It’s time for a new blog series! This is one that I’ve been wanting to do since creating 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 could 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. 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 by how Alice 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.
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. She is thought to have been born in the 1340s, and for a long time it was suggested that 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 provided evidence that Alice was his daughter as she later went on to have disputes with the abbey and one of her most severe critics was the St Albans Chronicle; many believed 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. Within the last two decades, documents have been uncovered in the National Archives citing that Alice had a brother called John Salisbury and had previously been married to a man called Janyn Perrers. Subsequent research suggests that she in fact came from a family of London goldsmiths.
Whatever Alice’s origins, by 1362 she had found her way to court and had become lady-in-waiting to the ailing Queen, Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III. Alice was probably in her late teens or early 20s 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 adored 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 sick, beloved queen.
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. Alice and Edward had three illegitimate children together: John de Southeray, born c1364; Jane Northland, born c1366; Joan Skerne, born c1368.
By the time the affair was made public around 1369, Alice was in her late 20s. King Edward, who was 57, was severely impacted by the death of his dear wife this year, 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 woman’s sudden rise to prominence.
Edward became more generous to Alice after Philippa’s death (perhaps accelerated by her skills of persuasion) and she was given 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 had given Alice some of Philippa’s jewels, which has been pointed to as a sign of Alice’s avarice and hatred for the old queen’s memory. In fact, the jewels were not part of the deceased Queen’s personal collection, but rather had been gifted by her to one of her knights many years before.
More importantly, however, were the properties Alice got under her belt. At the height of her power she controlled at least 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 gifts from the king; Edward only granted her a handful of these properties. The rest were gained by her hard work and business acumen. St Albans Abbey claimed ownership of one of Alice’s properties (one of many disputes between the abbey and Alice) but Alice was at the height of her power and so was victorious. In 1374, when the abbot attempted to take the dispute to court, Alice – confident in the King’s authority surrounding her – allegedly 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.
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 commons. As such, MPs decided it was time to make reforms and clean up the Royal Council. Two of Alice’s allies, 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 and Parliament were able to obtain a royal decree forbidding all women from interfering in judicial decisions. Alice was also accused of having taken thousands of pounds from the royal purse.
The result of these accusations was that Alice was banished from Edward’s presence. 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 to court. Edward died within a year, but Alice stayed with him until his death, probably bringing him great comfort.
Thomas Walsingham, the St Albans 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. At no point was Alice accused by any members of the royal family of having stolen rings from Edward, which, given their importance and that they would be noticed as missing immediately, indicates her innocence.
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 banished from the kingdom. However, not long after Edward’s death it was revealed that Alice had secretly married Sir William Wyndesore. 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 had some success due to William’s importance to the government, and saw the return of a significant portion of her lands and goods.
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William died in 1384, and this brought renewed trouble for Alice. He willed her valuable properties to his heirs, even though 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 son having died around the same time). Her will shows that she had managed to retain control of some properties which she gave to her children.
Alice Perrers died in the winter of 1400/1401 aged around 60 and was buried in the church of St Laurence, Upminster. She had been living at the manor of Gaynes in the town, one of the properties she had kept control of. 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 amidst strife and legal battles. She had lived life to its fullest, 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, but she had paid for it.
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