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, been decisively countered by Martha Powell Harley.11 But their implications--that, before she became the king's mistress, Alice was a member, by birth and/or marriage, of either a gentle or a mercantile family--provide an interesting perspective in which to discuss a more enduring myth about her origins and some important new evidence regarding her first marriage.
In 1889 there was a lively debate on the question of Alice Perrers's family background in the pages of Notes and Queries; thirty years later the debate revived in a spate of correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement. This, followed up by further archival investigations in the mid-twentieth century, has resulted in a quite fully developed, though almost entirely speculative, account of Alice's circumstances prior to [End Page 220] becoming the king's mistress.12 From the present point of view, there are three important aspects to this rewriting of Alice's early life.
First, because it was known from the financial accounts that Alice was a member of the queen's household during the 1360s, there has long been discussion as to whether her role as domicella or "damsel" of the queen defined her as single. While C. L. Kingsford, who wrote the article on Alice in the original Dictionary of National Biography, demonstrated decisively as part of the Times Literary Supplement debate that a domicella could be married, and proposed that Alice may therefore have had a husband before she became Edward III's mistress, he found no direct evidence to support such an argument and tended to the assumption made through most of this debate that Perrers was indeed Alice's maiden name.13
Secondly, her role as the queen's "damsel" has been used as to argue that Alice must have come from gentle stock: as one of the early contributors to the Notes and Queries debate put it, "The term domicella is universally applied to unmarried ladies of good birth and lineage."14 Kingsford again scotched much of the rather precious idea of a group of virgin gentlewomen acting as "maids of honour" to a medieval queen, and what work has been done in this area suggests that the domicellae who served female members of the royal family could in fact come from quite diverse backgrounds.15 However, the idea that Alice's entrée to the court was a function of her good birth still tends to endure.16
Thirdly, and arising from this assumption about gentle status, a hypothetical link was made between Alice and a family of Hertfordshire gentry bearing the same surname; from this has developed the hypothesis that Alice was in fact the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers, a man whose own turbulent relationship with St. Albans Abbey could in turn have influenced Walsingham's enduring antipathy to anyone named Perrers.17 This argument has been taken up and accepted by much of the scholarship on the court of Edward III and the Good Parliament over the last two generations: Chris Given-Wilson's article on Alice in the recent Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for example, takes it as probable that Alice was indeed the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers.18 It needs to be remembered, however, that the only direct evidence ever cited in support of this argument is "an escutcheon still extant" (as it was referred to in 1889) in which the arms of William Windsor (Alice's husband from the 1370s) are quartered with those of the family of Perrers of Hertfordshire; the point has never been pursued in subsequent scholarship, and neither the location of the escutcheon nor the reliability of the heraldic reading has ever been established. [End Page 221]
Two documents from the series "Ancient Petitions" (Special Collections 8) in the National Archives, recently analyzed for cataloguing purposes, provide unexpected additional information on Alice's early career that may call into question the tradition of her gentle lineage and could suggest that Walsingham, for all his prejudice, may have had the story of her origins substantively correct. These documents, printed below, are petitions from John de Kendale of London for money owed to him by Alice. From internal evidence, both clearly date from the reign of Richard II, and although the fact that they employ different address clauses and are in different hands suggests that they were not submitted simultaneously, it is likely that both should be dated to early in Richard's reign. Although Edward III had been forced to exile Alice from the court during the Good Parliament, she had returned later that year; it was after Edward's death, in the first parliament of Richard II, that she was put to trial, with all those wishing to have their grievances against her redressed being advised to bring their petitions into parliament. The result, in and shortly after 1377, was a flood of demands for redress and compensation whose impact is more generally and strikingly evident in the Ancient Petitions.19
Appendix A is principally significant in providing information on the identity of the petitioner and his relationship to Alice Perrers. John Kendale here describes himself as a tailor who had provided cloth to Alice at Gracechurch Street in London in June 1360 and for which she had failed to pay him. The petition is made formally against William Windsor and his wife, Alice, because of the husband's legal liability for the debts of his wife, though the transaction in question and the failure to pay at the agreed date are clearly ascribed to Alice herself and indeed predated the couple's marriage. Alice Perrers may have made a clandestine marriage with William Windsor in 1373–74 when Windsor, who was Edward III's lieutenant in Ireland, was temporarily recalled to England; alternatively, the references to the disclosure of their marriage in Walsingham's account of the Good Parliament may have been erroneous, and the couple may not have married until shortly after Alice's disgrace and banishment from court in the summer of 1376.20 The fact that Appendix A ascribes liability to Windsor for such debts helps to date it before Windsor's own death in 1384, and the striking reference to the disparity between Kendale's position and that of William and Alice (he is "so poor and lowly" and they are "so high" that he cannot have justice at law) would tend to place the petition after 1379, the year in which Windsor had his wife's sentence of banishment revoked and the couple began the process of recovering their lost estates.21
It is Appendix B that is decisive in identifying Alice's status before her emergence as Edward III's mistress in the mid-1360s. This petition [End Page 222] refers to debts owed to Kendale by Janyn Perers, husband of Alice, accumulated in the thirty-fourth year of the reign of Edward III (January 1360-January 1361). While it must date from after the accession of Richard II, it does not mention William Windsor and ascribes direct liability for the relevant debts to Alice. Appendix A is more precise about the date when the sale of cloth occurred, while Appendix B provides fully itemized details of the materials purchased; but the fact that both documents refer to the debt having been undertaken in the same regnal year, and that the amount of the debt is recorded as £4 15s. in A and £4 15s. 8d. in B, makes it highly likely that both petitions do indeed refer to the same transaction. On balance, it seems likely that B predates A and may have been submitted in parliament in 1377, with A representing a follow-up campaign some time in the period 1379–84. Where B supplies a vitally important piece of detail missing from A is in specifying that the cloth in question had been purchased from Kendale not by Alice herself but by her then husband Janyn Perrers, and that following Janyn's subsequent death Alice had become responsible for the debt in her capacity as his executrix.
