02 September 2009

Scandal: The King's Mistress

By Blythe Gifford

Scandal! The delicious intersection of sex, money, and power. That certainly describes the story of Alice Perrers, the mistress of England's 14th century monarch, Edward III.

I've written two books inspired by her daughters, and I call her his "notorious mistress." If you Google her, "notorious" is the nicest word that pops up. The list includes greedy, unscrupulous, shrewd, venal, shameless, and rapacious.

Who was this woman who engendered such vicious epithets?

We don't really know. There's disagreement about who her family was, when she was born, when she became the king's mistress, when she was married, who her children were (and whose), and even what she looked like.

One biography exists: Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers, by F. George Kay. Published in 1966, it is readable but not scholarly. (There's a list of sources, but not one footnote.) So what do we know?

She came to court as a lady in waiting to Queen Philippa prior to 1366. The Queen died in 1369 and by 1375, the king was parading Alice through the streets of London, clothed in cloth of gold, on her way to a tournament dedicated to her as the "Lady of the Sun." Were they lovers before the Queen's death? It seems likely. This puts estimates of Alice's birth around 1348 and suggests that when she was the king's mistress, she was near 30, by no means a nubile young girl, but still roughly half the age of the king, who by this time was in his mid-sixties and generally considered senile.

So Alice had the misfortune to hook up with King Edward during his declining years. In hindsight, he's considered one of the best of English kings, both warrior and statesman. But near the end of his life, military, fiscal, and political problems were mounting, many of them blamed on poor Alice.

But kings had had mistresses before. Why was this one so hated that she was impeached by Parliament and banished from court in 1376?

It did not help that Philippa was one of the most beloved English queens in history. People did not take kindly to seeing her displaced by a younger woman, particularly after Alice was seen flaunting the dead queen's jewels.

The chroniclers who wrote of her during that time were hardly impartial observers. The dead queen was the patron of one of them. The other was embroiled in a lengthy dispute with Alice's family over land ownership. Thus, they gleefully accuse her of sitting beside the judges at Westminster to influence their decisions in her favor and stripping the rings off the dead king's hands on his deathbed. All in all, she sounds like a greedy, vicious, unlikeable b***h.

It's hard to reconcile this woman with the one who was, we know, a friend and colleague of Edward's sons, of the poet Chaucer, and of the chancellor of England. The woman his son's lobbied to have returned to court in 1377 so she could sit beside Edward's deathbed.

In the post feminist age, scholars have revisited the records. Among the things they uncovered was that Alice amassed control of lands, castles, and London real estate that gave her an income stream an earl would envy. Some were gifts of the king, but a detailed reading of the records reveals that most were not.

She was, as one writer puts it, "a remarkably powerful and independent woman." Today, we would admire her as a shrewd business woman who, through smart legal arrangements and investments put together a portfolio that would have supported her, and her children, nicely after the king’s death, had she been allowed to keep it.

That was not to be. At Edward's death, she was stripped of all she had garnered. More than 20 years later, she was still waging protracted, unsuccessful legal battles to regain her property.

In creating her as a character, I developed my own take on her life and motives. The more I dug into her story, the more I became convinced that she was hated more because she had amassed money and power than because of her sexual liaison with the king. In IN THE MASTER'S BED, my heroine, Jane, makes a comment about her mother. "She was a strong woman. And she was not liked for being strong."

I do not mean to imply that she was a sweet innocent. She undoubtedly did take advantage of the king's mental state for personal gain, but she also was his constant companion for nearly a decade. In 21st century hindsight, I think she was scandalous because she exceeded the boundaries set for a mistress in her age. Yes, even today, we might use the "B" word to describe her, but had she been a man, she would have been admired for her wealth and power.

Partial list of sources:
"The management of position: Alice Perrers, Edward III, and the Creation of Landed Estates, 1362–1377," by James Bothwell, Journal of Medieval History, March 1998.
Chaucer, His Life, His Works, His World by Donald R. Howard.
Lady of the Sun by F. George Kay.

Author photo by Jenifer Girard