Today it is an absolute pleasure to welcome author and historian Gemma Hollman to History…the Interesting Bits as a stop on her blog tour for her latest book. The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III is a fascinating dual biography of Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III, and Alice Perrers, the king’s mistress.
Alice Perrers: From Goldsmith’s Daughter to Lady of the Sun
In the medieval period, a popular image came to be used to describe human life and society: that of the Wheel of Fortune. The idea was that the ancient goddess Fortuna was in control of a wheel which she would spin. People sat at various points on the wheel, and as Fortuna turned the wheel people would rise up to great heights, or drop to great lows. Medieval writers became enamoured with the symbolism of great people having a great fall because of the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel. One fourteenth-century courtier who epitomised the wheel was a woman named Alice Perrers, who was lucky enough to rise higher than her contemporaries could have imagined – but who also spun back down again.
Alice Perrers has been an enigma for centuries. Even many of her contemporaries did not really know who she was or where she came from, with chroniclers like Thomas Walsingham of St Albans Abbey making disparaging guesses to her lowly origins. Recent research has shown that Alice most likely came from a goldsmithing family in London, and so whilst she was not close to the upper echelons of society, when looking at the country as a whole she would have had a reasonable upbringing. The merchant classes had seen an upturn in their wealth during the reign of Edward III, who had been on the throne officially since 1327, and so Alice’s family probably enjoyed the benefits of this.
As the daughter of a trade family, Alice may have had some basic education, and her life initially followed the path of the majority of women of her time. She was married off, likely as a teenager, to another London goldsmith, and the couple found further wealth through the favour of the king; her husband was known to have supplied jewels to Edward III himself. But soon, Alice’s life took a turn when her husband died. The couple had no children, and her future was uncertain. Prospects for young widows were not always promising.
Here, Fortuna turned her wheel and set Alice onto the path of greatness. She somehow found her way to court, in one of the most coveted positions in the kingdom as she became a damsel to Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault. Alice was catapulted into the wealth and glamour of the English monarchy. The court was filled with many of the greatest nobles of the period, including at times the captured French king, and it was a place filled with feasting, jousting, jewels, music, and writing. As one of the queen’s damsels, Alice had a place at centre stage to all that was going on. She would accompany the queen as she travelled across her various castles and attended events, and she was entitled to luxurious clothes. It must have seemed like life could not get better.
But Alice was an intelligent, ambitious, shrewd woman. Not content to simply receive the gifts afforded to her as a lady-in-waiting, Alice started to build up connections at court. She wined and dined with many powerful knights, merchants, and members of the nobility. She began to lend money and make property deals, extracting favourable terms for herself. Soon she had pieces of land of her own – quite a feat for a single woman of her status. But that was not all that Alice had obtained at court, for she had caught the eye of the king himself. Soon, a relationship began between them.
Edward III had been a loyal husband to his wife for over 30 years, but by the 1360s Philippa was severely unwell. It was clear she was not going to live for many more years, and this may have provided the impetus for Edward’s eyes to wander. Alice was a perfect choice for him. Young, likely beautiful, headstrong, it is easy to see why Edward found her attractive. But Edward had spent decades cultivating an image as a loyal, family man, and so the couple did their best to keep their relationship secret. If nothing else, to save the queen public humiliation.
The secrecy did not dampen their relationship, and within a few years Alice had given birth to 3 children with the king. At the end of the decade, the great queen died, and it was not long before Alice shifted to a more prominent place at court. Soon everybody knew that Alice had the king’s heart – and with it, a significant share of power. People were soon rushing to Alice to obtain favours with the king, offering her pieces of property and whatever else they thought she might like in the hope she may get them something in return. Even the Pope petitioned this mistress for help.
As the 1370s wore on, Alice rose to the greatest heights of the wheel, almost taking on the position of unofficial queen. During the king’s jubilee year, Alice took centre stage in celebrations dressed as the Lady of the Sun. But as medieval writers loved to point out, the wheel also was fond of dropping people into a fall, and so too was this to happen to Alice. Eventually, the men at court got fed up with the undue influence of Alice and her friends on the king. They felt that those of old noble blood should be the only ones to advise the king, and finally the knights of the land gathered together at the Good Parliament to end their evil influence once and for all. Alice was banished from the king’s presence, and after his death the full weight of the law came for her. She was banished further – this time from the entire kingdom of England – and all of her hard-earned lands, jewels, and goods were taken from her.
But Alice was clever, and she had made contingency plans. She knew that her presence at court grated on those around her, and she had found powerful allies. It emerged that she had undertaken a secret marriage to a powerful knight, and he wasn’t going to give up Alice’s wealth. The couple fought for years to obtain the return of Alice’s possessions, and it was a fight that she carried with her to her death. Many of Alice’s female contemporaries had two paths in life: marriage or a nunnery. But Alice chose to forge one of her own, that of mistress and a powerful single woman. Was she as evil as her later reputation suggested? Or was there something more underneath the surface?
About the book:
IN A WORLD WHERE MAN IS KING, CAN WOMEN REALLY HAVE IT ALL – AND KEEP IT?
Philippa of Hainault was Queen of England for forty-one years. Her marriage to Edward III, when they were both teenagers, was more political transaction than romantic wedding, but it would turn into a partnership of deep affection. The mother of twelve children, she was the perfect medieval queen: pious, unpolitical and fiercely loyal to both her king and adopted country.
Alice Perrers entered court as a young widow and would soon catch the eye of an ageing king whose wife was dying. Born to a family of London goldsmiths, this charismatic and highly intelligent woman would use her position as the king’s favourite to build up her own portfolio of land, wealth and prestige, only to see it all come crashing down as Edward himself neared death.
The Queen and the Mistress is a story of female power and passion, and how two very different women used their skills and charms to navigate a tumultuous royal court – and win the heart of the same man.
To buy the book: Amazon
About the author:
Gemma Hollman is a historian and author who specialises in late medieval English history. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, her first book ‘Royal Witches’ was published in 2019 and her second book ‘The Queen and the Mistress’ will be released in November 2022. She has a particular interest in the plethora of strong, intriguing and complicated women from the medieval period, a time she had always been taught was dominated by men.
Gemma also works full-time in the heritage industry whilst running her historical blog, Just History Posts, which explores all periods of history in more depth.
Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS
Fascinating piece! I love how Phillipa embodies the idea of a perfect queen, and it’s so interesting to contrast her personality with Alice’s!
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