Background on The King's Mistress

Until very recently, the accepted version of Alice’s story was thus: Alice Perrers was the “notorious” mistress of King Edward III, mother of his son John de Southery and his daughters Joan and Jane, and condemned by two sequential Parliaments in 1376–1377 for her influence over the king. Through remarkable business acumen she accrued a fortune in land worthy of a duke and earned the animosity of the commons. She was married twice, to Janyn Perrers sometime before 1360 and to William Wyndsor after the king’s death. She died circa 1400. Historians accepted her reputation as a gold digger, basing their opinions on the monk Thomas Walsingham’s venomous portrait of her: “There was a woman in England called Alice Perrers. She was a shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth…. She was not attractive or beautiful, but knew how to compensate for these defects by her seductive 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…. Even while the queen was still alive, the king loved this woman more than he loved the queen.”

As so many generations of historians before me, I’d used this version of Alice in some early projects. But once I’d gone into enough depth in researching women in 14th century England I doubted the essentials of the story. A commoner gaining control of such a powerful and popular king?

The more I delved into Edward III’s court the more preposterous the story seemed. How could an orphan with no powerful patrons take over the reins of government and even go so far as to succeed in controlling access to the king himself despite his living heir being the immensely popular war hero Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince? Not to mention the wealthy, ambitious, powerful younger son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who many believed manipulated his father behind the scenes. This fit neither the political reality nor human nature. But bits of the story did suggest that Alice Perrers was someone the prince and the duke found useful.

I am fortunate to be a part of a lively community of scholars in late medieval studies—history, literature, and culture—and even more fortunate to have earned their respect. So although I’ve chosen to use my background to write novels, I’m invited to present papers on my ongoing research as well as to contact them with questions or to get feedback on my ideas. They also share their research with me. What I heard when I began to poke around about Alice’s story was that even the most respected archivists could find little to support the stories about her other than the facts recorded regarding parliament’s accusations and an inventory of her properties, some gifts from the royal family, and her jewels. They agreed with me that the trail of attempts to pin down what branch of Perrers claimed her was a study in desperation.

And then….  One sunny afternoon during an academic conference I was headed to the book exhibit and then a long walk, but changed my mind at the last minute and slipped into a session about advances in archival research. The historian Chris Given-Wilson, who had shared with me his extensive research on Alice, had suggested I also talk to W.M (Mark) Ormrod, and I’d just noticed he was the first presenter. I still get chills up my spine about that sudden about face. What if I’d missed the session and no one had thought to fill me in about it until I was too far along in the manuscript to change course?

Mark, then director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, was demonstrating the benefits we’d all reap from the ambitious digitizing project he was managing at the National Archives in London. The example he projected onto the wall was one of a series of  court petitions that had neither been transcribed nor indexed in all the centuries they had sat, small strips of parchment tied in bundles, in the Public Records Office in London. This particular petition turned my research upside down and inside out. Dated 1377,  a John “Kendale requests payment of £4 15s 7d owed to him by Alice Perers for various parcels of cloth sold to Janyn Perers, Alice’s former husband, in 34 Edward III (1360-1).”

Perrers was her married name. Friends in the room turned to see my reaction, and by their expressions I realized I must have been a stunning shade of crimson. It was a game changer.

I talked to Mark at length afterward. He, too, was excited about this new angle on Alice’s origins, and began to dig and to publish his findings in scholarly journals, discussing his research with me as he went along. Alice’s early life shifted into a more feasible shape than the previous theories—she was the widow of a wealthy London merchant. It fit with records I’d found of her own land transactions before she went to court, and of a John Perrers likely to have been her father-in-law who’d provided costly cloth for King Edward III’s coronation. A court connection.

Colleagues more familiar with parliament records suggested that the commons’ attack on her was extreme. I began to read about scapegoats. Someone mentioned a paper they’d once heard in which it was pointed out how careful Edward III’s household must have been to hide from the public and most of the court the king’s increasing debility from what appeared to be a series of strokes. I began to see the shape of a more plausible story. How useful she might be to Edward’s busy sons. I kept returning to her loyalty. She stayed with Edward to the bitter end. I just could not imagine a woman as wily and greedy as Alice had been depicted staying by Edward’s side when it was clear that he was dying and there appeared to be no one stepping up to protect her. At one time I’d thought that person was William Wyndsor, but the records clearly pointed to that being a romantic fantasy. Alice was a woman alone when the king grew close to death. And yet she stayed by his side.

By the time I focused on writing The King’s Mistress I had a quite different vision of Alice than I’d had when I’d begun. What a thrill to have discovered all this while I was working on the book!

