Historical Fiction and Its Impact on History

This is a topic that I am extremely passionate about – historical fiction, and history. Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir are quite possibly the most well-known authors on Tudor history. Both women are historians, both women are authors. While Gregory appears to only write historical fiction, Weir began her popular career writing non-fiction, and then transformed into what I would consider fiction/historical fiction.

Before I delve into the topic I must confess that I am a fan of historical fiction. I began reading books by Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory when my interest in the Tudor was first piqued at the beginning of the new millennium. Gregory’s books in the Cousin’s War series like The Red Queen, The White Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughters gave me the history that led up to the Tudors, and made me want to understand how that history impacted the Tudor dynasty. But before I jumped in with both feet (to the Tudors), I wanted to know more about the White Queen (Elizabeth Woodville) and her husband, King Edward IV. To this day they are still my favorite King and Queen consort because of Gregory’s books and my subsequent research. With that I began searching for every article I could find online about the well-known couple.

Programs like The Tudors pulled in millions of viewer to explore the exciting world of Henry VIII and his court – led by the handsome Jonathan Rhys Meyers (JRM) as Henry VIII one could not help but get pulled into his world of opulence, sport, love and politics. It was everything I could have asked for as someone who was wanting to envision this world of centuries ago. It was easy for me to put aside the fact that JRM had no true resemblance to the infamous king because he was able to make me believe he was indeed the man through (in my opinion) his superb acting skill. The same goes for his queens, Katherine of Aragon (KoA) and Anne Boleyn. As we know KoA was not a brunette, yet Maria Doyle Kennedy was able to transport me back in time to the plight of KoA through her acting chops. Anne Boleyn, who was played by the marvelous Natalie Dormer, did not have blue eyes, yet I was able to see past that as well. The point that I am trying to make is that the writing is what transported me back in time to the first half of the sixteenth century, not the accuracy.

While there are many historical purists who wish to discount any piece of historical fiction, I tend to promote, and encourage those wanting to learn about the dynasty to start with historical fiction, and then move to non-fiction when they want to learn the real history – because, let’s be honest, in most cases the two fall very closely together.

The beauty of historical fiction is that the author is allowed to fill in the gaps – to tell the story where we do not have actual contemporary evidence to do it for us. This is generally where the problems come in. In Gregory’s book The White Queen she writes that Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta used spells and “witchcraft” to get the King of England to marry her – after the disappearance of her sons, the princes in the Tower, Woodville placed a curse on the people responsible for the disappearance of her sons in the Tower of London. There is no evidence that either occurred but it makes the story even more interesting, especially when she curses her son’s murderer to have no male heir…enter the Tudors. The connection that to this day people still believe to be true because they have not done further research.

On the other hand, Weir claims in her newest book on Anne of Cleves called Anna of Kleve – the Princess in the Portrait, that Anne was no virgin. Using this contemporary report as her basis:

Surely, as ye know, I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse. For I have felt her belly and her breast, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid… [The] which struck me so to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters… I have left her as good a maid as I found her.”

This makes it seem to those who do not know better that *spoiler alert* Anne was no virgin – that she had given birth prior to her marriage to King Henry. Using a online marketing machine to spread the message has not helped Anne’s true story be told, only to perpetuate the myth even further.

While I will always defend historical fiction, I also see it as my responsibility to clear the air, so to speak – to leave my readers or followers with examples of nonfiction, or contemporary reports that examine the scene more thoroughly. Case in point, Heather R. Darsie’s book called Anna, Duchess of Cleves – the King’s Beloved Sister, in this book the author explains a different side of the story that had not been told my the English during the downfall of her marriage to the King. This time we see what I now believe to be the true story – that politics is what destroyed their marriage, not Anne.

I implore all of you to read historical fiction for entertainment and early learning – then move forward and research further to discover the true stories of these fascinating people. Do not assume that everything you read in historical fiction is fact. Assume otherwise and learn for yourself…that’s the fun part – in my opinion.

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5 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I think there is a place for both. Without the lure of historical fiction, many would not be privy to anything of these wonderful characters. I think this article encourages correct approach.

  2. It was a novel that got me interested in Richard III. Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was a cold case crime fiction, worked out from a detectives hospital bed. After that I read non fiction on the subject, but also fiction.

    Ive read only one Gregory book, the one about Jacquetta of Bedford, which I enjoyed, but not enough to read the more famous ones.

    Alison Weir is an entertaining non fiction writer, so I just cant bring myself to read her fiction, sorry! Id hate to have her history books spoiled for me.

  3. I love what you’ve said about reading historical fiction for entertainment and to get early learning about historical figures. I agree one needs to do research to get at the core of the truth. Some history is invented or exaggerated, i.e., the Casket Letters of Mary, Queen of Scots; Anne Boleyn’s guilt; evidence against the Plantagenets to imprison and execute them during Tudor times; Katharine of Aragon’s divorce. How do we discern the truth then?

  4. Although I do agree that historical fiction is entertaining, there is a real danger that so few look for real facts and take the fiction as facts. I have entered into too many discussions with people about what they is “history” and will not harbor any actual facts (including series about the Tudors). This is not so much significant when dealing with the Tudors or the Plantangenets, but there are real, devastating consequences with more recent history, I e , native populations in European settled areas (the Americas, Australia, African continent, etc.) Also, it needs to be noted that many authors if history/historical fiction do not allow facts to get in the way of their personal beliefs. There is one author who quotes discredited sources as facts and only adds other sources that specifically follow his/her theory, and does not tolerate open discussion. Yes, I read some historical fiction, and in some cases even recommend it, but I always caution my recommendations with “this is a work if fiction and us not to be considered what really happened”.

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