Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, June 21, 2024

Alice Perrers, "Lady of the Sun"

Alice Perrers (death of Edward III, 21 June 1377)

Alice Perrers and Edward III
detail from Ford Maddox Ford's
Chaucer at the Court of Edward III
Alice Perrers was the mistress of Edward III of England for nearly two decades, from about 1360 until the king's death in 1377. During her lifetime, she was vilified and banished, at times suspected of having "bewitched" the aging monarch. 

Since her death in about the year 1400, Alice Perrers has been more or less defined by the view of a Benedictine monk, Thomas Walsingham. Here is his description of her in his Chronica majora:
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 accustomed to carry water on her own shoulders from the mill-stream for the everyday needs of that household. And while the queen was still alive, the king loved this woman more than he loved the queen.*
In the chronicler's view, Alice Perrers was unscrupulous, avaricious, ambitious, manipulative, and power-hungry. But even if we were to accept Walsingham's view of Alice, that would mean she was just like like every other unscrupulous, avaricious, ambitious, manipulative and power-hungry member of the English court. But, oops, she was a woman, so that is obviously really unforgivable.

Modern historians can be just as vicious. For example, in her biography of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt's mistress and thus Alice Perrers's contemporary, Alison Weir repeats all the old slanders about Alice. She loves "queening it" at court, she is not beautiful, she has a bad figure, she "wheedled" gifts out of a king "descending into a childlike dotage," she was "shameless, rapacious, and ruthless, and exploited to the full her dominance over the senile king," and she may have infected him with gonorrhea (though, Weir concedes, this claim has "never been substantiated"). Sigh.** 

Since the time Walsingham made his claim about Alice's origins, a great deal of historical effort has gone into trying to identify her background--was she, as Walsingham claimed, a woman of "low birth"? While her many contemporary critics were certainly happy to take the monk at his word, at least some historians were eager to place her among the gentry. Their desire to find a more "acceptable" family background for Alice may have arisen from a need to explain her appearance as a member of the queen's household--how could a woman of "low birth" achieve such a position? But they may also wished to make more understandable the aging king's attraction to her and his dependence on her.

The historian C. L. Kingsford, a widely recognized authority on late-medieval England, authored the essay on Alice Perrers for the Dictionary of National Biography. Kingsford suggested Alice may have been a member of the Perrers family of Hertfordshire, perhaps the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers, or maybe of John Perrers of Holt. Kingsford's claims about Alice's origins were and still are widely accepted. That Alice was probably the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers is noted in brief entry for Alice Perrers in the Encyclopedia Britannica and in biographical essay in Women in World History. Weir, too, identifies Alice as the "married daughter of Hertfordshire knight."

But, after extensive archival research, historian W. M. Ormrod has concluded that, however much Walsingham may have disparaged Alice Perrers, he may not have been entirely wrong in assessing her social class. Ormrod's "unequivocal" documentary evidence demonstrated that Perrers was Alice's married name, not her birth name--she was not the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers but the wife of a man named Janyn Perrers, the two established in a household in London. Whatever Janyn Perrers's social class, he was a man of some means. Given Janyn Perrers's name, Ormrod also wondered if Walsingham might have been correct in his identification of Alice's husband as a "man of Lombardy." But, aside from uncovering his name, Ormrod could find nothing more about Alice's husband.

In further research, Ormrod also linked Alice Perrers to a man named John Salisbury, identified as "her brother" by a petitioner seeking to recover money owed to him. While Ormrod investigated every John Salisbury he could find who might be Alice's brother, and there are a number of John Salisburys who seemed to be possible candidates, in the end, Ormrod claimed only "two firm facts" had "emerged" from his research in newly catalogued archival material: "that Alice had a brother named John Salisbury and a first husband named Janyn Perrers."

Following Ormrod's discoveries, further information about John Salisbury emerged, documented by researcher Laura Tompkins; she identified a writ of protection issued to a man named Janyn Perrers by Edward III. In the writ, Perrers is described as "our beloved Janyn Perrer, our jeweller." 

Using that clue, Tompkins added to what is known about Janyn Perrers and, thus, his wife Alice: "first," Tompkins revealed, "he was a member of the Goldsmiths' Company; second, . . . he lived and worked in London; and third, . . . the date of his death . . .  must have been sometime between 19 May 1361 and 18 May 1362." And one additional detail--the writ suggests Janyn may have had origins in France, not Italy, but there is some confusion about the wording, and it may well be that that description referred only to the workers traveling with him. 

Janyn Perrers was apprenticed to a goldsmith named William "de Salesburi"; Tompkins notes that a man named John Salisbury "who appears in the Goldsmiths' Company accounts and was active during Alice's lifetime" had also been apprenticed to William Salisbury. Researching these two Salisbury men, Tompkins validated one of Ormrod's hypotheses about Alice Perrers's family background: "that Alice was the daughter of William Salisbury, goldsmith, and his wife Joan, and that Alice had three elder brothers who were also practising goldsmiths, William, Thomas and John." 