8 Comments on “Background on The King's Mistress

  1. Emma/Candace,

    Your new blog is a timely find for me, as I just finished reading
    “The King’s Bishop ” and found your portrayal of Alice in this book quite fascinating.

    How was the experience of writing/researching “The King’s Mistress” compared to Alice of the Owen Archer series? Do you feel that she is a different woman from the character of your earlier series? Or was the new book a chance to indulge in a desire to dig deeper and deeper into someone who just intrigued you and deserved a new understanding?

    I mean, do you recognize the Alice of your earlier books as the same Alice in your new book? (Which I just now found out about by reading this blog- great! I’ll have to get it!)

    I like your writing very much. I find the characters well-developed and compelling. So glad you are continuing to write!

    Wishing you every success with your new book. Any chance you’ll be coming to the Columbus, OH area?

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    • I remember with what fun I used Alice Perrers in The Lady Chapel, but by the time I wrote The King’s Bishop I was taking her more seriously. It’s been a while since I reread that book, but I do know I was already feeling far more empathy for her than I had in TLC—she was no longer just Thoresby’s nemesis. It was during a long tour for the book in the UK that I began to question the standard story of her life—it seemed more and more implausible to me as I explained it to audiences. So, yes, in The King’s Mistress I present a very different Alice, brought to life through years of pondering and presenting papers at academic conferences to entice fellow historians to share the snippets they’d collected. It’s been a fascinating and rewarding journey, leading to a new set of books in which I’m reconsidering reputations.
      I have family in Ohio, so it’s possible I’ll be coming through one of these days, though nothing’s in the works at the moment. I would definitely see about doing a book store event or speaking at a library or Ohio State. Thanks for asking, and thanks for your note—I’ve answered it briefly here, but I’ve been flailing around for Candace’s first real post on the blog, and this is just the ticket. I’ll flesh out some more thoughts.

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  2. At the library the other day I saw The King’s Mistress and thought it was a romance story, never having read you before and the title, I read a lot and I like certain books for just a joyful read. I feel In love with this book! It swept me away to a time that I now love and I have to go back now and read every book that you have ever written. Your ability to pull a person into the time and place, to see the people was just incredible. I finished in two days. I then had to go on the web and look up all the people that you talked about and see what was said about them and their lives. I look forward to reading your books again and I am recommending The King’s Mistress to everyone telling them all about it.

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    • What a lovely message to find when I logged on this morning. Thank you for taking the time to let me know that you were so caught up in the book. That’s what I love about reading, being so caught up I think about the book even when I’m not actually reading. It’s what I love about writing fiction, actually–I know when a book is coming to life when I look forward to sitting down to work, eager to see what happens next.

      I hope you enjoy the others!

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  3. I just finished reading The King’s Mistress. I so thoroughly enjoyed every word of the book and how you bring the reader into their world.

    Have you written any other books? I want to read them all!

    Thank you for all of your time and effort.

    Like

    • I love hearing from satisfied readers. Thank you, Beverly!

      The King’s Mistress is my first book as Emma Campion; I’m currently writing The Hero’s Wife, about Joan of Kent, whom you met in Alice’s book.

      As Candace Robb, I’ve published 13 mysteries set in the late middle ages. They’re listed under the “Books” tab on this blog.

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  4. I would just like to say how much I have enjoyed reading The King’s Mistress, you bring the charaters and places alive. One can immerse themselves into not only the story but the sights and sounds of the court as it was, you can almost smell the streets of London!
    Having read all of the Owen Archer books I was at first surprised but then pleased of the portrayal of Alice in The King’s Mistress and although she is the same Alice – she is also a very different Alice. I feel more sympathy for her than I did in the first Owen Archer books and this has just cemented the fact that she was a lot more than she first appeared.
    You have me intrigued about Alice and I would like to learn more about her and as such have started to look her up in the historical records just for curiosity, for this I thank you.
    I would also like to ask about how difficult it was to do your research especially when you first started writing? Writing has always been a passion of mine, short stories etc. And I would love to combine that with my other passion of Ancient and Medieval History. To this end I am going back to University as a mature student (I have been told you are never too old to learn) to study Medieval History and the Dark Ages.
    Any tips on aspects of either the writing or the study would be grately appreciated.
    Once again I would just like to thank you for sharing your characters with us not only are the stories you write entertaining but they are also educational.

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  5. Thank you so much for the gift of The King’s Mistress.I was transported in to the time and didn’t want to leave it. I love medieval history, in fact history right up until Elizabeth 1st.I did not know of the Owen Archer series but will be buying them now. I eagerly await your next book, and am also thrilled that I found this website.

    from Gill Body

    Like

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