles’s  shoulder, quieter now, but still terribly distressed. The cook supported her to her bedroom, wihich contained Mary Ann’s pride and joy, an elegant Chippendale bed and cabinets. There she made her mistress lie back against the crisp clean pillows, scented with lavender, and made haste to loosen her clothing and chafe her hands. They were very cold, a sure sign of shock.  Cook rang the bell on the little table.  The maid appeared.
   ‘Run into Ilfracombe and fetch the doctor,’ said Mrs Miles.  ‘Madam's had a bad turn, and I think he should look at her.’  The maid bobbed and left.
   ‘Thank you, Mrs Miles,’ said John Robins, coming into the room, sitting on the bed and taking his wife's hand. The cook deemed it appropriate to withdraw, and went back to her pie, shaking her head gravely.
   ‘My dear,’ said John, gently, ‘I warned you not to look.’
    ‘I had to know,’ Mary Ann said weakly.  Then she broke down again.  ‘I wish to God I hadn't seen..."
    ‘And I,’ he replied grimly.
    ‘What are we going to do?’ Mary Ann asked, her tears subsiding, although she was still shuddering.
    ‘We must inform the constable. He will know what to do.  When the doctor has assured me you are all right, I'll ride into town and see him. For now I'd better make sure that the servants don't come upstairs. We don't want any panic. After all, this is nothing to do with us.’
   ‘How long do you think it's been there?’ asked Mary Ann.
   ‘A very long time. I’d give much to know how it came to be there.’
   ‘It was put there,’ Mary Ann said.  ‘But why, we shall probably never know.’
 The doctor arrived an hour later and, after examining Mrs Robins, prescribed bed rest and a tonic. Otherwise, all seemed to be well. He seemed satisfied that the attack had been brought on by his patient having taken fright while reading Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", which was the  explanation given by John for his wife's attack of the vapours. 
   ‘A most unsuitable book for one in your condition, my dear lady,’ he admonished, ‘and I must forbid you to read it for the present. Try Mrs Gaskell or Mr Dickens.’ Mary Ann nodded meekly.
   Satisfied that his wife was in no danger, John Robins rode off to Ilfracombe to lay his problem before the police.  Mrs Miles brought up her mistress's tea on a tray, and sat with her while she ate it, because for some unaccountable reason Mrs Robins did not want to be alone upstairs. 
   ‘Mrs Miles,’ she said, ‘I am in a very agitated state. There is something...  Can I speak to you in confidence? Truly?’
‘Of course, Madam,’ said the cook.  She would never betray her mistress's trust. 
   Mary Ann played nervously with the quilt. ‘You must be wondering what caused my fright today, and I feel that you should know, although the truth is not pleasant. But I am a little stronger now and able to speak of it. When Mr Robins was inspecting the roof today he noticed the outline of a bricked up window.  He investigated, and found the passage wall to be hollow.  He knocked through it and discovered a secret room.  It has been there a long time, we think.’
   She paused. The trembling had begun again.
   ‘Don't distress yourself, Madam,’ Mrs. Miles said tenderly.
   ‘No, I must tell it.  I have to tell it to someone, or I will go mad. If I can talk about it, it might not seem so bad.’  She took a sip at her tonic.  ‘In the room there is a bed, an old four-poster with red curtains. They fell to dust when the master touched them.  It was then  that  he found a body in the bed.’
   ‘Oh Lord!’ shrieked the cook. ‘Mercy on us! A body?’
   ‘A skeleton, no more. Wearing a woman's nightgown and cap, as far as I could see.  Heaven help me, I never want to see the likes again, nor even think of it.  It lay there grinning at me, one hand on the coverlet and its head on its shoulder. It was awful!’
   Cook looked fearfully towards the doorway, as if she half expected the skeleton to have left its bed and come searching for them. ‘And us never suspecting,’ she whispered. ‘And yet you know, Madam, there's always been talk amongst the servants.’
   ‘About what?"’ Mary Ann asked sharply.
   ‘Well, there are those who say they have seen a woman's spectre here. A woman in a grey gown.  I always dismissed it as rubbish, and I still hold to that.  But it makes you think.’
   ‘Indeed it does,’ said Mary Ann.  Never would she admit to her cook that she, too, had once seen a lady in a grey dress, in the rose garden.

Interwoven with the story of the discovery of the secret room is the tale of Kate Oatway, a tale of wreckers, love and tragedy. It begins with the romantic marriage of her parents, William, son of the notorious wrecker, Alexander Oatway of Chambercombe, and Ellen, a young woman whose ship is lured onto the rocks of the Devon coast. Rescued by William, she falls in love with him, and they are married at Chambercombe in 1690. The following year Ellen bears a daughter, Kate, and the family go to live on the atmospheric isle of Lundy.
    Time passes. In 1707 Kate, now sixteen and very beautiful, attracts the attention of a dashing naval officer, Duncan Wallis. They marry and move to Dublin, and soon afterwards Wallis is promoted to captain.  
   Later that year William and Ellen learn of the death of Alexander Oatway, from whom William has inherited Chambercombe, and they return there to live. It is not a happy homecoming. The manor is in disrepair and William has no money. The next year witnesses the moral decline of a once-upright man, who secretly turns to wrecking to raise cash, much to his wife’s grief. The scene is now set for the book’s horrifying climax.
  In October 1708 a furious storm lashes the coastline and a large spice carrier breaks in two on the rocks of Hele Bay. The wreckers move in and steal the cargo, and amid the confusion William finds a woman lying badly disfigured and near death on the beach. Noticing that she is wearing costly jewellery, he carries her to Chambercombe and puts her to bed, where she dies minutes later.  Immediately William removes her jewellery, which he knows will solve all his financial problems.
   Then comes a knock at the door. It is a suspicious constable, come to ask William where he was the night before. Ellen tells him that her husband was drinking with friends at Berrynarbor. That day William hides the body of the young woman in an old priest’s hole beneath the floor of an alcove near his bedroom. In the evening he goes to the inn at Berrynarbor where he meets sailors from the wrecked ship, who tell him that the ship was under the command of a Captain Wallis, and was bound for Ilfracombe, where the Captain’s wife had intended to visit her parents, but alas, now she is lost, feared drowned.
  William is struck by a terrible suspicion. He describes the clothing of the woman he found on the beach, saying he saw her, but not revealing what he has done with her.  Yes, the sailors say, that was Mrs Wallis – and William realises that it was his own daughter who died and whom he has callously robbed.
  He goes home and breaks the news to Ellen, who is so prostrate with grief that she suffers a stroke and dies. William dares not own up to what he has done, so he drags a bed into the alcove, lays Kate’s body in it and walls up the window and the alcove itself. He then leaves the manor and lets it to a farmer, on condition that it remains uninhabited until his own death. He dies a lonely man in 1738, leaving an account of the tragic events that had taken place thirty years earlier.
   Since then, Kate Oatway’s ghost has been seen in the bedroom where she died, and felt as a cold presence in the passage by the secret room. But hers is not the only ghost at Chambercombe…


Recent popular fiction, films and TV have given rise to much speculation about Henry VIII`s mistresses, including Elizabeth Blount and Mary Boleyn, and his extra-marital adventures. I had no doubt that a book about the subject could prove enormously popular.
Elizabeth FitzWalter, Elizabeth Blount, Mary Boleyn, Madge Shelton, Joan Dobson and Anne Bassett – and a few fleeting others!)

Little is known about the life of Henry VIII`s elder brother Arthur, whose life is surrounded in mystery, but who has never been the subject of a biography. His marriage to Katherine of Aragon was controversial for many reasons, and ended in tragedy. A book about them would fill a gap in our knowledge of Tudor history and reveal a poignant and fascinating story.

From the little-known Richard, the son of William the Conqueror who was killed in the New Forest, to Prince John, the epileptic, hidden-away son of George V, the history of the English monarchy has been littered with royal heirs who either died young or never reached their potential. This book would have told their sad, often tragic or momentous stories.

The story of the interrelated lives of three strong women: Eleanor de Montfort (1215-1275), daughter of King John and wife of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, the leader of the barons in their wars against Henry III and the founding father of the English Parliament; her sister-in-law, Eleanor of Provence (c1221-1291), the unpopular queen of Henry III; and Eleanor of Castile (c1244-1290), the beloved queen of Edward I, the son of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence. Spanning the period 1215-1291, this book would have covered the turbulent period linking my biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, grandmother of Eleanor de Montfort, to my biography of Isabella of France, daughter-in-law of Eleanor of Castile. I wanted to describe the lives of these women and the often fraught relations between them, and set them within the context of the thirteenth century, a rich and well-documented period in English history that has not as yet attracted the interest of popular historians. The title of the book was chosen with the deliberate intention of linking it to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

A biography of a much-maligned and often misunderstood woman who, having been convent-educated, bore patiently her husband`s numerous affairs and the licentiousness of the Restoration court, only narrowly escaping divorce or death on the scaffold, then re-emerging as the respected ruler of Portugal. A biography is decades overdue.

I have removed the two stories that appeared on this page as I will be including them in an anthology of ghost stories that I hope to publish. Two of them have been published: 'Anniversary', in Woman and Home, in August 2009, and 'Leila' in Woman magazine, in July 2014.

Whoever created them is a genius! If anyone knows who it is, I would like to credit them - and I hope they don't mind my reproducing them here. A book, please! 

