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The King’s Concubine by Anne O’Brien

In this novel, Anne O’Brien undertakes a difficult task – resurrecting one of the most notorious women in British royal history – King Edward III’s mistress, Alice Perrers. She not only gives her a voice, but emotional depth, purpose and places her within the context of both the judgemental court and period. The result is, frankly, stunning.

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Not much is known about Alice Perrers, a woman whose humble origins remain shrouded in mystery and yet who nevertheless rose to become one of the most powerful and influential women in the court of King Edward III. Freely called avaricious, “ugly”, a “whore” and a variety of other unflattering names, there’s no doubt that Alice used her position as the king’s concubine to her advantage but, as Warner has made clear in this fictitious account of her life, what other options did she have?

Literate and clearly an astute business woman, Alice becomes a damsel to Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa, by all accounts, a woman beloved by the people, court and, above all, the king. History tells us that even though the king adored his wife, he took Alice as his mistress. Warner seeks to explain the rationale for this in an original and believable fashion.

As Alice’s star rises, she also attracts a great deal of jealousy and resentment. She is a commoner and, worse, she (because, of course, it’s always the woman’s fault) is making a fool of the queen by seducing the king. Aware her status is subject to change with no notice, Alice accumulates property as well as tokens of the king’s affection earning her even more enmity from within the ranks of the nobles – male and female. While the king lives (and, indeed, the queen), she is protected but, as the years pass and, firstly, Philippa dies and the king’s frailty increases and his mortality becomes ever more evident, it’s clear that Alice has to look to her future and that of the four children she bears the king.

Without spoiling it for those who don’t know the little history there is, what Alice does to protect herself and her children is dangerous and the consequences should she get caught, dire. Warner joins the existing dots the contemporary chronicles give us, telling the tale from Alice’s point of view.

Not always likeable, the reader nonetheless grows to understand this pragmatic, strong woman and you cannot help but admire even her poor choices as Alice herself is the first to chide herself for bad decisions and seeks to own them and set them to rights. I found myself championing this thoroughly maligned woman and so appreciate Warner’s take on her story and the unfair epitaphs this resilient, honest and hard-working woman earned.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but liken her to another strong woman of the time – albeit a fictitious one – Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath – also an astute business woman who uses the means available to her – not only marriage and sex, but within those, her other formidable talents, to create a comfortable existence. It was no surprise then to read in Warner’s very brief notes that some historians (I admit, I haven’t found one yet) believe Chaucer’s portrait of the wife was loosely based on Alice. I like to think the feisty wife was an amalgam of a few women of the time, but there’s no doubt, Alice would have been tempting to immortalise in poetry the way history and then men who recorded it denied her anything but a toxic place.

Altogether, this was a fabulous book that allowed a defamed woman, denied her voice and rights in history, a chance to shine – not always in a positive light, but with understanding, compassion, toughness and an awareness of the limitations the times she lived in created. It also points to the fact that though women of the era were largely marginalised and oppressed, there were still those who challenged, overturned and even worked within the patriarchal structures and were thus able to advance, survive and even thrive. I’m thinking specifically here of John of Gaunt’s mistress, Katheryn Swynford – but there are many others just in that period (Margery Kemp, Julian Norwich etc) as well as Alice Perrers – and it’s wonderful to read Herstory as much as it is History.

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