AlisonWeir.org.uk Logo

Miscellany



Read historical novelist Anne Clinard Barnhill's very kind article, 'Alison Weir and Me', at http://queenanneboleyn.com/2013/10/30/alison-weir-and-me-by-anne-clinard-barnhill/




"THE AMAZING BEST SELLING AUTHOR ALISON WEIR"
(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."



SAVE NORTHAMPTON CASTLE!



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: www.northamptoncastle.com




26 TREASURES

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.  



GOD'S THEATRE: THE HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND

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 www.26treasures.com.



LUCREZIA BORGIA

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)

GHOST STORIES
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 soon to publish. (February 2014)