Alice Perrers was the literal definition of a manipulative mistress, though we have to have some sympathy for her—she has been hated in her time and ever since. Alice was perhaps born around 1348, though the exact year or date is unknown, she was probably born in Hertfordshire. Little is known of her early life, including her parentage and if she married before coming to court. It is speculated that Alice was married to a jeweler when she was around the age of twelve. Her supposed husband died a few years later, though, before she went to court.
A chronicler wrote this of her, though we cannot be sure of its validity: “At that same time there was a woman in England called Alice Perrers. She was a shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth, for she was the daughter of a thatcher from the town of Henny, elevated by fortune. She was not attractive or beautiful, but knew how to compensate for these defects with the seductiveness of her voice. Blind fortune elevated this woman to such heights and promoted her to a greater intimacy with the king than was proper, since she had been the maidservant and mistress of a man of Lombardy. And while the queen was still alive, the king loved this woman more than he loved the queen.”
Alice did arrive at court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa around 1366 when she would’ve been around eighteen years old, and at some point that year became the mistress of the 55-year-old king, Edward III. Edward was known to have truly loved Philippa, and the affair only started when Philippa was quite ill. Alice was probably the king’s only mistress, as there is no evidence of him being unfaithful to Philippa prior to this. After the queen died of dropsy in 1369, Alice’s role as the king’s mistress became a much more public one. The people despised seeing her honored by the king as their beloved late queen, seated beside the king at many important events.
Edward, in his devastation at the loss of Philippa, relied heavily on the advice of Alice. The king gave her many expensive gifts, including some of the late queen’s jewels. She and Edward had three illegitimate children together: John de Southeray, Jane Northland, and Joan Skerne. After her children’s births, Alice was queen in all but name. Her fortune amounted to 6 million pounds in today’s currency.
The fact that all courtiers were to treat Alice with respect invoked rage from the people, who saw her as a greedy woman and would even be accused of making him miserable with her ambitions. She was dressed in gold garments and paraded through the streets of London as “Lady of the Sun” on the king’s command. Business-minded Alice gained many lands throughout her time as mistress, managing 56 properties at her height, and most weren’t even from King Edward.
As the king’s death drew near, Alice realized that she would be on her own with nobody to provide for her after his death, so she secretly married an old man named Sir William Windsor, Baron Windsor, the king’s lieutenant in Ireland. He was twenty-six years older than her—more than old enough to be her father. They did not have any children together. In 1376, the King and his oldest son, the Black Prince, were too ill to rule, so his second son, John of Gaunt, took control of the country. Those close to King Edward were targeted by Parliament, including Alice.
She was tried for corruption and during that time, it was revealed that she had secretly been married to Sir William for a few years now. William had a reputation just as bad as Alice’s and was known to be a brutal ruler in Ireland, so much so that he was recalled on several occasions. Alice was banished from court and swore that she would not see King Edward again, or else her property would be forfeited and she would be banished from England. It was claimed, however, that Alice was at the king’s bedside just before his death, and stole the rings from the king’s fingers before fleeing the scene.
Alice was so hated that, following Edward’s death and his grandson’s ascension to the throne, she was tried once again. All her property and jewelry were taken from her, and she was sent to live with her husband. With Sir William’s help, Alice filed numerous lawsuits, and the charges were revoked, though most of her property was most likely not given back to her. Sir William left some of her properties that he was still in charge of to his relatives, but Alice claimed that they should have gone to her daughters, and thus another legal battle began.
Alice died in the winter of 1400-1401, aged around fifty-two, and left her remaining holdings to her daughters. She is believed to have inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, the best-known of his Canterbury Tales. She may also have inspired Lady Mede in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Interest in Alice has never faded, and she has been the subject of more modern works as well.