Alice Perrers, mistress of that most powerful of Plantagenet Kings, Edward III, at the same time as she was a damsel (lady-in- waiting) to Queen Philippa, first crossed my path, writes Anne O’Brien, when I discovered a copy of Lady of the Sun, the Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay in a second hand book shop. I was not impressed with Alice. There was little that we knew about her that could be supported by evidence. Furthermore she had an astonishingly bad press from contemporary writers, painting her reputation black with absolutely no redeeming features.
‘There was … in England a shameless woman and wanton harlot called Ales Peres, of base kindred … being neither beautiful or fair, she knew how to cover these defects with her flattering tongue …’
This was the view of Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St Albans who knew Alice well.
Alice faired no better at the hands of reputable modern historians who have been hardly less damning. ‘Edward III was sick and enfeebled, given over to the wiles of his rapacious mistress.’ The adjective rapacious figures widely.
And yet something attracted me to this remarkable woman from the fourteenth century. Here is Alice, in all her notoriety.
Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connections. According to rumour, she came from the lowest of the low, being the illegitimate daughter of a town labourer – a tiler – and a tavern whore. She was born with nothing and deserved no promotion, but she did not know her place. With ruthless determination she stepped out of it, rising above herself to become one of the Queen’s damsels and mistress to the King.
Pictured: King Edward III, in the full regal regalia of the Order of the Garter, which he founded in 1349. His son the Black Prince was one of the founding members.
Alice the unattractive woman
Alice was not merely a plain woman but ‘famously ugly’. How could an ugly woman rise to such pre-eminence? Using flattery, a seductive voice, not to mention supernatural powers – she was accused of witchcraft – Alice gained a foothold in the Queen’s household and lured the unsuspecting King into a sexual liaison from which she never allowed him to escape until the day of his death. Alice was the whore, the guilty party.
Alice the rapacious royal mistress
Alice beguiled and manipulated King Edward until he neglected his wife and his country. Because she seduced him while Philippa was still alive, Alice was the cause of King Edward committing the sin of adultery. So great was her power over the King that he could refuse her nothing. So corrupt were her morals that she entered into a clandestine marriage with William de Windsor without Edward’s knowledge.
Alice the Destroyer
Alice stepped between King Edward and Queen Philippa, destroying the happiness of what was considered to be the perfect marriage. Edward and Philippa were wed for 40 years, entirely devoted to each other, and Edward had never in all that time been unfaithful. (A rumour of an earlier mistress was thought to be the work of the despicable French to blacken Edward’s name.) Edward was the faithful, loving husband – until Alice Perrers came on the scene. She robbed Philippa’s final, painful days of the contentment in her husband’s love that she deserved.
Pictured: Philippa of Hainault at her coronation in 1330 in Westminster Abbey: one of the few illustrations of Philippa that we have.
Alice the greedy embezzler of wealth
Alice dipped her hands into the royal treasury and amassed jewels worth more than £20,000 (£6 million in modern values). After Queen Philippa’s death, when Edward was in decline, Alice demanded that Edward give Philippa’s private collection of jewellery to her, which he did. Alice wore them ostentatiously as if she were Queen, flaunting her power when riding through the streets of London as Lady of the Sun. Together with Windsor, her new husband, an equally unprincipled courtier, she embezzled funds set aside by the King to deal with the uprisings in Ireland. And worst of all, in the whole vicious category of her crimes? When Edward lay on his death bed, Alice stripped the royal rings from his fingers. Such terrible desecration of the dead …
There are, sadly, unless it is true that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath was influenced by her, no illustrations of Alice Perrers. Here is a wonderful moody, 19th century representation of Alice stripping the rings from Edward’s fingers. She looks suitably devious and thoroughly worthy of her black reputation.
Alice the grasping land-grabber
Alice persuaded Edward to give her land. So successful was she that she controlled 56 manors, castles and town houses stretching over 25 counties of England from the north to the home counties When property disputes arose, Alice, the King’s authority behind her, had the temerity to sit in the law courts to intimidate the judges and ensure that she got the best deal for herself. She became the wealthiest common-born woman in the land; if she had been a man her wealth would have qualified for an earldom.
Alice the arch manipulator of the King and Queen
The government of England in the final years of Edward’s life when he was at his most vulnerable fell into the hands of Alice, in alliance with John of Gaunt and a group of royal ministers – dubbed her coven by her enemies – appointed by her and loyal to her. Edward was unable to prevent her from usurping royal power that was not hers to take. When the Good Parliament in 1376 finally set its sights on Alice, intent on her dismissal from court and the stripping away of all her property and jewels and even her banishment from the country, we are left with the impression that she deserved everything she got.
So is this the real Alice Perrers?
Infamous, immoral, selfish, manipulating. What a despicable woman Alice appears to be. But is Alice’s reputation too black to be realistic? Was she quite so ruthless and self-serving and was she quite so ugly? Perhaps she was, but we never hear Alice speaking out in her own defence. Nor are there portraits of Alice or even detailed contemporary descriptions of her. All the accusations come from her male contemporaries, men of influence in church and state.
Perhaps this was the key to Alice’s reputation – a bad case of male jealousy - and for this reason I decided that she deserved that we take another look at her remarkable career. Since Kay’s book on Alice, there has been further research, with interesting evidence coming to light about her, even that Perrers was her name from an early short-lived marriage. It all sparked my interest. And so Alice became my ‘project’, not with an intent to whitewash her, but to allow her to speak out in her own voice to allow us to see what her motives might have been. As a woman making her way in a man’s world, without rank or family connection, perhaps the formidable Alice deserves that we take a moment, through fiction, to reassess her. To my mind there is much to be said in her favour: she makes a worthy, if somewhat unconventional heroine.
To say more would spoil the show! To discover the dark politics and financial machinations of the Plantagenet Court, the sufferings of a great monarch in decline, the career of the redoubtable Alice, read The King’s Concubine …
The King’s Concubine, the story of Alice Perrers is available in all good bookshops and on Amazon, both print and Kindle.
The Uncrowned Queen, a short story prequel, telling of the first stormy years of the marriage of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, is available FREE on Kindle.