Elizabeth of York (Weir)

Author Bio
Where—Westminster, England, UK
Education—North Western Polytechnic
Currently—lives in Surrey, England

Alison Weir is a British writer of histories and historical novels, mostly in the form of biographies about British royalty. Her works on the Tudor period have made her a best-selling author—and the highest-selling female historian in the United Kingdom.

Weir has written biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Katherine Swynford, and the Princes in the Tower. Other focuses have included Henry VIII of England and his wives and children, Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots, and most recently Elizabeth of York (Henry VIII's mother). She has published historical overviews of the Wars of the Roses and royal weddings, as well as historical fiction novels on Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Early life
Weir became interested in the field of history at the age of fourteen after reading a book about Catherine of Aragon. She was educated at City of London School for Girls and North Western Polytechnic and hoped to become a history teacher. But disillusioned with what she referred to as "trendy teaching methods," she abandoned teaching as a career.

In 1972 she married Rankin Weir in 1972 with whom she had two children in the early 1980s. Weir worked as a civil servant, and later as a housewife and mother to her children. Between 1991 and 1997, she ran a school for children with learning disabilities.

In the 1970s, Weir spent four years researching and writing a nonfiction biography of the six wives of Henry VIII. Her work, deemed too long by publishers, was consequently rejected. A revised version of this biography would later be published in 1991 as 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.

Finally, in 1989, Weir became a published author with the publication of Britain's Royal Families, a compilation of genealogical information about the British Royal Family. She had spent the previous 22 years revising the book (eight times), finally deciding it might be "of interest to others." After organizing it into chronological order, The Bodley Head agreed to publish it.

It wasn't until the late 1990s, however, that Weir would begin writing full-time. While running the school for children with learning disabilities, she published the non-fiction works The Princes in the Tower (1992), Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses (1995), and Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII (1996).

Eventually writing books as a full-time job, she produced Elizabeth the Queen (1998) (published in America as The Life of Elizabeth I), Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England (1999), Henry VIII: The King and His Court (2001), Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley (2003), and Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England (2005). Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess followed in 2007, The Lady in The Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn in 2009, and Traitors of the Tower in 2010. In 2011, she completed The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings and Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, the first full non-fiction biography of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn. In 2013, Weir published an historical biography of Henry VIII's mother, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World.

Many of Weir's works deal with the Tudor period, which she considers...

the most dramatic period in our history, with vivid, strong personalities... The Tudor period is the first one for which we have a rich visual record, with the growth of portraiture, and detailed sources on the private lives of kings and queens. This was an age that witnessed a growth in diplomacy and the spread of the printed word.

Weir wrote historical novels while a teenager, and her novel in the genre of historical fiction, Innocent Traitor, based on the life of Lady Jane Grey, was published in 2006. When researching Eleanor of Aquitaine, Weir realized that it would "be very liberating to write a novel in which I could write what I wanted while keeping to the facts." She decided to make Jane Grey her focus because she "didn't have a very long life and there wasn't a great deal of material."

Weir said she found the transition to fiction easy:

Every book is a learning curve, and you have to keep an open mind. I am sometimes asked to cut back on the historical facts in my novels, and there have been disagreements over whether they obstruct the narrative, but I do hold out for the history whenever I can.

Her second novel, The Lady Elizabeth (2008) deals with the life of Queen Elizabeth I before her ascent to the throne. Her third novel, The Captive Queen (2010) is about Eleanor of Aquitaine, also the focus of a non-fiction biography Weir had written in 1999.

Writing style
Weir's writings have been catagorized as "popular history," a genre that has attracted criticism from academia. According to one source on sound academic writing, it's purpose is...

to inform and entertain a large general audience. In popular history, dramatic storytelling often prevails over analysis, style over substance, simplicity over complexity, and grand generalization over careful qualification. (Hamilton College)

Weir, however, argues that...

History is not the sole preserve of academics, although I have the utmost respect for those historians who undertake new research and contribute something new to our knowledge. 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.

Kathryn Hughes, writing in The Guardian, said of Weir's popular historian label, "To describe her as a popular historian would be to state a literal truth—her chunky explorations of Britain’s early modern past sell in the kind of multiples that others can only dream of."

Reviews of Weir's works have been mixed.

  • The Independent said of The Lady in the Tower that "it is testament to Weir's artfulness and elegance as a writer that The Lady in the Tower remains fresh and suspenseful, even though the reader knows what's coming."
  • On the other hand, Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a review of Henry VIII: King and Court, called it "a great pudding of a book, which will do no harm to those who choose to read it. Detail is here in plenty, but Tudor England is more than royal wardrobe lists, palaces and sexual intrigue."
  • The Globe and Mail, reviewing the novel, The Captive Queen, said that she had "skillfully imagined royal lives" in previous works, "but her style here is marred by less than subtle characterizations and some seriously cheesy writing"
  • Roger Boyle in The New York Times said of Elizabeth of York, "Weir tells Elizabeth's story well…she is a meticulous scholar. The everyday minutiae of life are painstakingly described…Most important, Weir sincerely admires her subject, doing honor to an almost forgotten queen."

Personal life
Weir now lives in Surrey with her husband and two sons. She has called "Mrs Ellen," a fictional character from her novel about Jane Grey, most like her own personality and commented that, "As I was writing the book, my maternal side was projected into this character."

Weir is a supporter of the renovation of Northampton Castle, proclaiming the estate a "historic site of prime importance. It would be tragic if it were to be lost forever. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 12/09/2013.)

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