This was a fascinating book about a sometimes elusive historical figure – the much maligned mistress of Edward III, Alice Perrers. Perrers has been (mis)represented by history as a lower class, avaricious, grasping woman who had Edward III firmly wrapped in her serpentine coils, rising to impossible heights before falling in disgrace, stripped of her property, lands and dignity by powerful men who deeply resented the power she wielded and what she came to represent – a corrupt court. Yet, this apparently lowly-born woman rose from being one of Queen Phillippa’s maidens to become, not only the king’s lover and a mover and shaker of the times, but one of the wealthiest landowners in England at the time.
Casting doubt on previous contemporary accounts of the much-loathed Perrers and applying logic to what is known about her through deeds, court transcripts and letters (among other things) Kay critiques the way history has painted her. Starting with the notion she was lowly born, he suggests she at least must have been of middle-class origins to be able to read, possibly write and speak other languages (just to communicate with the king, she must have had a good grasp of French), even if she wasn’t fluent in these skills. Considering French would have only been spoken among the middle and upper classes, this is one clue, as is her name and possible familial relations. Explaining where other historians have perhaps made incorrect assumptions about Perrers’ upbringing, Kay seeks to put this right – but without being dogmatic. Rather, he puts forward alternate ideas and evidence and lets the reader decide. Kay also points out that Perrers’ business acumen must have also been exceptional to have acquired the property she did, never mind the fact she had the respect and allegiance of some of the finest businessmen (albeit somewhat shonky) in London and abroad – men who later paid a high price for their professional relationship with the woman. If nothing else, Perrers was one smart operator – but don’t expect her contemporaries to have acknowledged that or the (mostly male) historians who came later either. Rather, they repeated and emphasised all the negative qualities those seeking to malign and scapegoat her in the aftermath of Edward III’s reign, making any alternate reading of the woman difficult if not impossible.
What is fascinating about Kay’s account (and which I suspect the author, Vanora Bennet, used when writing her marvellous The People’s Queen), is that Kay places Perrers’ at the heart of many events that occurred in not only Edward’s reign, but even his successor’s, the hapless and spoiled Richard II’s. Whether it was championing various businessmen, nobles, bishops and seeking their favour with the king, or somehow getting involved with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, Kay presents a persuasive argument for Perrers’ being, if not central, then likely a key figure. There’s little doubt she would have known Chaucer (though he fails to obviously mention her, though Kay feels a physical description of her exists in The Canterbury Tales, not as the Wife of Bath, as some other historians have posited, but rather as the Miller’s wife in that tale).
Rather than following traditional notions of Perrers as a greedy, selfish woman who would stop at nothing to acquire what she could while she could (though Kay acknowledges she likely did that as well), he also admires her as a woman of the times who used the resources available to her – her wit, mind and charm – to advance herself in ways that weren’t otherwise available to women, let alone a woman of her birth.
Overall, I found this book really interesting and the connections and analysis convincing. The era comes alive as well as Perrers, and while she might have been wiped from history in the immediate aftermath of her fall, there’s no doubt that she nevertheless left enough of an impression for many historians and writers to wish to uncover what made her tick and bring her back to life – I am certainly glad Kay did.