The Queen’s Rival

Written by Anne O’Brien
Review by Helen Johnson

This book charts a clear-sighted path through the complexities of the Wars of the Roses, shown through the lens of family loyalty. The story is told from the point of view of Cecily, Duchess of York, as her husband, Richard, becomes disaffected with the rule of King Henry VI. When he launches a bid to depose Henry and become king himself, politics becomes personal: are you for Henry, or for Richard? Of course, in the large intermarried families of 15th-century nobility, everybody is connected to everybody else, and the question of Henry or Richard is complicated. Money, patronage, and policy would be likely to influence the decision of who to support. But O’Brien avoids these complications and focusses on Cecily’s adherence to her family. There are wooings, betrayals, turncoats, joys and sorrows.

Cecily’s story is told largely through the medium of letters, communicating with kin spread across the country. O’Brien eschews archaic language to write chatty, gossipy letters with shining personalities. Cecily’s brisk older sister ignores fashion in favour of comfort. The younger sister requests recipes to make eels more palatable. The letters are interspersed with passages from “England’s Chronicle”, as juicy as a modern tabloid newspaper. The historic setting is maintained principally through Cecily and her sisters’ remarks on people’s dress, animating them as much as the person they’re commenting on.

This is not a book to learn the complex politics of the Wars of the Roses. But by homing in on Cecily’s feelings, O’Brien provides an admirably clear view of the twists and turns of power. Recommended for those who like to see politics made personal, and people in “olden days” behaving like us, caring about fashion and recipes.