A child born in the plague year of 1348, abandoned and raised within the oppressive walls of a convent, Alice Perrers refused to take the veil, convinced that a greater destiny awaited her. Ambitious and quick witted, she rose above her obscure beginnings to become the infamous mistress of Edward III. But always, essentially, she was alone...
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, has had a bad press.
‘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 pen of Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St Albans, who knew Alice well. Alice has fared no better at the hands of reputable modern historians who have been no less damning. ‘Edward III was sick and enfeebled, given over to the wiles of his rapacious mistress.’
Here is Alice, in all her notoriety.
Alice the low born usurper of royal power. Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connection. Traditions says that 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 Alice stepped out of it, rising above herself to become s Queen’s damsel and mistress to the King.
Alice the Ugly. Alice was ‘famously ugly’. How could an unattractive woman rise to such pre-eminence? Using flattery, base seduction, not to mention supernatural powers – she was accused of witchcraft – Alice 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. She 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. (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 contentment in her husband’s love.
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 Philippa’s death, Alice demanded that Edward give her Philippa’s private collection of jewellery, which he did. Alice wore them ostentatiously, flaunting her power. 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 ...
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 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. The government of England 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.
But is this the real Alice Perrers? Infamous, immoral, selfish, manipulating. 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. Even Perrers was not her birth name, but one 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. She emerges as a formidable woman, well versed in law and land-management, in effect a very smart business woman. To my mind there is much to be said in her favour: she makes a worthy, if somewhat unconventional heroine for The King's Concubine.
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About the Author
Anne O'Brien was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After gaining a B.A. Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Masters degree in education at Hull, she lived in the East Riding as a teacher of history. Always a prolific reader, she enjoyed historical fiction and was encouraged to try her hand at writing. Success in short story competitions spurred her on. Leaving teaching, she wrote her first historical romance, a Regency, which was published in 2005. To date nine historical romances and a novella, ranging from medieval, through the Civil War and Restoration and back to Regency, have been published internationally. Anne now lives with her husband in an eighteenth century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales. Since living there she has become hooked on medieval history. Virgin Widow, published in 2010 was Anne's first novel based on the life of an historical character, Anne Neville, wife of Richard Duke of Gloucester. Her second novel tracks the early life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, through marriage, crusades and divorce, not to mention scandal, as Devil's Consort (In the USA published as Queen Defiant.) Other novels depict the scandalous life of Alice Perrers, mistress of King Edward III, who broke all the rules as The King's Concubine, followed by Katherine de Valois as The Forbidden Queen and Elizabeth of Lancaster as The King's Sister. Anne's latest book, The Queen’s Choice, about the life of Joanna of Navarre, was released in the UK on 14th January 2016. Find out more at Anne's website www.anneobrienbooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien.