Alice Perrers, Mistress of the King

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Alice Perrers and Edward III, painted by Ford Maddox Brown

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.

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Queen Philippa of Hainault

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.

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Edward III

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.

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The abbey of St Albans; home to the Chronicler, Walsingham

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.

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Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath

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.

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Church of St Lawrence, Upminster

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.

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Footnotes: ¹ WM Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III; ²&³ Thomas Walsingham, St Albans Chronicle

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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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.

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Scandal

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Arms of Katherine Swynford

Katherine Swynford is, arguably, the most famous – or infamous – of English ladies  to have risen so high as to become the first lady of the kingdom, without ever being queen.

Born Katherine de Roet in Hainault, now in modern-day Belgium, in around 1350, her father was Sir Paon de Roet of Guyenne. Unfortunately, as can be the way with Medieval women, I could find no mention of her mother’s identity.

Sir Paon was a Hainault knight who travelled to England with its new queen , Philippa of Hainault, as part of her retinue. As a consequence, Katherine was raised at the English court of Queen Philippa and her illustrious husband, King Edward III.

Katherine and her older sister, Philippa, were eventually given positions as ladies-in-waiting to members of the royal family. Philippa joined the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Lionel of Antwerp, where she met her future husband, the literary giant of the age, Geoffrey Chaucer.

By 1365 Katherine was serving in the household of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, and her husband John of Gaunt, 3rd surviving son of Edward III and Philippa of Lancaster. Sometime before 1367 Katherine married a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, at St Clement Danes Church on the Strand, London. They had at least 2 children, Thomas and Blanche; John of Gaunt was Blanche’s godfather. Sir Hugh was a tenant of John of Gaunt’s and accompanied him to Europe in 1366 and 1370.

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John of Gaunt

In 1368 in order to avoid the plague, Blanche is said to have moved her family to Bolingbroke in the Lincolnshire countryside. By the end of summer, she was at Tutbury, where she died in childbirth in September, the same year. However, rather than leaving the household on Blanche’s death, Katherine was appointed governess to the 2 daughters of Gaunt and the late Duchess, Philippa and Elizabeth.

Katherine’s husband, Sir Hugh, died in 1371 and shortly afterwards rumours started arising of a relationship between John of Gaunt and the young widow. Whether the affair started before Sir Hugh’s death is uncertain and some sources suggest this was the case.

Although John married his 2nd wife, Constance of Castile, on 21st September 1371. John and Constance’s marriage was a dynastic one; John was hoping to gain a kingdom for himself, through his wife. From January 1372 John assumed the title King of Castile and Leon, by right of his wife, although he was never able to consolidate his position. John’s younger brother, Edmund, would marry Constance’s sister, Isabella.

Constance gave birth to a daughter, Catherine, in 1373 and a son, John in 1374 – he died the following year. Catherine would marry Henry III of Castile, becoming Queen Consort of Castile and Leon and thus fulfilling her father’s ambition of his descendants sitting on the throne of Castile.

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Delaroche’s painting of Cardinal Henry Beaufort (son of Katherine Swynford) interrogating Joan of Arc

By 1372 Katherine’s status within Gaunt’s household had risen, indicating their developing relationship. While continuing in her post of governess to Philippa and Elizabeth, Katherine bore 4 children between 1373 and 1379, acknowledged by John of Gaunt as his own; John, Henry, Thomas and Joan. They were given the surname of Beaufort, probably after their father’s lost French lordship in Anjou.

I could find no record of Constance’s – or Katherine’s – reactions to Gaunt’s living arrangements. It’s hard to imagine that either was completely happy with the situation, but Gaunt does appear to have fulfilled his obligations to both women.

There is some record that John of Gaunt formally renounced his relationship with Katherine and reconciled with his wife in June 1381, possible as a way to recover some popularity during the Peasant’s Revolt. The revolt blamed 13-year-old King Richard II’s counsellors as the cause of the country’s problems. John of Gaunt was one of the main targets for the rebels’ anger and his Savoy Palace on the Strand was burned to the ground, despite Gaunt’s absence from the centre of proceedings; he was on his way to Scotland at the time.

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Lincoln Cathedral today, viewed from the walls of Lincoln Castle

Katherine left court and settled at her late husband’s manor at Kettlethorpe, before moving to a rented townhouse in Lincoln. John of Gaunt visited her regularly throughout the 1380s, and Katherine was frequently at court.

With 4 children by John of Gaunt but still only, officially, governess to his daughters, Katherine was made a Lady of the Garter in 1388. However, her situation changed again following Constance’s death at the end of 1394.

At Lincoln Cathedral, in January 1396 and a quarter of a century after the start of their relationship, John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were married. Styled Lady Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster, she was, briefly, the 1st Lady in England after the death of Queen Anne of Bohemia.

