Thursday, October 20, 2011

Alice Perrers: A Notorious Woman

Queen Philippa
by Anne O'Brien

Alice Perrers, mistress of King Edward III at the same time as she was a damsel (lady-in-waiting) to Queen Philippa, has had an astonishingly bad press. Her reputation is black with no redeeming features.

‘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 ...’

Modern historians have been hardly less damning than her contemporaries. Here she is, in all her notoriety, as seen in the fourteenth century.

Alice the low born usurper of royal power
Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connections. She came from the lowest of the low according to rumour, the illegitimate daughter of a town labourer and a tavern whore. She was born with nothing and deserved no promotion, but she did not know her place. With ruthless determination she rose above herself to become one of the Queen’s damsels and mistress to the King.

Alice the unattractive woman.
Alice was not merely a plain woman but ‘famously ugly’. How could an ugly woman rise to such pre-eminence? Using supernatural powers – she was accused of witchcraft – she gained a foothold in the Queen’s household and lured the unsuspecting King into a sexual liaison from which she never allowed him to escape.

Alice the rapacious royal mistress
Alice 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 greedy embezzler of wealth
Alice dipped her hands into the royal treasury at the same time as she amassed jewels worth more than £200,000. After Queen Philippa’s death Alice demanded that Edward give the royal jewels, placed by Philippa into the keeping of her senior lady-in-waiting, to her as a gift. Alice wore them ostentationsly as if she were queen, flaunting her power. At the same time, together with Windsor, her new husband, an equally unprincipled courtier, she was embezzling funds set aside by the King to deal with the uprisings in Ireland.

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. When property disputes arose, Alice, with the King's authority behind her, had the temerity to sit in the law courts to intimidate and bully the judges and ensure that she got the best deal for herself. She became the wealthiest common-born woman in the land. Her wealth was such from her estates that if she had been a man she would have qualified for an earldom.

Alice the arch manipulator of the King and Queen
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 and a group of royal ministers appointed by her and loyal to her. Edward was unable to prevent her from usurping royal power that was not hers to take.

It was said of her by Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St Albans: '-no one dared go against her -'

And no one did, until Edward became too weak to protect her. When the Good Parliament in 1376 finally set its sights on Alice, intent on her dismissal from court, 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.

So is this the real Alice Perrers?

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.

The Bishop of Rochester censured her: ‘It is not fitting that all the keys should hang from the belt of one woman.’

Perhaps this is the key to Alice's reputation - a bad case of male jealousy - and thus she deserves that we take another look at her remarkable career.

Watch this space for my second blog: Alice the Quintessential Businesswoman.

Anne O’Brien’s novel about Alice Perrers, The King’s Concubine, is to be released in May 2012


  1. How interesting! I have read a little about Alice, but never thought about how she is portrayed as an unremittingly awful person. Your article certainly gives one pause! Well done!

  2. Poor Alice! not only female but ugly!
    so glad i managed to access this blog at last. i will share now. thank you for such an interesting piece.

  3. This sounds like a FASCINATING book! Now...on my TBR list!

  4. Wow! She does sound like one of history's baddies. I will eagerly await the next installment to see if you can whitewash that fence. (-;
    Good post and thank you!

  5. Jealousy on the part of the lords has often provided us with blackened reputations of the powerful. Undoubtedly these people who come down to us as criminal manipulators of the Crown were effective, highly capable people. But capability in itself is not a virtue -- virtue depends upon how that capability is used. We tend these days to admire someone who is successful against all odds. Especially if they are female and in the distant past. But not everyone who is the subject of disapprobation in their own time and by later historians is being treated unjustly. On the other hand, hardly anyone sees himself or herself as wicked. And it's always fascinating to see the unfolding of unlikely success.

  6. Great post...I wonder about a lot of what is considered history!!!

  7. This has made me think (!) about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Suppose there had been some loophole which allowed him to keep the throne and marry her, or even make her his Queen. Either way, she had tremendous ability to manipulate him, and she may have been very influential. She was not a beauty, though appealing in her way. If she had gained the power which might have been hers, and photos and portraits had disappeared over time, what would men in David's government have said about her? (And what would have become of the country? Oh my.)

  8. Good point Debbie! I've heard dreadful stories of the money-grabbing behavior of the Windsors as it is, from a couple of people who were their victims, drawn in by the fascination of their celebrity, then fleeced. What would they have been on the throne? Or would they have been less rapacious, controlled as the Crown is now by Parliament? The life of Pamela Harriman would rate up there with historical portraits of women who might have been maligned for their capabilities to influence men in power. And then there's Camilla...

  9. There are many good stories out there to be written! I do not want any negative stories about living people, however, please.

  10. As writers of historical novels we -- at least most of us -- try to understand our central character as he or she might have wanted to be understood. As for works on living people, the film "The Queen" is stunning. It will be interesting to see how Anne O'Brien manages to empathize with her difficult Alice.

  11. She wasn't boring was she? You have to give her a kind of grudging respect for making her way in a difficult world. Charismatic people are not necessarily beautiful. Wit and a clever mind can be seductive too.

  12. Alice Perrers: A Notorious Woman by Anne O'Brien author of Anne Perrers, The King’s Concubine, (to be released May 2012) has given us a wonderful intriguing overview of this infamous woman. I look forward to reading Anne's next article, Alice Perrers: Businesswoman and her upcoming novel. Alice sounds absolutely fascinating.

  13. Having just this minute read Katharine by Anya Seaton and seeing Alice Perrers portrayed as all of the above, it would be interesting to see all of the views proved or disproved. Terrific post.


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