It’s time for a new blog series! This is one that I’ve been wanting to do since starting the blog, and have finally got around to starting. It is well known that many kings across Europe had mistresses – when you’re king, you can largely do what you want. Many of these women (and sometimes men) rose to prominent positions as a result of their relationship to the king – when he lusts after you in bed, it is usually easy to whisper in his ear and get things done. In a world where women were largely debarred from holding official power in the court and government, being a mistress was a viable way of grasping power, wealth, and influence if you were a woman. As such, this series will look into some of the most notorious mistresses to kings and princess across Europe and track their rise (and sometimes fall).
Alice Perrers seemed like a good person to start with, because she is so interesting and not your typical heroine. She first came to my attention a few years ago when I read The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett. I was struck at how she had managed to climb up from obscurity to being the most important and wealthy lady in the land, but also how she was frustrating in her greed and lack of awareness in needing to charm people around her. You wanted to root for her, as is natural for the protagonist, but at times it was difficult to support her. Now, of course, this is a work of fiction, but it certainly sparked my interest in her.
One work of fiction that explores Alice’s life.
Alice Perrers came from obscure origins, and as is common for medieval women – even of high status – we are not completely certain when she was born, or to whom. It is believed she was born around 1348, and it seems most likely her father was Sir Richard Perrers, a Hertfordshire landowner of reasonable standing. He had been an MP and also acted as Sheriff of the county. He had also, however, been imprisoned and outlawed in the 1350s because of his quarrel with the abbey of St Albans. This gives us some of our evidence that Alice was his daughter, however, as she later went on to have disputes with the abbey and one of her most severe critics was the St Albans Chronicle; many believe she picked up her fathers’ quarrel as she grew up. Some contemporary sources claimed Alice was of even baser birth, an illegitimate daughter of a whore and a tiler – but as these sources were hostile towards her because of her influence over the king, it is probable that they were merely trying to further besmirch her name and add more mud to their accusations against her.
Whatever Alice’s origins, by 1362 she had found her way to court and had become lady-in-waiting to the Queen, Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s wife. Alice was only around 14-15 years old at this time. Edward III had a reputation for his loyalty to his beloved wife. In the more than 30 years that they had been married, Edward had never been known to take a mistress. Philippa herself was beloved in the Kingdom for her kindness and compassion. Joshua Barnes, a medieval writer, described her as “a very good and charming person who exceeded most ladies for sweetness of nature and virtuous disposition”. It is probable that the exalted reputation of Philippa contributed to hatred of Alice as she took over affairs – it was easy from the start for Alice to slip into the narrative of evil temptress who seduced an aging king away from his dying, beloved queen.
Philippa, Edward’s Queen, as imagined by Agnes Strickland in her ‘Queens of England’.
It is believed that Alice became Edward’s mistress not long after she entered Philippa’s household, 6 years before the queen died. However, if this was the case, the relationship was conducted with upmost secrecy and was not made public until after the Queen’s death. It appears that Alice and Edward had illegitimate children together (if they were indeed having an affair before the Queen’s death): Alice gave birth to three children; John de Southeray, 1364; Jane Northland, 1365; Joan Skerne, 1366.
By the time the affair was made public around 1369, Alice was only 21 years old. King Edward was severely impacted by the death of his beloved wife, and he relied heavily on Alice’s presence both to fill Philippa’s void and guide him in courtly affairs. This immediately began making Alice enemies at court who were jealous of this young girl’s sudden rise to prominence.
Edward was very generous to Alice (perhaps accelerated by her skills of persuasion) and she was given lots of property, jewellery, and wealth by him. She was often seen by his side, and at Edward’s command Alice was effectively treated as a queen. Courtiers were expected to be respectful towards her, and in 1375 she rode through London dressed as “The Lady of the Sun”, in golden clothes and with Ladies surrounding her who were leading Knights on silver chains. A few years prior to this, Edward (whether at Alice’s insistence is unknown, though many believe so) gave Alice some of Philippa’s jewels – although some have argued that the jewels probably were not part of the deceased Queen’s personal collection, but rather had been gifted by her to another woman, Euphemia Hasleworth.
In this painting by Ford Madox Brown, 1851, Alice can be seen sitting next to King Edward (left when looking at it, below the Knight) as they listen to Geoffrey Chaucer.
More importantly, however, were the properties Alice got under her belt. At the height of her power she controlled 56 manors, castles and town houses stretching over 25 counties of England from the north to the home counties. However, these were not all free hand-outs from the king; Edward only gifted her 15 of these properties. The rest were gained by her hard work and business acumen. One of these properties was claimed by the abbey of St Albans to actually belong to them. This was one of many disputes between the abbey and Alice (perhaps prompted by her father’s conflicts with them) but for now, Alice was victorious. In 1374, when the abbot attempted to take the dispute to court, Alice – confident in the King’s authority surrounding her – actually sat in the court during the proceedings to intimidate the judges to ruling in her favour. The abbot was advised to give up hope of the claims for now.