Once they were married John of Gaunt wasted no time in  legitimising his children by Katherine. They were legitimated by the Pope on 1st September 1396, and by Charter of Richard II on 9th February 1397. A further Charter in the reign of Henry IV also excluded the Beauforts from the succession.

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Tombs of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, and her daughter Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland. Lincoln Cathedral

Their final happiness was of short duration, however, as John of Gaunt died on the 3rd of February 1399; he was buried beside his 1st wife, Blanche of Lancaster, in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. His son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, had recently been exiled to the Continent for 10 years. Richard II extended that exile to a life term and confiscated the Lancastrian lands.

Following Gaunt’s death Katherine returned to her townhouse in Lincoln; close to the east end of the Cathedral. Her son, Henry Beaufort, had become Bishop of Lincoln shortly after being legitimised.

Katherine died at Lincoln on 10th May 1403. She was buried, close to the High Altar, in the cathedral in which she had married her prince just 7 years earlier. Her daughter Joan, Countess of Westmoreland, was laid to rest beside her, following her death in 1440, with a slightly smaller tomb. The tombs themselves are empty, with Katherine and Joan buried beneath the floor of the Cathedral.

Katherine appears to have had a good relationship with John of Gaunt’s children; she was very close to Philippa and Elizabeth. Henry IV, Katherine’s stepson, referred to her in her widowhood as ‘The King’s Mother’.

And together, through their children Katherine and John left a legacy that would change the  course of English and Scottish history.

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Katherine Swynford’s tomb, 1809

Henry Beaufort would rise to the position of Bishop of Winchester and Cardinal. Thomas would rise to become Duke of Exeter and serve on the council of his great-nephew, Henry VI.

Less impressively, their grandson Edmund (son of John, Earl of Somerset) was responsible for great losses of territory whilst Regent of France for young Henry VI.

Katherine and John’s daughter, Joan, was the mother of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, who would be the mother of 2 kings of England; Edward IV and Richard III. Their son John, Earl of Somerset, was grandfather of Margaret Beaufort and great-grandfather of the 1st Tudor King, Henry VII. John’s daughter, Joan Beaufort, married James I of Scotland in another of history’s great love stories.

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Photographs of Lincoln and Katherine Swynford’s tomb are © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Isabella of Castile, the Controversial First Duchess of York, c.1355-1392

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Isabella of Castile

The third daughter of Peter the Cruel of Castile and his long-term mistress (and sometime wife) Maria of Padilla, Isabella of Castile‘s childhood was marred by her father’s battles to hold on to his throne and almost constant warfare with Aragon.

Peter received support from Edward III’s son the Black Prince, but his failure to pay the costs of the campaign,  his faithlessness, and the failing health of the black Prince, meant he was left to his own devices by 1367. Peter’s own nobles backed his illegitimate brother, Henry of Tastamara, who eventually defeated and killed Peter in March 1369.

Isabella’s mother had died in 1361 and her 3-year-old brother, Alfonso, in 1362. On Peter’s death, Isabella’s older sister, Constance, inherited her father’s claim to the crown of Castile and, taking Isabella with her, took refuge in the English territory of Guyenne. Constance married John of Gaunt (third son of Edward III) at Roquefort in September 1371, Gaunt seeing the marriage as an opportunity to gain a kingdom of his own.

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Following Constance’s official entry into London, Isabella married John’s younger brother, Edmund of Langley, the fifth son of Edward III who would later become the first Duke of York, in 1372. Their first son, Edward was born the following year – he would become the second Duke of York, and be killed at Agincourt in 1415 – followed by a daughter, Constance, in 1374.

Chroniclers of the time reported that Isabella and Edmund were an ill-matched pair; Thomas of Walsingham, in particular, commented on Isabella’s ‘loose morals’, probably referring to her affair with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and half-brother to the king, Richard II. The affair is believed to have started as early as 1374 and has cast doubt on the legitimacy of Edmund and Isabella’s third child Richard of Conisbrough, grandfather of Edward IV and Richard III, born in 1375.

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Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire

Isabella died on 23rd December 1392 and is buried at King’s Langley. In her will, she made Richard II her heir and asked that he provide a pension for her youngest son and Richard II’s godson, Richard. Richard was given an allowance of £500 by the king, but this was only paid sporadically following Richard II’s deposition by Henry IV.

Richard was not even mentioned in the wills of his father and brother and G.L. Harriss, of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, has speculated this could be proof that Richard was not the son of the Duke of York.

Edmund married again, to his cousin Joan Holland, niece of his first wife’s lover, John Holland. In another bizarre family twist, it was Joan’s brother, Edmund Holland, 4th Earl of Kent, who had an affair with Constance of York – the daughter of Edmund and Isabella.

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Sources: Ian Mortimer, Edward III The Perfect King; englishmonarchs.co.uk; womenshistory.about.com; History Today Companion to British History; WM Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III; Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.

Photos from Wikipedia, except Conisbrough Castle which is © Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly