Lincoln Book Festival: Meeting Alison Weir and Sarah Gristwood
“You can’t beat an incompetent murderess,” says Sarah Gristwood, into the vast auditorium at Lincoln Drill Hall. A ripple of amusement makes its way through the crowd – it would seem you really can’t.
The incompetent murderess in question is Eadburh, Queen of Wessex 787 AD to 802 AD. According to Bishop Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great, Eadburh accidentally killed her husband while trying to poison his rival which, as far as foul-ups go, is a pretty big one.
Gristwood argues that it was in part down to Eadburh’s terrible reputation (she fled across the channel, managed to mess up a marriage alliance with Kind Charlemagne and got kicked out of an abbey for fornicating with an English exile) that women’s opportunities to rise to power where restricted. Her new book, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, examines the significance of the women that were able to finally gain political influence, nearly seven hundred years after the exploits of Eadburh.
Appearing with Gristwood as part of the Lincoln Book Festival, is Alison Weir, bestselling historian and author of twenty-three books. Before they went onstage, I was able to grab both of them for a quick interview.
Weir’s interest in history began when she was fourteen. “My mother marched me into a library and told me to get a book,” she tells me. “I got a book called Henry’s Golden Queen by Lozania Prole, which says it all really! I devoured it in two days; it was about Henry, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and I was absolutely agog – it was a whole new world that opened up. I shot off to my school library and started to do research to try and find out the truth about these people. That was in 1965 and I’m still doing it!” She’s obviously doing something right; Weir is officially the number one bestselling female historian in the UK (5th bestselling historian overall), has sold over a million books in the UK and a further 1.7 million in the USA.
Gristwood’s path was slightly different. After graduating from Oxford, she became a film journalist and interviewed the likes of Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. However, after discovering the story of Arbella Stuart, the woman that almost succeeded Elizabeth I, Gristwood’s first biography was published in 2004. Despite her success as a published historian (Gristwood has now released eleven books: historical biographies, novels and books about filmmaking) she is still active as a journalist, often appearing on television as a Royal correspondent. She is also a founder member of the Women’s Equality Party.
Although their paths veered in different directions, both are absolutely united on one point: Elizabeth I was the most successful monarch to ever reign in England.
“She was a massively complex woman,” says Gristwood. “We also know a lot about her, in a way that we don’t with some of the earlier queens. We know her weaknesses as well as her strengths and I think that makes her very vivid and present.”
Throughout this, Weir has been nodding enthusiastically. As soon as she can, she adds: “This is a success story… this is a young woman who, at the age of twenty-five, inherits a bankrupt kingdom and, in the eyes of most of Europe, she’s a bastard, a heretic and a usurper. But she’s there forty-five years later, having ruled successfully and, apart from the Armada, maintained peace.”
These stories, being so incredible, have attracted attention from novelists and filmmakers. I studied the Tudor era during my A-levels and remember the outrage I felt when, upon receiving the boxset of The Tudors for Christmas, discovered that the TV version of Henry was not fat or ginger but instead the rather slender and suave Jonathan Rhys Meyer. Perhaps this was an odd concern for a heterosexual seventeen-year-old girl but, what can I say? I got an A in my history exam. I was interested to know how Gristwood and Weir responded to the artistic license taken when adapting the lives of monarchs into films or television shows. After all, I had spent only a couple of years studying the period; I wondered what it must be like to dedicate one’s career to a subject, only to have pop-culture tell a completely different story.
“You sit there, mutter and grumble, and people don’t want to watch the films with you,” says Weir.
“I can confirm that,” Gristwood says. “Having sat along a row from Alison, watching The Other Boleyn Girl movie!”
“She only went along so she could watch my reaction!” Weir says.
“We feel slightly differently,” Gristwood explains. “I was a film journalist for many years so I’m possibly more pragmatic about these things. I remember interviewing Michael Hirst, the man behind The Tudors, and his argument was that, something like that, whatever the inaccuracies, if it gets people massively more interested in history, it’s well worth it. For me, I think it’s a sliding scale. Shades of grey, not black and white.”
Weir remains unconvinced. Though she cites Glenda Jackson and Helen Mirren as giving particularly impressive performances as Elizabeth, she has been disappointed in more recent adaptations. She acknowledges, however, the positive impact these productions have on the sales of her own books.
“I have to be grateful to these films, particularly Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love, because I had a book out called Elizabeth the Queen in 1998,” Weir says. “Those films came out at the same time, coincidentally – it wasn’t planned – and my book sales soared. So, I can’t really say too much about them, though I did at the time!”
Gristwood laughs. “I was going to say,” she says. “I remember you saying quite a lot!”
Apparently, a few articles appeared on Weir’s blog that were not quite so understanding. I find this amazing – the fact that, even though these women lived and died five hundred years ago, we can feel so emotional about their lives, even to the point of feeling protective over them. I find it incredible to think that, even when we speculate about casting decisions, or debate whether one ruler was more successful than another, these monarchs were real people. They were born, they ate, had children, fought in battles and died. Some have even been dug up, centuries later, from underneath a car park. It’s in these moments that it becomes clearer than ever that history is never ‘over’. As Gristwood and Weir say, both in their books and to me, in the Green Room of Lincoln Drill Hall, human beings never learn from their mistakes but, in order to deal appropriately with the present, we have to understand the past.
Senior Young Journalist