The Virgin Queen Revisited: Historian Alison Weir on Her Latest Book

Alison Weir has remained an authority on English history for decades. Her latest novel breathes new life into the story of Queen Elizabeth I, one of the most talked-about figures in history.

As a female monarch, Elizabeth instantly became the most sought after woman—marrying her, in a sense, would mean gaining a kingdom. Titled The Marriage Game, Weir’s novel delves into the intriguing series of Elizabeth’s various courtships, from foreign princes who her councillors believed would make for beneficial alliances, to her suspected lover back home, Robert Dudley, a dashing courtier who was already married to someone else.

This book is an absolute must-read for history lovers as well as those who just enjoy a good, romantic story. Either way, the book will leave you wanting to know more about the woman who remained on her throne, against all odds, for 45 years, who managed to settle religious disputes with a system of relative tolerance and who famously fought off the invading Spanish armada. It’s probably fair to say that most women could learn a thing or two from her.

Here, Weir talks to us about her work as a historian, her interest in Elizabeth I, and what we can expect next.

Alison Weir, photo by Barney Jones.
Alison Weir, photo by Barney Jones.

Tell me about yourself. How did you start working as a historian?

When I was fourteen and had abandoned books in favour of pop magazines, my mother marched me into a library and said, ‘Get a book!’ The one I chose—my first adult novel—was about Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon; I devoured it in two days and fell in love overnight with the Tudor period. Immediately I scoured my school library to find out the facts, and began collating information and writing my first book, a biography of Anne Boleyn, which I completed when I was 15. I’ve been researching and writing ever since, professionally since 1988.

You’ve spent so many years researching the Tudor era. Do you ever start to feel like you’re living there with them yourself?

I do when I’m writing. It’s an intense experience and you need to immerse yourself in the period in order to understand it. I do a lot of background research, most of which I don’t even use, but it helps to inform the book.

How do you maintain the balance between history and fiction?

Writing history is a discipline; you are bound by the constraints of the source material and legitimate inference and speculation. You have more scope with historical fiction, yet you still need to do the research, and what you invent has to be credible within the context of what is known about the subject. I keep the two genres very separate in my mind. Maybe having written a lot of history before I attempted fiction helps. It was harder to take off my historian’s hat and become a novelist. There’s a huge learning curve.

What is your process when it comes to writing these books?

With history, I no longer compile files full of research notes in chronological order then write them up. I now begin with the outline of the book—usually the proposal sent to my publishers—and then research into it, dividing the text into chapters where appropriate. It’s a much more efficient way of writing a book. With fiction, I just start at the beginning and go on a roll!

Why do you think Elizabeth I remains such a fascinating figure to us so many years later?

Elizabeth fascinates for many reasons. She was a woman in a male-dominated age, a great survivor whose youth was overshadowed by tragedy and danger. A bastard, heretic and usurper in the eyes of Catholic Europe, and she inherited a bankrupt kingdom and died a legend 45 years later. No queen ever played such a prolonged game of courtship with so many suitors. And the many enigmas surrounding Elizabeth fuel endless debate.

What is a lesson that women today can learn from Elizabeth?

That a woman who succeeds in a career may have to make sacrifices in other areas of her life, but that she can enjoy all the advantages of male attention without subsuming herself in a relationship.

How do you think the course of history would have changed if Elizabeth had married Dudley?

I think she would have risked her throne; it may have toppled her, because Dudley was unpopular and, crucially, people would have deemed her guilty of conspiring in his wife’s death. Civil war may have followed, because there was no clear heir to the throne, and the rival claimants were of different religions. Spain or France may have exploited the situation to set up Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. Elizabeth may not have survived. But if she had succeeded in riding out the storm (which she was capable of doing) she may have had children—and we might well have had the Tudor dynasty ruling over us today.

What can we expect next from you?

I have just finished The Lost Tudor Princess, a biography of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, which is due to be published in the UK this autumn, and I have been commissioned to write six novels on the wives of Henry VIII, which will be published yearly from 2016.


The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir, published by Random House, is available now.