Antonia Fraser’s father was Francis Aungier Pakenham, who became the seventh earl of Longford in 1961. Her mother was Elizabeth Harman, related to the Chamberlains. Both parents went to Oxford University, belonged to the Labour Party in the 1930’s, and converted to Catholicism in the 1940’s. Lady Longford became an early mentor and model. Fraser, the first of eight children, grew up in Oxford amid politics and war. Her formal education began at the Dragon School in 1940-1944, and she already showed a fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots. From 1946 to 1948, she went to school at St. Mary’s Convent, in Berkshire, where she converted to Catholicism. From 1950 to 1953, she attended Oxford University, receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. After graduation, she worked for Lord Weidenfeld’s publishing house, which published her first book in 1954. In 1956, she married Sir Hugh Charles Patrick Joseph Fraser. Fifteen years her elder, he was a handsome, charming Scottish nobleman. They were active in politics and reared a family in London and Scotland. By the mid-1960’s, she was a celebrity, appearing in society pages and on television shows.
With a contract from Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Fraser began research for Mary, Queen of Scots. Published in 1969, it was one of five books written by the literary Pakenhams that year and received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography, thus assuring her a position in literary circles. A best seller in eleven languages, Fraser’s first attempt at biography gave her a devoted international readership. She continued to write biographies, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992), Boadicea’s Chariot: The Warrior Queens (1988), and Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001), which was adapted for a popular film in 2006.
In 1975, however, Fraser dramatically changed her lifestyle, moving in with the playwright Harold Pinter. After both the Frasers and Pinters were divorced, Pinter and Fraser were married in a civil ceremony. During this same period, the Jemima Shore mystery series was begun, and Fraser became active in various literary organizations. Her work on the seventeenth century earned the Wolfson History Prize and the Prix Caumont-La Force. In addition, Hull University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1986. For her Jemima Shore books, the Crime Writers’ Association bestowed on her the Gold Dagger Award in 1996.