The Allure of Anne
Alison Weir, best-selling historian of the medieval and sixteenth-century royal families, explains how she first encountered the power of history in a strange feeling of identification with Anne Boleyn.
When I was about seven, my father took me on a tour of the Palace of Westminster. I have only the vaguest memories of most of it, but one thing remains clearly in my mind. In the Painted Chamber, I was told to look up at Richard Burchett’s Victorian full-length portraits of members of the Tudor dynasty, and I remember distinctly being directed to the one of Anne Boleyn (which actually doesn’t portray her at all, but Anne of Hungary). I was not only fascinated to be told that she had had her head cut off, but there was also what amounted to a strange moment of recognition, of familiarity.
The moment passed, and my brief awareness of an interesty in history remained dormant for the next seven years. At the Westminster Kindergarten and Preparatory School, where I was educted to the age of eight, history had been a succession of stirring tales to enthral a childish mind; even to this day, I still thrill to the epic sweep of great events, the narrative potential in historical happenings, doubtless as a result of my early tutoring. But later, at the City of London School for Girls, I found history dull and uninspiring, a dreary succession of dates, acts and battles. I realised later that it was the personalities, the human aspects of history, that were missing. But of course you only needed facts to pass exams. For me, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the high Middle Ages and even the Tudors passed in a blur of boredom.
As a child, I had been an avid reader, but by the time I moved into the third form at eleven, I had lost interest in books, preferring comics and magazines, much to the despair of my mother. It was not until I was fourteen that I read another book for enjoyment, and that was to prove fateful indeed.
I was off school, suffering from a virus, and had been taken to the doctor, who prescribed a few days at home resting. We had not lived in the area long, and after leaving the surgery, my mother – in yet another attempt to convince me of the pleasures of the written word – took me to the adult library next door to enrol and hopefully choose some books. Wandering around idly, I found one that looked quite intriguing. It was a novel about Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and it was entitled Henry’s Golden Queen the author was the prolific and exotically-named Lozania Prole.
Recovering at home, I curled up in a chair with the book and read, and read. I could not put it down: I had to know what happened next. A whole new wonderful world was opening before me. I have to admit that it was not just the historical tale that seduced me, but the sex. Of course, this was 1965, and what seemed exceedingly daring then to one who had never read an adult novel would appear very tame now, but I was agog: did people really carry on like that in those days? Were they so preoccupied with matters that were taboo in the middle -class world of the early sixties?
I had to find out more. By the end of the week, much restored, I was in a local bookshop, urging my delighted mother to buy me three novels by Jean Plaidy. Although I would find them much less to my taste nowadays, I still have those novels on my shelf, tattered and yellowed as they are. For they revealed to me the stories of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Katherine Parr and Sir Thomas More, and I was enthralled.
By now I was hooked on Tudor history. I progressed to the novels of Margaret Campbell Barnes, Hilda Lewis and Elizabeth Byrd, or anything else I could get my hands on. I haunted the local libraries. My mother obtained for me Jean Plaidy’s The Goldsmith’s Wife , about Jane Shore, mistress of Edward IV, and thus kick-started my interest in the Middle Ages. Hilda Lewis’s Wife to Charles II encompassed the Stuarts. And so it went on from there.
But I was not just reading novels. My new obsession led me to the history books and to my first researches into historical facts. While my contemporaries were haunting Carnaby Street and discussing the latest records and films, I was beavering away in the school library, becoming familiar with the works of G.M. Trevelyan, A.F. Pollard and A.L. Rowse among many others. Within a year, I had transcribed my researches on the Tudors into three volumes, which I entitled A Study in Splendour, and I had also written a biography of Anne Boleyn based on some original sources and (rather heavily) on Agnes Strickland (it was my dream to own the full set of Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England , a dream that was not fulfilled until 1995).
Why Anne Boleyn? Truth to tell, I was more fascinated by her than by any other historical figure, I can’t explain this, any more than I can explain the feeling of recognition I had had at age seven when I first heard of her. Of course, there is much in Anne Boleyn’s story to fascinate anyone, so I would not wish to be too fanciful about this. Later, when I came to research her life in depth and from a more mature viewpoint, I realised that I did not particularly like Anne Boleyn as a character. Yet the fascination remains. She is a romantic heroine in the truest sense.
By the time I was fifteen, history occupied a large part of my life. I had already begun researching the biographical dictionary of the British monarchy that was to become my first published work, Britain’s Royal Families; it would take more than twenty-two years to complete, and be revised eight times before it was ready to go into print. Even now, however, I could add a great deal to it. Genealogy was then, and still is, a passion. I would sit for hours drawing up royal family trees on rolls of wallpaper, and it would not be long before I began collating the pedigrees of the medieval peerage, a project on which I am still working today. I was never happier than when I was in a reference library, totally absorbed in the Complete Peerage or the Dictionary of National Biography.
I was also writing historical plays: two still survive, one on the young Elizabeth I, the other – in the style of a medieval mystery play – on Eleanor of Aquitaine. I would sit out of sight behind a sofa, reading these aloud to my long-suffering family, and putting on the various voices. On one occasion, I staged a play in a model theatre, having drawn and coloured all the cardboard characters, whose costumes I had meticulously researched. I have kept them all.
I had been drawing since I could hold a pencil (I studied Art to A-Level), and not surprisingly the bulk of my creative output at this time was historical portraits, scenes from history and costume sketches. I can hear the weary voice of my art teacher now: ‘Not another drawing after Holbein!’
My mother, however, was – and remains – wonderfully supportive. We weren’t very well off in those days, but she took me to the Tower of London and also to Hampton Court, where she bought me a set of picture postcards of the wives of Henry VIII, which became my most precious possession at that time, and which I still have. They formed the nucleus of what would evolve into a collection of thousands of royal pictures, which is still a work in progress today, and which has proved extremely useful for picture research. Back in 1966, my mother also took me to Hever Castle, the home of Anne Boleyn, which remains my favourite historic house. I can remember the excitement when I was presented with the rather expensive guidebook which contained a full page portrait of Anne Boleyn.
It seems amazing, looking back, that reading one historical novel could have led to such an all-encompassing interest in history and, ultimately, to a fulfilling career as a historian and author. But it almost didn’t happen. Most of my teachers were unaware of my hours of research in the school library; the reason for this was that I was supposed to be doing something else in my free periods, so I kept quiet about what I was doing. O-Level History was stultifyingly boring: I had no interest in British Economic History or the Industrial Revolution – in fact, I had problems staying awake in lessons. As a result, my grade was lower than it should have been, and when I applied to take A-Level History on the Tudors and Stuarts, a subject I knew I was well qualified to study, I was – to my horror – turned down. Only those with the top grades were accepted.
The next best thing was an optional general course in history: I was the only sixth former who applied. On the appointed day, I turned up, armed with my biography of Anne Boleyn, and prepared to do battle.
The teacher admittedly had every reason to be puzzled as to why this lacklustre pupil had asked to join her course, but when she arrived and I showed her my work, her jaw literally dropped. Eventually, I did sit the A-Level course, with good results. I also, under that teacher’s auspices, completed a biography of Edward III in my spare time.
It is said that everything is more vivid when you are young. Certainly, my exploration, as a teenager, of the world of history, led me on a trail marked with revelations and excitement. Now, many years later, with my feet planted rather more firmly on the ground and years of serious research behind me, I still feel that thrill of discovery, of losing oneself in another age. My perceptions may have changed, but my love and enthusiasm for my subject has remained constant.