So, that old monk Walsingham may have been "right" when he said Alice was "low born," but she clearly wasn't the daughter of a thatcher. Her family were not gentry but, rather, craftsmen and merchants. She was almost certainly not the "maidservant," much less the "mistress" of a "man of Lombardy," but a wife, and her husband was probably not Italian, but he may have had some foreign connections, to France rather than to Lombardy, either by birth or through his business dealings.

Aside from the name of her husband and her brother, nothing more is known about Alice Salisbury Perrers before she appears in the household of Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III. Alice's date of birth is not certain, but she is likely to have been born about the year 1340. Tompkins's essay provides an excellent overview of what a kind of education and upbringing a girl born into a family of successful London goldsmiths would have received in the fourteenth century, but there is no evidence that Alice received such an education.

Nor is it clear when Alice Salisbury may have married Janyn Perrers, but she had clearly become a wife by 1360, the date of the legal petition identifying her husband as Janyn Perrers. Alice's birth has at times been placed as late as 1348, but the evidence that she was married to Perrers by 1360 makes the later date highly unlikely. Janyn died some time between May 1361 and May 1362. As a widow, Alice Perrers was able to conduct business on her own as a femme sole, a single woman.

Alice Perrers's appearance as a member of Philippa's household, one of the queen's domicellae, has raised questions in the minds of historians, chief among them, how she managed that placement. As we have seen, attempts have been made to find a "suitable" family background for her--that is, a family among the gentry class at least. These attempts seemed to have been motivated by efforts to explain how an otherwise unknown Alice showed up at court as a member of the queen's household. But, with the new evidence, Alice's appointment may well have been as a result of her husband's connection to Edward III. 

Whatever Alice's family background, there has been some general agreement among historians that she became a member of the queen's household about 1359 (that's a date Ormrod uses, for example), but it also seems possible that she may not have joined the court until after her husband's death in 1361 or 1362. Soon after she began to serve as one of Queen Philippa's "damsels," she also became the king's mistress--Alice would have been in her mid-20s, the king in his 50s. She gave birth to their first child, a son, between 1364 and 1366. All three children were born before Queen Philippa's death in August 1369, and all three--John de Southeray, Jane, and Joan--were acknowledged by the king.

A grant to Alice Perrers is first recorded in 1366, with further lucrative grants following. She also began acquiring property, some of it received as gifts, some of it purchased on her own. In 1367, the king granted her custody of a royal ward, and other wardships followed. She received gifts of jewels from Edward, and some of her own purchases of jewels were paid for by the king. In 1373, she was assigned a life annuity by the king. Her name also appears frequently in court records as the recipient of robes, fine cloth, wine, and other goods. 

While she undoubtedly received many valuable gifts from the king, Alice seems also to have been an excellent businesswoman. As historian Dan Moorhouse notes, "whilst it is true that the King bestowed gifts onto Alice Perrers, it is also the case that most of her wealth was generated by other means. Alice held lands in 25 counties. It included 56 manors, castles, town houses. This was a large portfolio of estates, rivalling the lands of some of the most powerful nobles. 15 of these manors were granted to Alice Perrers by the King. The other 41 of them were acquired through business acumen."

Alice Perrers also appeared at tournaments, richly attired. On one notable occasion in 1375, she rode through London, from the Tower to Smithfield, costumed as the "Lady of the Sun." Her intimacy with the king meant that many notable men sought favors from Edward by appealing to her, including John of Gaunt, the king's son; William, lord Latimer; William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester; and even the pope, Gregory XI, who appealed to her for help when his brother needed to be ransomed.

Aging and increasingly isolated, King Edward became more and more dependent on Alice as his health declined. As for Alice, her entire position depended on the king. Uncertainty about her future after the king's death may have led to her secret marriage to William de Windsor, a man who had fought with Edward III in France and then, in Ireland, under the king's son, Lionel. By 1369, he had become the king's deputy in Ireland, but he had returned to England several times. Alice Perrers likely married Windsor in 1376, when he had been summoned to England by the king.

Petition submitted against Alice Perrers
(National Archives SC 8/104/5166)

In April of that year, increasingly upset about the state of affairs in England, parliament met and moved moved against Alice, accusing her of a variety of financial misdeeds. They charged that she "had ‘two or three thousand pounds of gold and silver’ a year from the king’s coffers, and it would be therefore of great profit to the realm to ‘take measures to remedy her [Alice’s] outrageous behaviour, and, as much for the king’s honour as his personal good, to have her removed from his presence, for she had tarnished his honour both in this land and all the neighbouring kingdoms.’"

In the view of some members of parliament, Alice Perrers was not only the reason for the "ills and damages" within the kingdom, but for the "bad management of the war" in France. Parliament also informed the king that she had married William de Windsor secretly. In May, the king agreed to demands that his "evil councillors and wrongdoers" be dismissed. Alice Perrers was sentenced to banishment and the forfeiture of all her property. According to one contemporary chronicle account, Edward was forced to swear "that the said Alice would never come into his presence again." Devastated by his loss of Alice, the king begged for mercy for her. 

