Weir, Alison

views updated

Weir, Alison


Married; children: two.


Home—Surrey, England.


Writer and historian. Ran a school for children unable to cope in mainstream schools.



(With Susan Raven) Women in History, Crown (New York, NY), 1981, published as Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of History, Harmony (New York, NY), 1981.

Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, Bodley Head (London, England), 1989, new edition, Pimlico (London, England), 2002.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1991.

The Princes in the Tower, Bodley Head (London, England), 1992, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1994.

Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses, J. Cape (London, England), 1995, published as The Wars of the Roses, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1995.

Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII 1547-1558, J. Cape (London, England), 1996, published as The Children of Henry VIII, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1996.

Elizabeth the Queen, J. Cape (London, England), 1998, published as The Life of Elizabeth I, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1999.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, J. Cape (London, England), 1999, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2000.

Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2001.

Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2003.

Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England, J. Cape (London, England), 2005, published as Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2005.


Peter, Good Night, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray, Dutton (New York, NY), 1989.

(With Janelle Cherrington) Bear's Big Blue House: A Book of First Words, Simon Spotlight (New York, NY), 1999.

Innocent Traitor (novel), Ballantine (New York, NY), 2007.


Historian Alison Weir has made a career of writing about English royalty, publishing several books for general audiences about famous historical figures and events. Her first biographical work, coauthored with Susan Raven, is the reference book Women in History—published in the United States as Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of History—which includes entries on several hundred women of many nationalities and time periods. Her next work, Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, represents several decades of research on Weir's part, and is a single-volume genealogical record of the royal families of England, Scotland, and Wales beginning in the ninth century and ending with the twentieth-century House of Windsor. It includes family trees and biographical information in what Henrietta Fordham of Books described as a "useful and speedy" work.

Two years later, Weir focused specifically on one royal family, that of Henry VIII and his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. The Six Wives of Henry VIII provides information on the spouses and the age in which they lived. It caught the attention of reviewers. Chicago Tribune Books critic Lacey Baldwin Smith praised the "gossipy, detailed narrative of sex and pregnancies, births and deaths, dancing and banqueting, mistresses and illicit affairs, and an almost obsessive attention to what men and women wore" during this period in British history. "The resulting panorama of royal family life as it meshed with politics, dynastic needs and history is rich, vivid and generally convincing," added Smith. "The style is simple and direct but gripping, and although the background and cultural atmosphere are occasionally overstated, the composite picture of men and women … is enthralling." Although a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement maintained that some parts of The Six Wives of Henry VIII are "subjective and unreliable," the reviewer commented that "as a series of impressions of historical characters and events by a nonspecialist, this book is quite entertaining."

The Princes in the Tower deals with the succession to the English throne during the fifteenth century after King Henry VI succumbed to catatonic schizophrenia and was ousted by King Edward IV. After Henry VI was murdered and Edward IV died unexpectedly, Richard of Gloucester made himself king, imprisoning Edward IV's sons in the Tower of London. The boys were never heard from again and Weir delves into this mystery, relating the political machinations that suggest Richard III may have ordered the boys murdered. The story is told in a "highly readable, brisk manner that's at once vivid and scholarly" wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic. "Thoughtfully and clearly, she takes the reader step by step through the arguments and issues," commented Patrick T. Reardon in a review for Chicago's Tribune Books. "She is no Richard-basher, but neither does she canonize him. And she has no doubt about his guilt." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called The Princes in the Tower a "carefully researched and absorbing work of scholarship," and a Kirkus Reviews critic summed up the work as "a fascinating historical whodunit."

