Alice Perrers is one royal mistress who did not fare as well as her contemporary, Katherine Swynford. Whereas Katherine eventually married her prince; Alice was not so lucky, despite the fact she had been mistress of the King.
Although it is impossible to find any definite date, it seems likely that Alice Perrers was born in the late 1340s. She was the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers, a prominent Hertfordshire landowner who had been both sheriff and Member of Parliament for his county.
Sir Richard had been in legal dispute with the Abbey of St Albans, which had caused him to be imprisoned, and even outlawed, for a time. 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 claimed Alice was the daughter of an Essex tiler and a former domestic servant, suggesting she made her way to court by humble channels. She was described as ‘extremely ugly’ and ruling the king through her clever tongue. The king was certainly known to like clever and attractive women.
Sometime in the early 1360s – and certainly before 1366 – Alice joined the household of Queen Philippa of Hainault and started her affair with the king, Edward III. Alice would have been in her mid-to-late teens. It isn’t clear whether Alice joined the Queen’s household before or after the affair started; it may be that Edward placed her there, so she was close by. It does appear that the ailing queen acquiesced to the situation, even if she did not wholeheartedly approve.
Before his relationship with Alice, there seems to have been few, if any, extramarital affairs on Edward’s part; there are certainly no suggestions of illegitimate children as had happened with previous monarchs. If Edward had affairs they had been of short duration and incredibly discreet. This makes his relationship with Alice Perrers all the more surprising.
By 1366 Alice had been installed as a lady of the queen’s bedchamber. In 1364/5, she had left court to give birth to Edward’s first illegitimate child. The boy, Sir John Southeray, would later marry Maud Percy, a sister of the future Earl of Northumberland. Two daughters were to follow, Joan and Jane, who were still young at the time of the king’s death in 1377. Jane later married Richard Northland and Joan married Robert Skerne, a lawyer.
Whilst in the queen’s household Edward granted Alice 2 tuns of wine; he also granted her wardships, land and jewels. Although the king gave gifts to all the queen’s ladies, those to Alice were particularly extravagant.
Following the queen’s death in 1369, Alice rose to greater prominence, she dominated the court. A devastated Edward leaned heavily on her considerable abilities; his own decline accelerated by his loss.
As a result Alice was blamed for the setbacks and financial scandals of the last years of Edward’s reign. She was accused of being scheming and grasping, and making the king’s final years a misery. The monastic chronicler, Walsingham, believed she had bewitched the king in order to secure his affections.
Whereas Queen Philippa had remained in the domestic environment, Alice Perrers had greater political ambitions. The court was dominated by a ‘narrow, exclusive and unpopular clique’¹. Along with Lord Latimer and Lord Neville, Edward’s chamberlain and steward respectively, Alice enjoyed almost total control of royal patronage; she became the king’s principal advisor and advanced her own friends into positions of influence.
Rumours arose that Edward had given Alice some of Queen Philippa’s jewels. It seems more likely that the jewels were a part of a collection previously given by the queen to Euphemia Hasleworth, rather than a part of the queen’s personal collection, but it further tarnished Alice’s reputation.The fact the gifts were recorded in the patent rolls suggests they were given on Edward’s personal order, rather than through Alice’s machinations.
By the early 1370s Alice had established her domination of the court. In 1371 she was granted the valuable manor of Wendover.
In 1375 a grand tournament was held at Smithfield in her honour. Alice rode from the Tower, through the city, dressed as the Lady of the Sun. Ladies led knights on silver chains.
In the early 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 to William Windsor and persuaded the king to appoint Windsor his lieutenant in Ireland, despite his record of previous maladministration of that same country.
By 1376, shortly after the death of the Black Prince – Edward’s eldest son and heir – parliament took the lead. Known as the Good Parliament and having been called to advance the king subsidies they demanded their own petitions were answered first.
According to Walsingham: “the Parliamentary knights complained bitterly about one Alice Perrers, a wanton woman who was all too familiar with Edward III. They accused her of numerous misdeeds, performed by her and her friends in the realm. She far overstepped the bounds of feminine conduct: forgetful of her sex and her weakness, now besieging the king’s justices, now stationing herself among the doctors in the ecclesiastical courts, she did not fear to plead in defence of her cause and even to make illegal demands. As a result of the scandal and great shame which this brought on King Edward, not only in this kingdom but also in foreign lands, the knights sought her banishment from his side.“²
The main accusations, voiced by Peter de la Mare, against Alice were that she had taken thousands of pounds from the royal purse and that she was notorious for the use of maintenance – protecting those accused in the king’s courts; Parliament stipulated that she and all women were prohibited from doing this. It was also during the parliament that Alice’s secret marriage to William Windsor was revealed. Assuming that, as a married couple, they had slept together this then made the king guilty of adultery.
Edward III swore an oath by the Virgin Mary that he did not know she was married. William Windsor was summoned from Ireland to be prosecuted. Edward is said to have bought a chest and locked in it the accusations against Windsor, who he saw as the guilty party.
Edward begged for Alice to be shown mercy. She avoided prison and further prosecution on condition she no longer saw the king. If she broke the conditions, the punishment would be perpetual exile.
However, once parliament had disbanded John of Gaunt, as virtual ruler of the kingdom, recalled all those banished. Edward “recalled his mistress, Alice Perrers, to his company; she had been legally banished from his presence, on account of the scandal and shame which came from her wantonness. This was against the oath by which Alice had bound herself and which the king himself had ratified…“³
Alice stayed with the king until his death.
Edward III died, probably from a stroke, on 21st June 1377. According to the St Albans Chronicler he was alone, save for his confessor. Walsingham went so far as to accuse Alice of stripping the rings from the king’s fingers; although she was never charged with the offence.
Following the king’s death, Alice’s sentence of banishment was reconfirmed, only to be reversed in 1379 at the request of her husband. William Windsor himself died in 1384 and Alice seems to have spent much of her final years in litigation over his will; Windsor left his estate to his 3 sisters.
As the king’s mistress Alice had dealt in property, and used her influence to guarantee a future income. She remained wealthy and was still litigating when she died in 1400. She was buried in the Church of St Lawrence, Upminster; her grave now lost to history.
Alice Perrers was the first king’s mistress to influence the courts of justice and the government of the kingdom. She had met the king when relatively young and naive; but was intelligent enough to realise the advantages and implications of her liaison with the king.
However, she was held up as an example of how a woman shouldn’t behave. She is thought to have been the inspiration for Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath.
Footnotes: ¹ WM Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III; ²&³ Thomas Walsingham, St Albans Chronicle
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.
Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; The Plantagenets, the kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; britannica.com/biography/Alice-Perrers; historyinanhour.com; anneobrienbooks.com.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly