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Perrers seated beside King Edward III, as imagined by Ford Madox Brown
|Died||1400 (aged 52)
Gaynes Park, Upminster, England
|Resting place||Church of St Laurence, Upminster, England|
|Occupation||Lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa of Hainault
Mistress of King Edward III of England
Alice Perrers (1348–1400) was a fourteenth-century English royal mistress whose lover and patron was King Edward III of England. She met him originally in her capacity as a lady-in-waiting to Edward's consort, Philippa of Hainault. She went on to become the wealthiest woman in the land. However, she was despised by many and was accused of taking advantage of the far older king with her youth, beauty, and opportunistic character.
Early life and family
Perrers was born in 1348 (exact date unknown) to Sir Richard Perrers, a prominent Hertfordshire landowner who had been sheriff of Hertfordshire and Essex from 1315 to 1319, and again in 1327, 1329, and 1330. He had also been a Member of Parliament for his county in the 1330s. The Hertfordshire family of Perrers had a long-standing quarrel with the abbey of St Albans, which had caused him to be imprisoned in 1350 and even outlawed in 1359. This, and the fact Alice herself became involved in the dispute, could go some way to explain Alice’s dreadful reputation; the majority of what we know of Alice comes from the blatantly hostile St Albans Chronicle.
The Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, claimed Alice was the illegitimate daughter of an Essex tiler and a tavern whore, suggesting she only enchanted Edward through sorcery and magic: a common explanation in the Middle Ages for beautiful women who captured the heart of kings. She was described as "extremely ugly" and ruling the king through flattery, a seductive voice and supernatural powers explaining accusations of witchcraft on her behalf. However, Charles Lethbridge Kingsford states that she most probably was the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers, and enticed the King with her clever tongue. However he dismisses the claims she was "extremely ugly" as the King was certainly known to like clever and attractive women, attributes Alice had in abundance.
Lady-in-Waiting and Edward's Mistress
In 1362 Alice arrived at court and served as a lady-in-waiting to Philippa of Hainault, the respected and matronly queen of Edward III. Alice's beauty and charm caught the eye of King Edward while at court. Shortly after, around 1363, when she was only 15 years of age (the king was 52), she became the mistress of Edward III. This was only 6 years prior to the queen's death in 1369 of dropsy. Until the queen's death, their relationship was extremely secret and veiled. Only when Philippa died in 1369 did Alice's affair with the king become more conspicuous, and it aroused bitter envy and hatred at court especially as Alice was only 21 years old. Following the queen's death, a devastated Edward leaned heavily on her considerable abilities; her courtly dominance accelerated by his loss. Alice acquired numerous gifts from the King and she soon became an extremely wealthy lady. Her lover bestowed upon her property and even jewels belonging to the late queen. Manipulating the mourning and bedridden King to her will, Alice dipped her hands into the royal treasury and amassed a fortune worth more than £20,000 (£6,000,000 in 2016) between the embezzled money, vast properties and royal jewels in her possession. Dressed in golden garments, Perrers was paraded around London as "The Lady of the Sun" on the king's command, and courtiers were expected to behave respectfully towards her. This caused a great wave of criticism from the public and Edward's Court. By the early 1370s, it was clear that Alice possessed political ambitions alongside her craving for a vast fortune. Alice dominated the King's Court and enjoyed almost total control of royal patronage. She used her position to advance her circle of friends into high positions, and she became the ailing King's principal adviser on all matters relating to the country. From 1370-1376, Alice can be said to have ruled the country indirectly through Edward III, an unheard-of feat for a female of no royal descent in her early to mid-twenties. Alice's power and eminence soon became legendary, and it was reported that she instilled fear into the populace, amongst whom no-one dared to prosecute a claim against her. Alice was seen as an ambitious, grasping, calculating and cold-hearted opportunist who manipulated the ailing King into granting her unheard-of wealth and status, at a court that brimmed with spite and loathing of her. Towards the end of Edward's reign, Alice was accused of making his life a misery and of luring him with her charms only to further her own personal ambitions.
Marriage and Children
According to Charles Cawley, Perrers had three illegitimate children by King Edward, all while their relationship was a secret from his wife, Queen Philippa and the public. In 1364, aged 16, Perrers gave birth to a son later named Sir John de Southeray (c. 1364-1383). John later married Maud Percy, daughter of Henry Percy, 3rd Baron Percy, and his first wife Mary of Lancaster.
A year later in 1365, Perrers gave birth to Jane (c. 1365-unknown). Jane married Richard Northland.
In the mid-1370s Alice had started looking to her future. The king was old and she was very aware that without his protection she was likely to be thrown to the wolves. With this in mind she contracted a secret marriage in November 1375 to Sir William Windsor, a Westmorland knight, and persuaded the king to appoint Windsor his lieutenant in Ireland, despite his record of previous maladministration in that country. He was 53 and she was 27. As William was a Royal Lieutenant in Ireland, he spent long periods of time absent from England and Alice, lessening the probability of the King discovering their marriage. William and Alice were married until William's death on 15 September 1384. He was 62 years old. They had no children.
Though Perrers was given many gifts and land grants from Edward, her financial success was largely earned. Some contemporaries claimed that she had seduced a senile king to gain property and goods, but most of her acquisitions were owed to her intelligence, business acumen, and use of contacts, and she became a wealthy landowner. So successful was she that at the height of her power she controlled 56 manors, castles and town houses stretching over 25 counties of England from the north to the home counties. Only 15 of these were gifts from Edward. Among other properties, Perrers possessed the manor of Gaynes (at Upminster) in Essex, the manor in which she would die. When property disputes arose with the abbot of St. Albans in 1374, Alice, with the King’s authority behind her, had the temerity to sit in the law courts to intimidate the judges and ensured that the abbot abandoned his claim due to the overwhelming power she possessed.
Perrers and the Abbot of St. Albans engaged in a dispute over land. Prior to King Edward's death in 1377, few had prosecuted or challenged her, but that changed in 1376, when she was tried for corruption and subsequently banished from the kingdom by the Good Parliament, her lands forfeit. She was later able to return to England and work to regain some of her lands.
Later life and death
Influence in literature
Perrers is thought to have served as the living prototype of Geoffrey Chaucer's oft-married Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales. Her influence on literature may also have extended to William Langland's Lady Mede in Piers Plowman. In that work, the Lady represents, to the dreaming narrator, a woman of high status, one adorned with jewels and fine robes, but also a distraction and diversion from decent morals.
Perrers was also a great influence in Chaucer's life and supported him greatly.
Alice Perrers is the protagonist of Emma Campion's novel, The King's Mistress. She appears in Anya Seton's novel, Katherine. Alice Perrers is the main character in Vanora Bennett's novel The People's Queen that was first published in 2010. She is a character in Jean Plaidy's Vow on the Heron. She is portrayed in Rebecca Gablé's Das Laecheln der Fortuna, a historical novel in the German language about the time. She is portrayed as the protagonist of the 2012 novel The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien. Alice is also featured in some of Candice Robb's books, in a series known as Medieval Mysteries and also in The Traitor's Noose, the fourth novel in the Lions and Lilies series by Catherine A Wilson and Catherine T Wilson.
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