The Wars of the Roses is actually a prequel to The Princes in the Tower because it deals with the dynastic struggles prior to the murder of King Henry VI that Weir recounts in the later work. The battles known as the Wars of the Roses involved two dynastic houses: the House of Lancaster, led by Henry VI, and the House of York, led by Richard Plantagenet and then his son who eventually ascended to the throne as Edward IV. While Colin Richmond of the Times Literary Supplement commented that Weir broke no new ground with her history, William B. Robison of Library Journal praised the work, judging it to be a "well-written, entertaining narrative." A commentator for Kirkus Reviews called the work "well researched" and Weir's style "powerful and elegant," yet expressed reservations about the density of the information conveyed being too much for general readers to handle. On the other hand, Debbie Hyman, writing in School Library Journal, deemed The Wars of the Roses "understandable, interesting, and readable," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer called it a "spellbinding chronicle." An Economist commentator praised the "little gems of scholarship" and "illuminating asides [that] make Miss Weir's sometimes dauntingly detailed history a joy to read." The Wars of the Roses is, in the words of Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper, a "perfectly focused and beautifully unfolded account."

In The Children of Henry VIII Weir presents biographies of the children of King Henry VIII by his various wives who later reigned over England: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. She also describes the claim to the throne of Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister. The siblings were diverse in age, experience, and religious convictions and had to each deal with the religious conflicts that played an important role in shaping sixteenth-century England. "That combination of spatial distance and political-religious rivalry could make a narrative bumpy or tedious, but Ms. Weir imparts movement and coherence while recreating the suspense her characters endured and the suffering they inflicted," praised Naomi Bliven in the New York Times Book Review. Other reviewers found the work interesting as well. According to a Kirkus Reviews critic, Weir's prose moves briskly for the most part and "succeeds not only in bring to life Henry VIII's heirs but also in illuminating the background." Likewise, Booklist commentator Brad Hooper remarked on the work's "lush detail and fresh analysis." Wier's "sweeping narrative, based on contemporary chronicles, plays out vividly against the colorful backdrop," maintained a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. "Thoroughly enjoyable and well written," praised a Contemporary Review critic, while Boyd Tonkin of New Statesman and Society deemed the book a "readable and resourceful chronicle."

Weir focuses on one of Henry VIII's heirs to the throne—Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn—in The Life of Elizabeth I (also published as Elizabeth the Queen), which begins with Elizabeth's ascendency to the throne at age twenty-five and tells of the events and issues of her reign as Elizabeth I. Yet, because it is a biography, Weir concentrates on the monarch's personal side, including her relationships with those who knew, served, and loved her. Weir deals, too, with the well-worn question of why Elizabeth never married. The work garnered largely favorable reviews. Although Simon Adams of History Today summed up negative criticism about Weir with his comment, "factual accuracy is not her strong point," he commented that "Weir moves briskly and sustains five hundred pages in quite a lively fashion." Weir's "biography is as good as any other for anyone who has not read a life of Elizabeth before," remarked Helen Hackett in the Times Literary Supplement. The Life of Elizabeth I is a "riveting portrait of the queen and how the private woman won her public role," enthused a Kirkus Reviews critic, and "a good read" is how a critic for Contemporary Review described the work. A Publishers Weekly reviewer asserted: "Weir brings a fine sense of selection and considerable zest to her portrait." Dori DeSpain, writing in School Library Journal, called the biography a "fascinating tale that is well told in this engrossing, articulate book," while Elizabeth Mary Mellett, writing in Library Journal, described The Life of Elizabeth I as a "clearly written and well-researched biography."

For her next historical work Weir moved back in time from her usual time period of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century England to twelfth-century France and England. Her Eleanor of Aquitaine tells the story of a powerful, beautiful, and learned duchess who led a long and varied life, becoming the wife of two kings and the mother of ten children, two of whom became kings. Upon the death of her father, fifteen-year-old Eleanor inherited considerable lands in southern France. Her first marriage was to French King Louis VII, whom she accompanied on the Second Crusade. After several years, Eleanor requested an annulment of their marriage, and when it was granted she married the Duke of Anjou, who eventually became the English King Henry II. Because historical records and artifacts from Eleanor are limited, Weir wrote the biography in the life-and-times style. John Jolliffe of Spectator called Eleanor of Aquitaine a "scholarly as well as fascinating study." Weir "wears her learning lightly," creating a biography that is "exhilarating in its color, ambition, and human warmth," a Publishers Weekly critic remarked. Moreover, British Heritage reviewer Judy Sopronyi praised Weir's ability to add up the available knowledge into a "rich book" and a "good read," in which "Weir conveys the reality of the beautiful, spoiled, willful, fifteen-year-old Eleanor."

In Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Weir offers a narrative account of the life and reign of Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 to 1547. Weir "is particularly descriptive about court life, delving into the rise and fall of various political factions led by the Earl of Essex, Thomas Cromwell, and by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey," noted Andrea Ahles, a reviewer for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. Weir also describes the administration of Henry's household, his acquisition of property, and his love affairs. In her author essay on the Random House Web site, Weir explained that what caught her attention in writing about Henry VIII "are the fascinating details of everyday life, both descriptive and anecdotal, that bring into sharp focus a world long gone." Some critics, however, found this wealth of detail daunting. "At times," observed a Library Journal reviewer, "the weighty detail and numerous characters … make the work inaccessible." An Economist commentator maintained that "in the end we tire of so many incidental details and long for something more challenging." Other reviewers offered different opinions. Booklist contributor Brad Hooper commented that Weir "brings to entertaining light the whole atmosphere of the court of England's great king Henry VIII." A Publishers Weekly reviewer maintained that "Weir's fondness for her characters has its difficulties," noting that Weir is "given to romantic hyperbole." However, this reviewer praised "Weir's nose for detail, her sharpness of eye and her sympathetic touch," which "make this a feast for the senses."

Weir examines "one of the most intriguing murder mysteries in European history" in Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, remarked Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper. Mary, the hereditary queen of Scotland, was married at a young age to the dauphin of France, but when he died, she returned to rule over her Scottish lands. Soon, she married Lord Darnley, a cousin to her and to Elizabeth I of England. Darnley, however, was arrogant, a political liability, and despicable in many ways. His attitude and behavior earned him many enemies, and eventually, when he was involved in the murder of one of her favorite advisors, the enmity of Mary herself. The next year, Darnley himself was killed, the victim of an ill-advised and ineptly conducted murder plot. Queen Mary was implicated in the murder, allegedly so that she could marry her love, the Earl of Bothwell. Though Mary has been accused of involvement in the plot to kill Darnley, Weir does not believe she was part of it, and presents considerable evidence in her book to exculpate Mary. Weir identifies a number of possible suspects, including several conspirators against the queen and Bothwell himself. To this day, there is no definitive answer to the question of who murdered Lord Darnley. Hooper observed, however, that "Weir goes to great lengths to isolate the clues and marshal them into a convincing indictment." Mary "could not hope for a better advocate than Weir, who exhaustively evaluates the evidence against her and finds it lacking," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor.

"This is far too long a book—the wretched Darnley can't be worth this much of anyone's time—but as a piece of dogged detective work there is no arguing with it," commented Spectator reviewer David Crane, who further remarked favorably on Weir's "monumental scholarship" in the book. Library Journal reviewer Isabel Coates stated that Weir "adeptly makes her case," but "her detailed and sometimes dense book will intrigue mainly monarchy buffs." A critic in Contemporary Review named it a "well researched and written book" that "must be regarded as the best summation in the defense's case."

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, published in England as Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England, contains Weir's detailed examination of the turbulent life of England's much-maligned Queen Isabella. Dispatched to England by her father, King Philip IV of France, when she was twelve years old, Isabella became the wife of British King Edward II. The marriage was intended to secure peace between England and France, and it succeeded in doing so for a time. However, Isabella's personal and royal life quickly began to unravel. It became clear early on that her husband had little interest in her; the bisexual Edward II was much more enamored of a string of male lovers who came and went from his court. Isabella even found one of Edward's favorites, childhood friend Piers Gaveston, wearing the jewels from her dowry. Though Isabella despised Gaveston, she continued to support the king. When Gaveston was murdered in 1312, she found that she could finally take her place as queen. During this time, however, Isabella was pregnant and spending well beyond even her own luxurious means. Difficulties continued to plague Edward's reign until a new favorite male consort, Hugh le Despenser, arrived and once again created great turmoil in the court and the royal household. Worse for Isabella, when a war with France erupted, her estates were seized and her four children were taken from her. When Edward sent her to France to mediate, Isabella's ire was at a peak. There, she commenced an affair with exiled English traitor Roger Mortimer. When she returned to England, it was not as queen but as part of an invasion from France. Edward was overthrown and Isabella placed her son on the throne. Later, Edward died; some say he was murdered in an especially gruesome fashion, but Weir asserts that Isabella had no role in Edward's death. She carefully constructs a scenario that suggests Edward was not killed at all, but escaped to live out his life as a hermit in Italy.