Alice was certainly shrewd, and she knew that the old king would not be around forever to protect her, and she was aware that she had built up numerous enemies. As such, she fostered relationships with Edward’s sons, Edward the Black Prince and John of Gaunt. This certainly served her well.
John of Gaunt, in a portrait commissioned c.1593 by Sir Edward Hoby, probably modelled on Gaunt’s tomb effigy.
In 1376, The Good Parliament took its seat under a pressing need for funds. The corruption of the court, and the notoriety of Alice and her supporters, were making the government very unpopular with the populace. As such, MPs decided it was time to make reforms and clean up the Royal Council. Richard Lyons and Lord Latimer were accused of robbing the treasury, and were imprisoned. Latimer’s impeachment is the earliest recorded in Parliament. The King was assigned new councillors who were deemed to be of better moral calibre, including the Earl of March, the Bishop of London, and the Bishop of Winchester.
In a surprising turn of events, Alice was also dragged into accusations. As Alice held no official position in government, there was little that she could be charged with. However, her temerity in sitting in the law courts during her dispute with the abbot of St Albans meant she was able to be attacked. Concerns were aired about her behaviour there, and Parliament were able to obtain a royal decree forbidding all women from interfering in judicial decisions. She was also charged with having taken thousands of pounds from the royal purse.
During the Parliament, there was a shock revelation about Alice – she was actually married. Some time between 1373 – 1375, Alice had contracted a secret married to Sir William Windsor to protect herself in the event of the King’s death. At this time, it was vital for powerful women to have a man behind them to protect them, and especially so for a climber like Alice who was making many enemies. However, this secret marriage meant that Edward was an adulterer against William and Alice’s marriage (not that in reality this mattered – he was already an adulterer against his own wife for having an affair before her death, and many kings had married women as mistresses). However, as this was brought up in Parliament, this made things more problematic.
Edward III, as depicted on his tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey.
Edward swore an oath that he was not aware of the marriage. This seems reasonable as Alice’s marriage had been conducted in secret, and as it was her ‘Plan B’ it is unlikely she told the King, who was besotted with her, about this marriage. Moreover, part of her secret plan was to have her husband William made Royal Lieutenant in Ireland (despite his clear inability to perform the role) meaning he was away for long periods of time and thus less likely to have the King discover the marriage.
The result of these accusations was that Alice was banished from the kingdom and had her lands forfeit. Edward begged for mercy to be shown to Alice, so she avoided prison on the condition that she would no longer see the King. However, this is where Alice’s schmoozing with Edward’s sons came to her rescue. After the Parliament was dissolved, John of Gaunt (as virtual ruler of the country due to Edward’s old age, and the recent death of the Black Prince) set to work undoing the rulings. He imprisoned the Speaker of the House of Commons, barred the new councillors assigned to the king from taking up their positions, and he recalled Latimer and Alice. Edward died within a year, but Alice stayed with him until his death, probably bringing him great comfort.
Thomas Walsingham, the English chronicler, accuses Alice of being so greedy and evil that when Edward passed away she stole the rings on his fingers. This is most likely an unfounded accusation made to highlight her despicable character.
An imagining of Alice stealing the rings from the fingers of the dead King, from Cassell’s History of England, c.1901.
After Edward’s death, and the accession of his grandson, Richard II, charges against Alice were resurrected. All of her land and belongings were confiscated, and she was ordered to live with her husband, Sir William. However, Alice was not going to give up so easily. Over the remaining years, William helped her file numerous lawsuits to reclaim her properties and reverse the court judgements. They seem to have been somewhat successful, as it appears from subsequent legal records that Alice and William were back in control of some of her properties and valuables.
William died in 1384, and this brought renewed trouble for Alice. He willed her valuable properties to his heirs, even though legally they should have reverted to Alice on his death. This sparked new legal battles for Alice to try and reclaim her rightful properties in order to bequeath some to her daughters and their families. Her will shows that she had managed to retain control of some properties which she gave to her children.
The church of St Laurence, Upminster, where Alice Perrers was buried. Flickr.
Alice Perrers died in the winter of 1400/1401 aged 52 and was buried in the church of St Laurence, Upminster, as she was still in possession of the manor of Gaynes that she had obtained back in the height of her power. Her grave has subsequently been lost. Alice was a perfect example of the medieval “Fortune’s Wheel” – from obscurity, she rose to the highest position, but inevitably had a great fall, with the end of her life apparently lived in strife and legal battles. She had lived life to its fullest, however, and at one point she had a wealth of more than £20,000 – half a century later, during the reign of Henry V, the entire revenue of the government of England was £56,000. She had been one of the richest people in the land, male or female.
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