by Anne O'Brien
See also Alice Perrers: A Notorious Woman
So can we say nothing good about Alice Perrers? I believe that we can at least soften the edges of her contemporary portrait. We might be hampered by lack of hard evidence (except for a barrage of hostile criticism from courtiers and clerics) but there is enough to shine a vestige of light into the dark corners of her reputation.
Alice the low-born usurper of royal power.
Did Alice know her place in society, or did she step outrageously beyond it? As far as we know Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connections, but was she the reputed bastard of a labourer and tavern whore? Perhaps not. Recent evidence suggests that she may have had a brother with whom she did business, and that she engaged in a brief marriage to Janyn Perres, a Lombardy merchant and money lender, during which she made her first purchase of property. She could read and write and figure. Somewhere she learned this, if not with her invisible family then in a convent. And royal mistress to Edward III? Alice would not be the first low born woman to share a King's bed, nor the last.
We do not know how she came to the attention of Queen Philippa but it is unlikely that she would have done so if she had been born in the filth of the gutter. Perhaps she does not deserve her notoriety based on her stepping beyond her birth.
Alice the Ugly.
Much can be forgiven a beautiful woman but not an ill favoured one. Alice was reputed to be the inspiration for Chaucer's Wife of Bath. He gave her a bold face, a gap-toothed smile, broad hips, a wide hat and red stockings. I'm sure he enjoyed writing this description but is it true? He also gave her five 'legitimate' husbands. It may be that his physical description of her is as scurillous as the rest of it.
Alice was said to be graceful and possess a pleasing, seductive voice. Certainly she had enough attractions to please the King. Could it be that she was dark rathen than fair, the fashionable trend for the day? Perhaps she had more than mere beauty but rather a lively, striking countenance. How unfortunate that there are no representations of this famously ugly woman. We might decide that she was not ugly at all.
Alice the rapacious royal mistress
It is true that Alice became Edward’s mistress during the lifetime of the much loved Queen Philippa, and for this she was condemned. How interesting that on such occasions (even in modern royal scandals) the blame is placed very firmly on the shoulder of the non-royal woman involved. Edward was not to blame: it was Alice who seduced the King! Hard to believe that Edward, a true Plantagenet, had no part in this, even in his later years.
How did Philippa react to her damsel sleeping with her husband? Certainly she must have known, yet made no move to dismiss her. Interestingly, during Philippa’s lifetime, the scandal was kept under wraps at court as if there was a conspiracy of silence to protect the Queen from humiliation. It was only on her death that Alice’s position was widely acclaimed. Despite the liaison between Edward and Alice, there is no evidence that the King neglected his wife. To the contrary, when Philippa died, Edward was heart-broken. It was a very strange ménage-a-trois. I regret that we know so little about it – but it is a gem for a writer of historical fiction.
Alice the greedy embezzler of wealth.
It is impossible to deny Alice’s desire for wealth. She is guilty as charged. Alice dipped her hands into the royal Treasury and amassed jewels worth more than £200,000. After Queen Philippa’s death Alice demanded that Edward give the royal jewels, left by Philippa in the keeping of her senior lady-in-waiting, to her. She flaunted them at court with great enjoyment. And the most heinous crime of all? When Edward lay on his death bed, Alice stripped the rings from his fingers. Without doubt she did this. All difficult to defend? Alice was guilty, but as a writer of historical fiction I have allowed Alice to give her own reasons. Read The King’s Concubine to discover more ...
Alice the grasping land-grabber.
Alice was amazingly successful: so successful that she controlled 56 manors, castles and town houses stretching over 25 counties of England. She became the wealthiest common-born woman in the land. Did Alice rob the crown of this land? Did she persuade the King to gift it to her?
Perhaps surprisingly, out of the 56 manors, only 15 came from royal grants. All the rest - 45 of them – were gained by her own initiative and efforts, and most of them in prime locations in the counties surrounding London.
Alice made use of her clerk William Greseley and a group of male business associates to acquire and manage the manors for her. Sometimes she made the purchases herself, showing a knowledge of business and the law. When she came under legal attack from men whose toes she trod on, Alice sat in court, next to the judge, to ensure that he considered her interests first and foremost. (What a wonderful scene this would make!) If a man had shown such acumen, he might have been accused of gross self-interest, but he might equally have been admired for his achievements. He would not have been denigrated to the extent that Alice was.
Alice the arch manipulator
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, Edward’s son, and a group of royal ministers appointed by her and loyal to her. This cannot be argued against. Alice determined who should and who should not approach the King. In these years Edward suffered from increasing dementia. Perhaps it was Alice’s duty as she saw it to save the King from humiliation in the sight of his subjects. She created a facade to protect him. There is no evidence that she had any influence on the direction of royal policy during these years.
So what and who is the real Alice Perrers?
Alice was neither Bad nor Good. Certainly she was no angel. She was opportunistic and seized every opportunity that came her way to feather her nest against the bad times. But Alice was a realist. She was a survivor. She was aware, first and foremost, that when Edward died, she would be alone and vulnerable to attack. She must cushion herself against an uncertain future, both for herself and her four children. And this is what she did, acquiring land as a very permanent form of wealth. Perhaps this explains Alice’s less-than-wise clandestine marriage to William de Windsor. When Edward was sinking into dementia, as he was in 1373, she saw in Windsor some security for her future.
Alice was smart and clever and a formidable opponent. Intelligent and ruthless, she set out to make her way in life, and much of what she did would have been forgiven if she had been a man. If a man had acquired her wealth and standing with the King he would have been entitled to high praise and an earldom, a degree of respect if not outright popularity. Alice, as a woman, was condemned as a mercenary and an immoral swindler.
Alice struggled constantly against her lack of connection, making her way in the world in one of the few ways open to women without family or influence. I believe that she deserves some admiration for her strength of character under adversity. She was even accused of witchcraft in her seduction of the King - always a useful weapon to use against a powerful woman.
We never hear Alice’s voice raised in her own defence. I hope in some small way I have given her back her voice and a measure of respect.
Anne O'Brien: author of The Virgin Widow and Queen Defiant, a novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine. The King’s Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers will be released in the US in June 2012.