Weir "puts her exemplary writing skills, as well as her talent for alternative and provocative insight" into history, to the task of reconsidering Isabella's long-suffering reputation, noted Hooper in another Booklist review. In her book, Weir "re-examines the evidence, and tries to place the accusations against Isabella into the context of the time and place in which she lived, giving her credit where credit is due, and placing blame perhaps more fairly than ever before," noted reviewer Michelle Heather Pollock on the Armchair Interviews Web site. "Isabella has been dead for almost 650 years," commented Alida Becker in the New York Times, "but her story has a distinctly modern appeal. Full of violent men with short tempers, conniving politicians and wildly domineering parents—not to mention sumptuous wardrobes, monumental real estate deals and catastrophically strained bank accounts—it's a period-piece melodrama that doubles as a timeless morality play." Weir "presents a fascinating rewriting of a controversial life that should supersede all previous accounts," commented a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews critic averred that the book is "Sure to reign as the definitive word on Queen Isabella for years to come." Library Journal reviewer Robert J. Andrews named the book "a lively work on a colorful period of English history."

Weir takes up a new tool for considering the events of history with Innocent Traitor, her debut historical novel. "Weir's erudition in matters royal finds fictional expression in the story of England's briefest reigning sovereign, Lady Jane Grey," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Young and literate, better educated than most other girls of her time period, Jane Grey suffers constant abuse by her Protestant parents but is nonetheless consistently groomed to be a suitable consort for royalty, specifically Henry VIII's son, Prince Edward. Jane eventually escapes by entering the court of Katherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife. Jane is manipulated into a detested marriage, and when King Edward the VI dies, her parents succeed in placing her upon the throne of England, instead of the rightful heir, the Catholic Princess Mary. Jane rules for only nine days before Mary asserts her power and takes her rightful place as Queen of England, sending Jane to her fate on the executioner's block. The Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "an affecting portrayal." Hooper, in a Booklist review, called the work "a brilliantly vivid and psychologically astute novel." In the details of her novel, Weir "proves herself deft as ever describing Tudor food, manners, clothing, pastimes (including hunting and jousting) and marital politics," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.



Atlantic Monthly, March, 1994, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Princes in the Tower, p. 130.

Biography, winter, 2006, Alida Becker, "Isabella of England," review of Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, p. 223.

Booklist, August, 1995, Brad Hooper, review of The Wars of the Roses, p. 1928; July, 1996, Brad Hooper, review of The Children of Henry VIII, p. 1799; July, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of The Lifeof Elizabeth I, p. 1854; January 1, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of Eleanor of Aquitaine, p. 871; May 1, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, p. 1600; January 1, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, p. 842; September 1, 2005, Brad Hooper, review of Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, p. 49; November 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of Innocent Traitor, p. 28.

Books (London, England), November 6, 1989, Henrietta Fordham, review of Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, p. 24.

Bookseller, June 17, 2005, review of Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England, p. 38.

British Heritage, April, 2000, Judy Sopronyi, review of Eleanor of Aquitaine, p. 64.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, November, 2006, C.F. Briggs, review of Queen Isabella, p. 551.

Contemporary Review, May, 1996, review of Britain's Royal Families, p. 280; September, 1996, review of Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII 1547-1558, p. 168; October, 1998, review of Elizabeth the Queen, pp. 223-224; October, 2001, review of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, p. 251; October, 2003, review of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, p. 251.

Economist, July 25, 1981, review of Women in History, p. 85; August 26, 1995, review of The Wars of the Roses, pp. A73-A74; August 11, 2001, "Hooray Henry; Tudor History."

History Today, July, 1999, Simon Adams, review of Elizabeth the Queen, p. 59.

Independent (London, England), February 14, 2007, Marianne Brace, review of Isabella.

Independent Sunday (London, England), June 17, 2001, Frank McLynn, "Henry Never Spared a Man in His Anger, or a Woman in His Lust; Prince of Darkness?," p. 19.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1992, review of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 106; November 15, 1993, review of The Princes in the Tower, p. 1452; June 15, 1995, review of The Wars of the Roses, pp. 848-849; June 1, 1996, review of The Children of Henry VIII, p. 814; June 15, 1998, review of The Life of Elizabeth I, p. 885; January 15, 2003, review of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, p. 135; August 1, 2005, review of Queen Isabella, p. 840; October 15, 2006, review of Innocent Traitor, p. 1045.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 27, 2001, Evie Rapport, review of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, p. K2884; August 22, 2001, Andrea Ahles, review of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, p. K0063.

Library Journal, August, 1995, William B. Robison, review of The Wars of the Roses, p. 96; July, 1998, Elizabeth Mary Mellett, review of The Life of Elizabeth I, p. 104; Mary 1, 2001, review of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, p. 100; January, 2003, Isabel Coates, review of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, p. 134; October 1, 2005, Robert J. Andrews, review of Queen Isabella, p. 90; December 1, 2006, Elizabeth M. Mellett, review of Innocent Traitor, p. 116.

Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 10, 2001, Christopher Hibbert, "Henry VIII, the Sixteenth Century's Heart Throb," p. 68.

New Statesman and Society, May 24, 1996, Boyd Tonkin, review of Children of England, p. 37.

New York Times, October 16, 2005, Alida Becker, "‘Queen Isabella:’ Femme Fatale," review of Queen Isabella.

New York Times Book Review, August, 4, 1996, Naomi Bliven, "Sibling Rivalry," p. 6.

Observer (London, England), March 9, 1997, review of Children of England, p. 18; June 7, 1998, Roy Strong, "Bess Forgotten," p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, May, 29, 1981, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of History, p. 35; January 20, 1992, review of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 51; November 29, 1993, review of The Princes in the Tower, p. 48; July 3, 1995, review of The Wars of the Roses, p. 43; May 27, 1996, review of The Children of Henry VIII, p. 56; July 6, 1998, review of The Life of Elizabeth I, p. 39; January 17, 2000, review of Eleanor of Aquitaine, p. 51; August 23, 2001, review of Henry VIII: The King and His Court, p. 57; January 20, 2003, review of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, p. 64; August 8, 2005, review of Queen Isabella, p. 228; October 2, 2006, review of Innocent Traitor, p. 36.

School Library Journal, May, 1996, Debbie Hyman, review of The Wars of the Roses, p. 152; April, 1999, Dori DeSpain, review of The Life of Elizabeth I, p. 166.

Spectator, October 23, 1999, John Jolliffe, "A Powerful Queen on the Chessboard of Europe," pp. 49-50; May 17, 2003, David Crane, "A Hot Head and a Cool One," review of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, p. 61.

Times Literary Supplement, August 16, 1991, review of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 28; August 25, 1995, Colin Richmond, "Glossy and Gothic," p. 27; August 7, 1998, Helen Hackett, "How They Got at Gloriana," p. 24.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 26, 1992, Lacey Baldwin Smith, "England's Henry VIII and His Many Wives," pp. 7-8; February 20, 1994, Patrick T. Reardon, "Did Richard III Do the Deed?," p. 6.

Victoria, August, 2001, Michele Sung, "Portraits of Power," p. 31.

Virginian Pilot, November 11, 2001, Barbara Spigel, "Richly Detailed View of Henry VIII's Court Bound to Be a Success," p. E4.

Wilson Library Bulletin, September, 1981, review of Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of Achievement, p. 63.


Armchair Interviews, (March 10, 2007), Michelle Heather Pollock, review of Queen Isabella.

Library, (January 15, 2007), Wilda Williams, interview with Alison Weir.

Random House Web site, (April 17, 2002), interview with Alison Weir.