But it was clear the king was dying, and by October, Edward had overruled parliament and reprieved Alice, who rejoined the king. In January 1377, parliament overturned some of its rulings against her: she had been "deprived of the liberty which each loyal liege of the king . . . should enjoy and have freely." Alice remained with him for the last eight months of his life and was at his bedside when he died on 21 June 1377.

Alice Perrers at the death of
King Edward III
(from Cassell's Illustrated History
of England
Alice herself would live for another twenty-three years. Soon after the king's death, the first parliament of Richard II confirmed the sentence of 1376. She was to be exiled, her property all forfeited. Her husband appealed, and in 1379, that sentence was again revoked. Alice was engaged in a number of lawsuits in the years that followed, primarily related to land, but after her husband's death in 1384, the debt that he owed the crown became another source of legal disputes.  

Lawsuits continued until Alice's death in 1400. The exact date she died isn't known, but her will is dated 20 August 1400, and it was proved on 3 February 1401. 

While history has not been kind to Alice Perrers, the assessment of one of Edward III's most recent biographers, Ian Mortimer, is a nuanced one:
No one--contemporarily or historically--has a good word to say about Alice. She may well have been the most corrupt and self-seeking person at Edward's court but that does not mean we should not try to understand her situation. . . . She had met the king when relatively young and perhaps a little naive. Certainly she would have been powerless to prevent his advances toward her when she was serving Philippa. . . . [W]ho was she to deny the king?
Whatever the nature of their relationship, Edward remained faithful to Alice. Mortimer notes that, unlike other medieval kings, Edward did not dismiss Alice after she gave birth to their son--he recognized the boy as his own, kept Alice with him, and they had two more children together.

And whatever kind of woman Alice was--and whatever her feelings for the king may have been—she remained loyal to him as well, despite her marriage to William de Windsor. When the king was abandoned by all of his other courtiers and family members, she remained by his side until his death. 

Thomas Walsingham, the angry St. Albans chronicler (one of Alice's many lawsuits was with St. Albans abbey), said that Alice took the king's rings off his fingers after his death. Maybe she did. I wouldn't blame her if she had.

As for the children of Alice Perrers and Edward III:

Their firstborn child was a son, John de Southeray (or Surrey), born between 1364 and 1366. In 1374, the life annuity the king had assigned to Alice Perrers was assigned to their son, named in the grant as John de Surrey. He is named as a "chivaler" in a 1377 grant of several manors and was knighted by Edward in April of the same year. The ages for most of the other young men and boys knighted at the same time suggest that John would have been between twelve and fifteen, but no younger than ten (the age of the youngest boy knighted on this occasion); notably, at this same ceremony, those knighted include Richard, the prince of Wales; Edward III's youngest son Thomas of Woodstock; Henry, the son of John of Gaunt; and several young prominent nobleman. After Edward III's death, Alice and the king's son continued to receive gifts from the king’s successor, Richard II. In the same year, 1377, John de Southeray was married to Maud de Percy, daughter of Henry de Percy, third baron Percy. Maud sought an annulment in 1380, claiming the marriage had been made without her consent. In 1381 John was in Castile with Edmund Langley, one of Edward III's sons (and John's half-brother). John de Southeray seems to have died about 1383.

Edward and Alice's elder daughter, Jane, married a man named John Northland, about whom nothing is know.

Joan married, probably by 1400, Robert Skerne of Kingston-upon-Thames (Surrey), member of parliament in 1420 and 1421; the couple engaged in a protracted legal battle with Jane over their inheritance. Joan died by 1431.

Brass rubbing of Jane Skerne, 
daughter of Alice Perrers and Edward III
(from All Saints' Church, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey)

*The translation is from John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, and Leslie Watkiss, eds. The St Albans Chronicle: The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham, as quoted by W. M. Ormrod, "Who Was Alice Perrers? The Chaucer Review 40, no. 3 (2006): 219.

**Katherine Swynford's relationship with Edward III's son, John of Gaunt, parallels that of Alice Perrers and the king in interesting ways. The two women are contemporaries, though Swynford is likely the younger of the two. (Alice's date of birth is conjectural.) Both women became mistresses to men who were already married, and both gave birth to children acknowledged by their fathers. John of Gaunt's children with Katherine Swynford were all born while his wife, Constance of Castile, was still giving birth to children. After twenty years as Gaunt's mistress, Swynford became his wife after the death of Constance. Alice's children, too, were born before Queen Philippa's death, though by the time Alice became Edward's mistress, Philippa was past child-bearing years--who knows whether Edward III might, like his son, have married his mistress if he had not been old, sick, and increasingly senile. Weir's main reason for disparaging Alice Perrers and almost beatifying Katherine Swynford seems to be that, while Swynford undoubtedly "profited materially" from her position as a royal mistress, she did not profit "excessively." Hmm.