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Alison Plowden: Historian and biographer


Born on 18 December 1931 at Quetta, then in British India, Alison Plowden was a descendant of the great Elizabethan jurist Edmund Plowden and was also ‘Founder’s Kin’ of All Souls, Oxford through her ancestor Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury and co-founder of the college in 1438.

Her father, Miles, worked in the Judge Advocate General’s department under the Raj, but his marriage fell apart and, shortly before the Second World War, Alison returned to England with her mother. In 1948, her mother married Major General H Lowry (‘Taffy’) Davies, DSO, MC, later the official historian of the Far East campaign for the Cabinet Office. As a child Alison was educated by a governess and at a private school in Bournemouth and devoured romantic historical novels. After school she took a secretarial course and began her working life as a secretary, typing up scripts at the BBC.

‘I could do better than this with my hands tied behind my back’

One day, as Alison was typing up a script, it dawned on her that she could write it better – she was offered a six-month attachment to the radio drama script unit. Initially writing for radio, she then produced the script for The Mistress of Hardwick (about Bess of Hardwick) for which she won a Writers’ Guild Award for Best Educational Television Series, and wrote several historical television plays. In 1970 she left the BBC to go freelance.

‘I'm in the fortunate position of having been able to turn my hobby in to a profession’

The Young Elizabeth (1972), her first book about Queen Elizabeth I, was a bestseller. It was followed by Danger to Elizabeth (1973), which charts the struggle between Elizabeth I and the Catholics, and the threat to overthrow the Queen; Marriage With My Kingdom (1977), which looks at Queen Elizabeth’s courtships; and Elizabeth Regina (1980), which presents the Queen at the height of her powers. Collectively these books became known as Plowden’s ‘Elizabethen Quartet’. Whilst working on the series she also published The House of Tudor (1976), Tudor Women (1979).

Shifting focus from the Tudor period to the Victorian era, Alison’s next book was The Young Victoria in 1983. This was followed by a return to the Tudors – Two Queens in One Isle (1984), which tracked the deadly relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots; and Lady Jane Grey: Nine Days Queen (1985). In 1989 her attention turned to the Regency period with Caroline and Charlotte, a study of the relationship between King George IV’s Caroline of Brunswick and her daughter, Princess Charlotte.

In 1996 Alison forayed into the Civil War period with The Stuart Princesses (1996), a look at the six princesses of the House of Stuart who lived through the violent social and political upheavals of the 17th century. This was followed by Women All on Fire (1998) about the activities of women on both sides of the Civil War. She continued in 2006 with In a Free Republic, which examined life in Cromwell’s England. 

Alison, who was unmarried, was dedicated to animal welfare. She died on 17 August 2007.

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