Alice Perrers is best known for having been a mistress of King Edward III. In that capacity she received favour from the king, and became the subject of discontent from members of the nobility. Her life story is one of a rise from relative obscurity to the upper echelons of English society, followed by a rapid fall from grace.
Alice Perrers’ Early Life
Little is known of Alice Perrers early life. Her precise date of birth is not known, though it is believed she was born in 1348, and evidence of her parentage is limited: Mark Ormrod’s research shows she had a brother called John Salisbury. It is known that Alice married Janyn Perrers, a jeweller, in 1360, and that he died in 1364. After her husbands death, Alice moved into the service of Queen Philippa, for whom she was a lady-in-waiting.
Alice’s background and upbringing is the subject of some speculation. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham wrote of Alice Perrers:
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.
Is Walsingham a reliable source?
However, Walsingham was quite hostile to the court of Edward III, and his association with St. Albans Abbey brings into question his objectivity with regards Alice Perrers as she and the Abbey had a dispute over lands which was quite bitter. From her later life and recent research it can be suggested that Walsingham is exaggerating. A low born, ill educated, woman is unlikely to have been able to enter into the service of the Queen. The evidence showing that she was from a relatively well off family of Goldsmiths is rather different to Walsingham’s low born harlot.
Who were Alice’s parents?
Something as straightforward as the parentage of a major historical figure is usually easily identified. In Alice’s case, it is one of the many mysteries that surround her life. It is easily illustrated by comparing two editions of the Dictionary of National Biography. In the first edition, the entry on Alice Perrers. authored by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, notes that:
Alice may have been the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers the elder; if so, this circumstance would go far to explain the manifest hostility of the St. Albans chronicler. It has, however, been alleged that she was daughter of John Perrers or Piers of Holt, by Gunnora, daughter of Sir Thomas de Ormesbye, and was twice married—first, to Sir Thomas de Narford; and, secondly, to Sir William de Windsor
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45. Perrers, Alice by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford
In the 2004 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, authored by Chris Given-Wilson, it states:
Her parentage is not certain but her father was probably either William Salisbury, goldsmith, or one of his presumed kinsmen John or Gilbert Salisbury, also goldsmiths. Her mother was probably the Joan Salisbury involved in a joint purchase of a messuage in Canterbury with Alice Perrers and others in 1371. Another John Salisbury was identified as her brother in a petition of 1377 or 1378 from John Cobham seeking payment of debts.
The more recent suggestion is based upon research undertaken by Mark Ormrod. Coming from a family of Goldsmiths would explain her education, and her marriage to John le Perer, who was an apprentice of William Salisbury: note also that the national biography also changes detail of Alice’s first marriage.
Alice Perrers rise to prominence
It was as one of Queen Philippa’s ladies-in-waiting that Alice Perrers began to be noteworthy. At some point before the death, in 1369, of Queen Philippa, the young Alice Perrers had become King Edward III’s secret mistress. Following the Queen’s death, the affair became public. It was met with derision in some quarters, with Alice being seen by some as taking advantage of the King whilst he grieving and ageing. This line of argument comes across in chronicles, the writers of which tended to be opposed to Alice due to their ecclesiastical links.
Another point was that a lady or a young lady, Dame Alice Perrers by name, had every year from the treasury of our Lord the King two or three thousand pounds of gold and silver from the coffers of our Lord the King without any notable profit and to the great damage of our Lord the King; and it would be a great gain to the kingdom to remove the said dame from the presence of the king both as a matter of conscience and of the ill prosecution of the war, so that the said sum could be restored to and could profit our Lord the King, and that the wardships of sons and daughters of the great Lords which belong to the King should not be too lightly given to those who are not able to profit or avail themselves of it. And at this time we will say no more, but we wholeheartedly implore, for the profit of our Lord the King and of the kingdom that the Lords previously mentioned, the bishop of Exeter and Sir Richard Scrope should be assigned to us and be sworn to inform us of what they know for profit by their conscience.
Perceptions of Alice being showered with gifts
Alice Perrers was visibly in receipt of the kings favour in court and was able to make the most of her elevated position in wider society. The King took advice from the young Alice, she was only 21 in 1369, and courtiers were expected to treat her in much the same way as they had the Queen. The huge popularity that Queen Phillipa had enjoyed may have coloured judgement against Alice, she was stepping into the role of a much loved Consort. Alice was to receive lands, jewels, financial benefits from Edward III until 1376. It led to accusations of Alice abusing her position, which led to her being put on Trial on more than one occasion in the latter days of Edward III’s reign and into that of Richard II. Walsingham, though very biased, summarises this type of view in his chronicle:
…the Parliamentary knights complained bitterly about one Alice Perrers, a wanton woman who was all too familiar with Edward III. They accused her of numerous misdeeds, performed by her and her friends in the realm. She far overstepped the bounds of feminine conduct: forgetful of her sex and her weakness, now besieging the king’s justices, now stationing herself among the doctors in the ecclesiastical courts, she did not fear to plead in defence of her cause and even to make illegal demands. As a result of the scandal and great shame which this brought on King Edward, not only in this kingdom but also in foreign lands, the knights sought her banishment from his side.
