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!
I did not intend to write The King’s Mistress in first person.
It’s confining. I find it more suitable for short pieces with a twist rather than for novels. A first person narrator is to a greater or lesser degree unreliable. She presents only her side of the story. My students in both creative writing and literature classes were challenged by first person narrative, rushing past the clues regarding to whom the story was addressed, forgetting the limitations of one pair of eyes, all of which is part of the story the author is presenting. So I’ve become quite wary of first person narration.
But every time I sat down to write the first draft, no matter in whose voice I began I wound up in Alice’s “I”. We struggled for months. At last, worn down by Alice (or my subconscious), I considered what I might gain by limiting myself to Alice’s voice. More empathy. A focus on what she was experiencing, which was what I’d set out to explore. Giving her a voice at long last—for centuries she’d been silenced by Walsingham’s venom, which went unquestioned. Even in her time, she was forbidden to respond to parliament, to present her own defense.
So I gave Alice her voice.
I’m intrigued (and amused) by the relief I feel as I work now in third person, in a variety of voices. I have a sense of space. I suppose I did experience Alice’s confined world.
Creativity is one of the most profound mysteries.
This is a special day for me. Although the British version of The King’s Mistress went on sale in the UK last summer, my work on the book was not over. For the US and foreign language editions I was to cut roughly 100 pages.
This is not something I could do by simply crossing out sections. I revised extensively—there are some new scenes, revised scenes, embellished scenes, intensified scenes, truncated scenes, and removed scenes. Two names have been changed.
So this feels like the day I truly release The King’s Mistress into the world.
I’m a little breathless….
My work on Alice Perrers, a woman much reviled since the 14th century, has inspired a fascination with reputations—or, more specifically, why we give them such credence. We limit our understanding of the world when we base our opinions on reputations rather than ferreting out the facts for ourselves.
Alice’s reputation was based on the opinion of a monk, Walsingham, who took little trouble distinguishing between his heavily prejudiced and overblown opinions and and the truth, and a parliament looking for a scapegoat. And although historians and antiquarians admitted their dissatisfaction with the theories they set forth regarding her parentage, no one ever seems to have questioned whether or not Perrers was her maiden name. Even worse, their half-baked theories were accepted by those who came after. Nor did they seem to question the incredible power over the king and his household that Walsingham and the Parliament had ascribed to a female commoner. Could they not see that her reputation was exaggerated? Couldn’t I? I admit, I misused Alice in earlier books.
But we were not alone; all of us do this all the time. We accept others’ opinions about people as fact. Shortcuts are useful. Still, at least in one’s profession….
So I’m hooked on this topic. In October I’ll be delivering a lecture at Stanford University on medieval reputations. I’ll have the great honor of sharing the stage with Gary Alan Fine, who wrote Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial. I’m also exploring other medieval people whose reputations strike me as too simplistic.
Needless to say, I’ll be sharing my immersion in medieval reputations on this blog. And I hope to have some guests sharing their thoughts on the topic as well.
According to the OED (confession—I love the Oxford English Dictionary):
The second definition for reputation is: “The common or general estimate of a person with respect to character or other qualities; the relative estimation or esteem in which a person or thing is held.” This isn’t about anyone’s personal experience of the subject, but a vague consensus. Curiouser and curiouser.
But I really like this one, the first definition of “reputation” in the OED, which is labeled “obsolete; rare”: “Opinion, supposition; also, the opinion or view of one about something.” Aha!
I’m having a think….
Meanwhile, medievalist.net has posted a lovely review of THE KING’S MISTRESS and an interview with me that we recorded during the medieval congress at Western Michigan U here:
As it’s just over a month until my novel The King’s Mistress hits the bookstores in the US, I thought it a propitious time to launch a blog. I’ve been inspired by all the promotional pieces I’ve been preparing for the book launch. I hadn’t expected to so enjoy writing about why I wrote the book and why I write what I do (which is really all about what I love about what I do).
So I’ll continue to do so, here.
Stay tuned. I look forward to engaging with you.