HILDA LEWIS, one of my favourite novelists
Alison Weir

I felt very privileged to have been asked to write a foreward for a reissue of one of Hilda Lewis's novels, as I have been an admirer of Hilda Lewis’s books since the mid-Sixties. They were an inspiration to me when I first discovered a love of history, and they remain so now, informing my work as a historical novelist.  
  Hilda Winifred Lewis was born in 1896 in London. She began writing at an early age, editing her school and college magazines, then worked as a teacher in London. She married in the early 1920s and moved to Nottingham, where her husband was appointed to the old University College as a lecturer, and later professor, in education. They had one son, Humphrey. Thereafter she devoted herself full-time to writing, enjoying a peaceful existence in the beautiful precincts of the University.
  Her first book, Pegasus Yoked, was published in 1933, and told the story of a young woman who felt frustrated by her East End origins but won a scholarship to university and took her first step towards freedom. This was followed by Madam Gold (1933), Full Circle (1935) and Pelican Inn (1937). In all, Hilda Lewis wrote twenty-four adult novels, many of them for my own publishers, Hutchinson and Arrow. She became well known in Nottingham, an unforgettable figure in her long, black, flowing clothes and her commanding voice.
   Her modern novels – modern, that is, for the period in which they were written – vividly evoke the vanished world of the early and middle twentieth-century. Some have dark themes, such as Said Dr Spendlove (1946), based on the notorious case of Dr Crippen, and Because I Must (1938), which tells the inevitably grim tale of disturbed Nellie, a girl whose mother was hanged for murder. The Day is Ours (1947), the moving story of a child born deaf and dumb, was made into a highly successful movie, renamed 'Mandy' (1952). Gone to the Pictures (1946) reflects contemporary interest in the silver screen. In Imogen Under Glass (1946), a beautiful invalid snares her sister’s lover, and in Strange Story (1945), a disturbing psychological study of twins, the making of a crime is constructed before the reader's eyes. It was called ‘an unpleasant story- well done’.
   Nottingham publisher Five Leaves has reprinted Lewis’s Penny Lace (1946). It is the gritty tale of Nicholas Penny, who starts off working on the factory floor of a local lace factory, but will stop at nothing to become a master. The consequences of his actions and decisions eventually contribute to the demise of the Nottingham lace trade. The character of Nicholas is thought to have influenced the hero in Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
   Hilda Lewis had always been interested in writing for children, believing that a children's book needed as much, if not more, care than an adult novel. She published four children’s books, of which the most famous is The Ship That Flew (1939), which is about Norse mythology and time travel. It was republished in the Oxford Children's Modern Classics series in 1998. The others were historical novels: Here Comes Harry (1960), about the young Henry VI, Harold Was My King (1968) and The Gentle Falcon (1952), about Richard II’s child bride, Isabella of Valois. This was described by one reviewer as ‘a work of outstanding merit' in which Lewis 'once again shows herself prodigiously equipped to bring to history a view which is both emotionally and intellectually vigorous’.
  I myself became acquainted with the work of Hilda Lewis when I came across her stunning, well-researched historical novels. I was riveted by Wife to the Bastard (1966), about Matilda of Flanders, who married William the Conqueror. It is one of the finest examples of historical fiction I have read. Lewis’s trilogy, I Am Mary Tudor (1971), Mary the Queen (1973) and Bloody Mary (1974), is a masterpiece. Her style of writing particularly lent itself to the genre; her language – always a challenge in historical novels – works well for every period and for the modern reader. One feels, after reading these books that one has been on a psychological journey. Rarely have historical novels been underpinned by such power and authenticity. The pace, and the depth, are breathtaking. These books set a benchmark for anyone writing historical fiction today.
  Harlot Queen (1970) dramatically reconstructs the life of Isabella of France, queen of Edward II, with a wonderful twist to the tale. Wife to Henry V (1954) is the poignant story of Katherine of Valois, I, Jacqueline the shocking tale of Jacqueline of Hainault, an oppressed medieval princess who endured a terrible existence. The Witch and the Priest (1956) is a compelling account of the witches of Belvoir, a celebrated seventeenth century Lincolnshire case. Wife to Great Buckingham (1959) and Wife to Charles II (1965) recount the lives of Katherine Manners and Catherine of Braganza, two great ladies of the seventeenth century. A Mortal Malice (1963) (about the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury) and Call Lady Purbeck (1961) - a horrific tale of female oppression - brilliantly explore two great seventeenth-century scandals. Lewis’s last books, Rose of England (1977) and Heart of a Rose (1978), both about Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, were published posthumously.
  Hilda Lewis died in 1974. Sadly, most of her work is now out of print. On my suggestion, The History Press recently reprinted four of her books in Britain, and I commend Valancourt Books for reissuing The Witch and the Priest. Now that the historical novel has come back into fashion and there is a taste for all things retro, it is good to see Hilda Lewis’s books being made available for a new audience, who can now discover the joys, and the integrity, of her writing, and see for themselves why she became one of the best-known and best-loved of all historical novelists.