I used to think that John Guy’s biography of Mary, My Heart Is My Own (2004), could never be bettered. That’s probably still true, but this book nevertheless adds something significant to our understanding. Rival Queens is marketed as an account of the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary, but in truth is yet another biography. What makes it special is Williams’s understanding of how gender shaped Mary’s life. This is a feminist history, but not a clumsily theoretical one. Theory and sophisticated analysis never smother the pacey narrative...This is not the best biography of Mary, but it has something that sets it apart — an acute reminder that, underneath all that finery, Mary was just a woman.
There is much to cover in this elegant synthesis of royal biography and political thriller, and Williams is adroit in her handling of it. Very occasionally, her desire to offer a digestible précis culminates in a questionable point - for instance in using an apocryphal 17th-century account of how the aged Countess of Salisbury "was hauled back, screaming to the block" in 1541 or in her description of Elizabeth's stepmother, Catherine Howard, as a young woman who "had been groomed and assaulted", which presents as established fact a resurrected Victorian theory.These are, however, mere flies in the ointment. Williams offers a scintillating, provocative analysis of Mary and Elizabeth's reigns, and of their relationship