If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter then you may have caught wind that I have spent the last few years writing another book. Today I am really excited to make my formal announcement of it! Coming November 2022 (April 2023 if you are in the US) is my second non-fiction history book, The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III.
As you may have gathered from the subtitle, this book takes place during the reign of King Edward III of England, who reigned from 1327 until his death in 1377. With a reign of just over 50 years, he was the second-longest ruling monarch of medieval England post-conquest. He launched a great war against France – which became known as the Hundred Years War for the fact that it continued long after his death – in his aim to become King of France as well as England. He created the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious knightly order in England which still continues today. His reign has often been seen as a golden age of chivalry and revelry.
But whilst many writings of Edward’s life have focused on his achievements and his military conquests, the women around him have often been forgotten about. Edward’s wife was Queen Philippa of Hainault, the daughter of the Count and Countess of Hainault, and the couple married in their teens. Their marriage was a political one, born out of an alliance between Edward’s mother, Queen Isabella, and Philippa’s father. Despite the nature of how their relationship started, the couple were deeply attracted and attached to one another, and their marriage is seen as one of the most successful of the medieval period. They were married for over 40 years and had 12 children together, and spent as much time together as they could. Philippa was not shy to accompany her husband on his military campaigns, travelling to the edges of his Scottish lands and into France with him as he asserted his military might.
Despite the key role Philippa played in Edward’s life and government she is often little-mentioned in books about Edward, only turning up when she gave birth to one of their children. But Philippa was a vital part of Edward’s propaganda campaign, with her image showing the wealth and power of the English Crown. As a woman and a queen she had particular feminine avenues of power and influence that Edward utilised many times to grant mercy to those around him or to gather important allies for his wars.
But Philippa was no puppet to Edward’s whims, and though she dedicated her life to their family and advancing Edward’s agenda whenever she could, she was not shy to use her power for herself and her loyal servants. She acted as match-maker at court, finding suitable husbands for her ladies-in-waiting and granting lands and income to the men who served her. She also enjoyed the material aspects of her queenship, collecting beautiful, luxurious outfits and jewels, and building stunning castles and manor houses.
Philippa used her femininity in traditional ways, and was able to exert power and gather admiration and respect from the country by doing so. But towards the end of her life another woman at court became her rival for Edward’s affections. Alice Perrers was Philippa’s opposite. No daughter of European royalty, Alice came from a goldsmith family in London. She had been married and widowed at a young age, and through great luck she found herself in Philippa’s household by the early 1360s, when she was around 20 years old. Here, she caught the attention of King Edward who had, up to this point, been loyal to his beloved wife.
Alice captivated the King, and the pair began an affair. Edward still loved and cared for his wife, and he didn’t want to gather criticism of his kingship, particularly when his image was built on the strong family he and Philippa had created. As such, the couple were discreet, but rumours must have begun to circulate, particularly when Alice bore Edward children. Despite her lower station in life, Alice seems to have obtained some form of education, and was particularly astute and intelligent. She used her position at court to gather allies in government, and she slowly built up a portfolio of property and land. Though she was helped by Edward, he was remarkably restrained in his gifts to her, and most of what she gathered she did by herself.
When Philippa died Edward was heartbroken, and this was Alice’s chance to take over. Edward never remarried, and so Alice became the most influential woman at court by default. Through the 1370s she grew in power, status and wealth. With her position at the king’s side she was able to twist the court to her own desires, obtaining benefits for her friends and crushing her enemies. But her behaviour alienated many of the powerful men outside of her clique. As the king grew older and weaker, Alice’s position as a single woman unrestrained by a man began to chafe, and she became a scapegoat of all that was wrong with the court.
As the king neared death, the court turned on itself. Alice got caught up in it all, and after Edward died she was put on trial, punished for her perceived crimes, banished from the kingdom and had all of her property forfeit. Everything she had spent more than a decade building was taken from her. But Alice was no meek woman, and she was not going to let men get away with ruining her future. She spent the rest of her life fighting to have what she believed was rightfully hers restored to her.
Philippa of Hainault and Alice Perrers seem, on the surface, like two polar opposite women. When Philippa was kind, loving, and pious, Alice was greedy, scheming, and cruel. But both women had more in common than it first appears, and both women had been able to win the heart of this great medieval king. Both used their femininity to exert their power, but because of their respective stations in life these were perceived very differently by their contemporaries. In The Queen and the Mistress, I explore their lives to see just how a woman could navigate a medieval court. Pre-order now!
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