Wealth of Alice Perrers
And 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.
The Good Parliament and the Trials of Alice Perrers
In 1376 the perceived excesses of Alice Perrers and others in court were challenged in parliament. Known as the ‘Good Parliament’ it saw a series of impeachments of officials and trials of others, like Alice, who it was alleged were ‘evil counsellors and wrongdoers’. Alice Perrers faced a venous attack from some quarters, who saw her as being a reason why the King had not seen as much success in France, and blamed her for many aspects of government failure. It led to an ordinance being issued against Alice Perrers in 1376 that banished her and stripped her of her wealth.
Also, a certain ordinance was made in this present Parliament concerning women pursuing business in the courts of our lord the king, in the form that follows:
Because a complaint was made to the king that some women have pursued various business and disputes in the king’s courts by way of maintenance, bribing and influencing the parties, which thing displeases the king; the king forbids any woman to do it, and especially Alice Perrers, on penalty of whatever the said Alice can forfeit and of being banished from the realm.
Gesta abbatum Monasterii Sancti Alba
The Anonimalle Chronicle and Walsingham both suggest that the banishment of Alice Perrers was intended to improve Edward Ill’s:
honour both in this land and in all the neighbouring kingdoms.
St Albans Chronicle, 1:46-47.
Walsingham also wrote of the fall of Alice Perrers via the 1376 Ordinance
Because a complaint was made to the king that some women have pursued various business and disputes in the king’s courts by way of maintenance, bribing and influencing the parties, which thing displeases the king; the king forbids any woman to do it, and especially Alice Perrers, on penalty of whatever the said Perrers can forfeit and of being banished from the realm.
The Anonimalle Chronicle on the 1376 Ordinance
The next day [20 May] the Lords entered their parliament and the Commons went into the chapter house and they deliberated from day to day what should be done and established. On the fourth day [24 May] the Lords entered their parliament and sent for the Commons in order to hear what they wished to say and the Commons in one body and openly came before the Lords in parliament. And the aforementioned Sir Peter began to speak,
Sirs, we are here come before you and at your command to show what we have at heart, and we say that we have declared to you and to all the council of parliament several trespasses and extortions made by various people, and we have no remedy, nor is there anyone around the king who wishes to tell him the truth, or loyally and profitably counsel him, but on all occasions with fooling and mocking they procure their own profit, because of this we declare to you that we will say no more until all these false and evil councillors who are around the king, are removed and ejected from his presence, and until the present chancellor and treasurer are removed from their offices, for they are of no value, and until Dame Alice Perrers is completely removed both as a matter of conscience and [because] of the bad management of the war, and of the ills and damages brought to the kingdom; and that our Lord the King should assign to be members of his council three bishops, three earls, and three barons, such as will not hesitate to speak the truth and improve matters; and that no great matters should be accomplished or ended without them, and no wardships or marriages should be given without their counsel, and they should be willing to put right what was badly done and employed before this time of the deceit of the king; because before these [evil councillors] are removed, no one will dare to speak the truth, nor give a remedy, nor govern the country well. And they [the new councillors] should be willing to hear and put right, by their good counsel and advice, the wrongs which have been committed, as we have shown before this time.
And the Lords replied that this would be a good thing to do, and they would willingly inform the king of their consent and counsel and purpose. And they departed on this day without doing anything further.
The second day after [26 May], the duke and the other Lords of parliament sent certain Lords to the king to inform him of the words of the Commons, and the consent of the Lords to advise him to remove those who were of his council, and Dame Alice Perrers completely, informing him of their actions and how they had acted to deceive him, and that he should take to himself such councillors who wished loyally and profitably to govern [for him] and ordain for his estate and kingdom and that he should not place faith and credence in evil councillors and wrongdoers. And the king kindly said to the Lords that he willingly wished to do that which was profitable to the kingdom, and the Lords thanked him, beseeching his most excellent lordship that he should elect three bishops, three earls, and three barons as was previously mentioned to be of his council, for it appertained to him to elect [them] and not to the others of parliament. And the king replied patiently that he would willingly act according to their advice and good ordinance. And so they spoke among themselves as to who they should be, and they elected the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of London, the bishop of Winchester, the earls of Arundel, March, and Stafford, and the Lord Percy, Sir Guy Brian, and Sir Roger Beauchamp. And when this was done he sent for the duke of Lancaster and his brother the earl of Cambridge, and the nine lords already mentioned, and when they came to him they began to give their opinion of the ordinance already enacted and spoken of in parliament. Then the king asked the said nine lords that they should be willing to attend him and his council, and ordain for him and the kingdom, and remedy the trespasses which had been committed and done before this time. And the Lords kindly agreed to do his pleasure so far as they could, and they were sworn to be loyal to the king and loyally govern him and the kingdom in so far as they could.
