Q&A with Elizabeth Norton

Questions by Harriet

eliz-norton1. Elizabeth, you’ve made a name for yourself with a number of successful books about important female figures in the Tudor period. You clearly have a tremendous knowledge of, and inspiration about, this era in British history. Can you tell us when that all started?

The Tudor period is such a fascinating and important period, I was always drawn to it in my research. It is the first era in British history that it is possible to really see the personalities of ordinary individuals (and not just royal or very high status people!) through the sources, with a wealth of material surviving. Literacy in the period greatly increased, as did access to law courts and other institutions, while women in particular, begin to emerge from the shadows in the sixteenth century.

I became interested in the Tudors as a child, reading everything that I could find on the period. Later, after university, I decided to start writing in an attempt to help get more information out there and bring the history of this amazing era to a wider audience.

2. You’re a historian, and also a writer. Those things don’t necessarily go together. Have you always wanted to write?

I have. Research is fascinating and can lead to some surprising discoveries, but I think one of the most important aspects of carrying out historical research is to help bring it to a wider audience. ‘Public history’ is a real buzz phrase in historical research at the moment, but it is so important. The history that I am researching is that of Britain and writing about it helps get it out there and, hopefully, encourages readers to further investigate the period.

tudor-women3. Lives of Tudor Women is a departure from your previous books about individual women. What took you in this direction?

The Lives of Tudor Women is a piece of social history, taking the reader through the lives of a broad range of women from peasants to queens. As well as more general information on daily life and activities, I look specifically at Tudor lives, with businesswomen, housewives, prophetesses, domestic servants, old age pensioners and many others covered.

I loved researching and writing the book, partly because it was such a departure from my usual subjects. The research took me down some very surprising avenues, using archives that I had not encountered before. I spent time researching a female draper in Drapers’ Hall in London, for example, as well as investigating the career of Sister Fisher, first matron of the newly refounded St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfields. I never knew what I was going to find!

I decided to write the book out of fascination. I wanted to know more about the lives of ordinary women and just how they lived their lives. In particular, I wanted to emphasise the ordinariness of most women’s existence and that the fact that only very few individuals were noblewomen or royal: most lived rather more simple lives.

4. What do you think are the most important things we can learn from reading about women’s lives in this era?

The history of women has frequently been neglected by historians (although this has begun to change in recent years). This is a real shame, since they obviously made up half the population. I think the most important thing we can learn from reading about women’s lives in this era is that all women were active agents in their own right. They had their own goals and aspirations, lived within the parameters of the society of which they were a part. You simply cannot look comprehensively at a society without considering all its members.

5. Our readers love to hear about people’s working days. What’s yours like? Where and when do you do your research, and your writing?

Every day is different, depending on what I am working on and what deadlines are approaching! I like to research during the day as this is when the archives and libraries are open. If working on original sources, I will usually spend the day at the National Archives in Kew or the British Library, while if using secondary materials I like to work in the Institute of Historical Research in London. I’m often in local archives too, such as the Shropshire Archives in Shrewsbury.

I tend to save writing for the evenings, when my children are asleep and it is quieter. I can usually get a good few hours in at my desk before it’s time to go to bed.

6. What writers have inspired you, and who are you reading at the moment?

The most influential writers for me were Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir, who both wrote books on the six wives of Henry VIII which I read several times while still at school. I found it inspiring that they were able to present such detailed accounts in accessible ways. Later, after beginning my own research, I became interested in the works of Eamon Duffy, who writes on the Reformation In particular, I was very interested in his ‘Stripping of the Altars’, which is a comprehensive account of traditional religion and its continuing popularity on the eve of the Reformation. While not a popular history work, it is an accessible one and filled with insights and information.

With so much to research, I don’t read as much for pleasure as I would like. I have however recently finished Susan Hill’s latest collection of ghost stories, which was an excellent break from work!

7. And finally, what’s next? Are you working on another project?

I’m always researching. On the more academic side of my work I am looking at the Blount family of the West Midlands, considering how this Catholic gentry family negotiated the politics and changes of the sixteenth century.

I am also at an early stage in planning a new book on the Elizabethan period. While Elizabeth I has been the subject of many biographies, there are still considerable aspects of her life, reign and the social history of her period, that remain largely uncovered. I hope to address that soon!


Read Harriet’s review of Lives of the Tudor Women in our Non-Fiction section here.

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