- Who Was 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 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.1
Thomas of Walsingham, the St. Albans chronicler whose Chronica maiora is such a fundamental source for the political history of England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, incorporated into his work a series of vivid vignettes about Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III.2 Walsingham clearly abhorred Alice. She was an ambitious woman who overcame the disabilities of origin and gender to become one of the most powerful figures at court in the mid-1370s. She was also the epitome (and, to an extent, the scapegoat) for the endemic greed and corruption of the small coterie of courtiers and London financiers who exerted such evil influence during Edward III's decline into dotage and were condemned in the Good Parliament; among her other dubious distinctions is the assertion, now deeply embedded in Langland scholarship, that she was the inspiration for the infamous figure of Lady Mede in Piers Plowman.3 That Walsingham was a misogynist and a fervent critic of the perceived decadence of the court under both Edward III and Richard II is well known.4 It has also been pointed out that Walsingham's views of Alice may have been colored by the acrimonious debate that took place between his own abbey and Perrers over the manor of Oxney Walround (Hertfordshire), one of the many legal disputes that were generated by Alice's assertive program of estate accumulation in the [End Page 219] period of her ascendancy between 1366 and 1376.5 Whatever other virtues he had as an historian, then, Walsingham was hardly an objective biographer of Alice Perrers. As a consequence, his comments on Alice's origins have long been dismissed as representing rumor and defamation rather than historical fact.
Early modern antiquarians had something of a penchant for speculation on Alice's origins. There was a tradition in the eighteenth century that she was the niece of William Wykeham--an idea that probably sprang from the collusion evident between the two figures over property dealings, but which may also have played on the medieval and post-medieval stories of Wykeham's own lowly birth.6 Another set of assumptions about Alice's humble origins identified the king's mistress as the daughter of a Devon weaver.7 Two further traditions are worthy of note, not because they prove to have any particular authority but because of the particular assumptions they made about Alice's family background. First, it was suggested by Norfolk antiquarians that Alice was the daughter of John Perrers of Holt and that she was married to Sir Thomas de Narford before embarking on her marriage with the king's lieutenant of Ireland, William Windsor.8 This tradition established a gentle or even noble lineage for Alice, which led in turn to further speculation: one late nineteenth-century antiquarian asserted that Alice was the illegitimate daughter of the last Earl Warenne by a female member of the Narford family.9 Secondly, and much more recently, Haldeen Braddy, in articles published in 1946 and 1977, argued that Alice was the second wife of William Chaumpaigne of London and thus the stepmother of Cecilia Chaumpaigne, the woman at the center of the infamous charge of raptus made against Geoffrey Chaucer.10 Neither the Narford nor the Chaumpaigne connection has received much support in modern scholarship, and Braddy's arguments have already, in fact...