At the same time there was removed from the council of the king, Lord Latimer, Sir John Neville, Sir Richard de Stafford, and Dame Alice Perrers; and the king himself swore before his Lords that the said Alice would never come into his presence again, and it was ordained by common consent that the aforementioned nine lords should stay in London, or close to where the king was, so that they could be ready at all times to counsel him when it was needed, and so they departed and went to London to the parliament, and the duke of Lancaster was not pleased, but very much grieved and annoyed that he had not been elected to be one of the councillors.
A brief reprieve for Alice Perrers
King Edward III overruled parliament and pardoned Alice in October of 1376. In the parliament of January 1377 some aspects of the rulings against Alice Perrers were overturned, only to be later re-imposed. The argument presented on behalf of Alice Perrers was that she had been:
deprived of the liberty which each loyal liege of the king, men as well as women, should enjoy and have freely
The argument followed that any outcomes prejudicial to her interests should be overturned.
Alice’s restoration was short-lived. Once Edward III died, the matter of her banishment and the seizure of her property was raised once again. In November 1377 the commons petitioned Richard IIs council demanding:
lawful execution shall be done upon Alice Perrers as she deserves, without bias being shown in the said execution, considering the great harm that she has inflicted on the realm in various ways . . . and that her forfeiture might be used to the relief of the people, upon whom she has visited this outrage.
Attachment to Parliamentary Roll, cited by Mark Ormrod
Legal complications: Could Alice be tried for something she had already been pardoned for?
That Alice Perrers could be put on trial a second time, essentially for the same matter, which had already been pardoned, was legally complicated. It required those prosecuting the case to illustrate ways in which Alice had countermanded the demands of the council’s orders against her. This was done by arguing that it was Alice Perrers who had ensured that the Council’s decision to send Nicholas Dagworth to Ireland was not put into effect. She was also accused of having restored properties to Richard Lyons. Lyons was a merchant who had been impeached in the Good Parliament. Though he had since been pardoned, his properties had been granted to Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock. Additional to stating that Perrers had instigated the restoration of these properties was a charge that she had acted on Lyons behalf to have a debt owed to the crown cancelled.
The Second Trial of Alice Perrers
Council, which was formed by much the same group who had allowed the original sentence to be overturned, heard evidence from numerous courtiers. All but one of the courtiers swore that Alice Perrers had intervened on the Dagworth matter whilst in the kings presence at Havering. She had done so on the grounds that Robert Dagworth was a threat to William Windsor, her husband. The only courtier who did not state this was an esquire of the kings bedchamber, who instead stated that because Alice Perrers was wary of him [the esquire] she said nothing in his presence. The testimony contradicted Alice’s statement that she had witnesses who would speak on her behalf, for those very named people had spoken of her guilt on the matter.
Council declared her guilty on the basis of the 1376 ordinance. Once again the punishment was to be banishment from the realm, and she was declared forfeit of all ‘her lands, property, tenements, and possessions, as well in demesne as in reversion‘.
A second pardon
In 1380 Alice Perrers and her husband William Windsor were both pardoned, and some lands reverted to their control. This was in return for military service by William Windsor. William then enfeoffed his and Alice’s lands and borrowed monies which would cover his expenses during the years of military service. Unfortunately for Alice, William died on 15th September 1384. He had not paid off the debts to the crown at this point, nor had the enfeoffment’s been settled and returned to himself and Alice. It meant that his estate needed to be subject to legal procedures to settle his affairs.
The matter of the estate was complicated. William’s nephew, John Windsor, claimed the lands, as did Alice. It led to bitter legal feuding between Alice and John which saw further pardons being granted, petitions being made to parliament and john Windsor being placed in Newgate gaol for a period. The disputes were to continue until Alice’s death in 1400, when John’s ‘usurpation’ of land was noted in Alice’s will.
Alice Perrers marriage to William Windsor
The date of Alice marrying William Windsor is not known. It is likely to have been a marriage of convenience for both parties, there being a large age gap and political gains to be had from the union. When Alice was found guilty a second time, her custody was offered to her husband. This was not an unusual occurrence.
On Alice Perrers marriage to William Windsor
Whenever their marriage took place, it is evident that Perrers and Windsor entered into a clandestine contract, one that (in James Brundage’s words) did not require “ceremonies, witnesses, dowry, publicity, [or] family consent” but that, once announced, would nonetheless have the force of canon law.
Mark Ormrod who references James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago, 1987), p. 362.
Alice Perrers was banished but was eventually able to return to England and regained control of some of her estates. It was on one of these estates, at Gaynes Park in Upminster, that Alice Perrers died. Her will was proved in February 1402, the exact date of Alice’s death is unknown but is believed to have been in the winter of 1401/2 [Source ODNB].
Agnes Sorel – Agnes was an official mistress of King Charles VII of France.
Women of the Hundred Years War – our growing collection of biographies and articles about women of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Petition submitted against Edward III’s mistress Alice Perrers for non-payment of debt (The National Archives catalogue reference: SC 8/104/5166). Blog Post about the Good parliament from the National Archives.