Appendix B therefore provides the first unequivocal evidence ever uncovered to demonstrate that Alice Perrers was married before she became Edward III's mistress and William Windsor's wife and to prove that Perrers was not her maiden name but the name of her first husband. In the process, the evidence collapses the tradition that Alice could have been the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers. It also incidentally demonstrates that she cannot have been the wife of William Chaumpaigne, since the only evidence cited in support of such an association relates to the very year (1360–61) in which Kendale's petition explicitly refers to Janyn and Alice as husband and wife.22
The obvious question now arises as to who Janyn Perrers might have been. Unfortunately and perhaps surprisingly, he proves a remarkably elusive figure. His name does not occur in the published royal archives or the published London records for the period, and although the serendipity that generated the present discovery may yet reveal more about this mysterious individual, for the present we are left to guess. The fact that the cloth was purchased from Kendale in London does not in itself require us to suppose either that Janyn and Alice kept their household there or that Janyn himself was of urban origins: it remains possible that he, in turn, had gentle connections. On the other hand, Alice's own responsibilities in the queen's household, which she had joined at least by 1359, might suggest that the couple spent much of their time in a metropolitan home. The other individual named incidentally in Appendix B, Master William Bridport, may be the notary of that name who is recorded working in London in 1367: this would reinforce the idea of a London-based residence for Janyn and Alice Perrers, as well as [End Page 223] demonstrating that Janyn was a man of sufficient means to need--and to afford--the services of a legal agent.23
More intriguingly, the new identification of Alice's first husband may provide at least some support for Walsingham's assumption that Alice was the "mistress" of a "man of Lombardy." Janyn is certainly found as an English forename in the fourteenth century (used as an alternative/diminutive for John), but it occurs more regularly in relation to foreigners--sometimes specifically Italians--in records of the period.24 "Janyn Perrers" is a name that can easily be rendered in Italian (and, indeed, Iberian) equivalents, and the question emerges as to whether Walsingham's idea that Alice was first the servant and then the bedfellow of a Lombard becomes at least potentially credible in light of the new evidence. Whether the debts recorded in Kendale's petitions were the kind to have been run up in a household where the mistress carried her own water from the well is unlikely, but what emerges is a set of circumstances that now become much more compatible with Walsingham's erstwhile discredited account of Alice Perrers's origins.
The evidence of these two petitions, taken in conjunction with what is already known from the royal household records and other exchequer and chancery materials, suggests, then, that some revision of Alice Perrers's early career is now required. This revision would place Alice as a domicella serving in the queen's household by 1359 and married at least by 1360 to Janyn Perrers. Janyn was evidently a man of reasonable substance with London connections, a context that could have implications in terms of Alice's own later financial links with the city of London and her possible role in drawing into the king's service Richard Lyons and the other metropolitan financiers who became so prominent at court in the years before the Good Parliament. Janyn died some time in or after 1361, after which Alice served as his executrix and, achieving the status of femme sole, was able to engage in commercial and legal transactions of her own. She seems to have been acting in such a capacity at least by 1366, and the fact that Edward III acknowledged her son, John Southeray, as his own, suggests that Janyn must have died some time between the end of the commercial transactions of 1360 recounted in Appendices A and B and Alice's conception of John. (The matter is complicated by the fact that John's date of birth is uncertain, occurring some time probably between 1364 and 1366.)25 More generally, the revision of Alice's early career now has to take on board the fact that she was either a married woman or more likely a widow when she first became Edward III's mistress.
The material surveyed here offers no direct evidence as to Alice Perrers's own family of birth, and it remains unclear whether she was of gentle, mercantile, or lowly origins. But the fact that her first husband was probably a townsman and possibly an Italian might well have been [End Page 224] enough to persuade the likes of Thomas of Walsingham that Alice herself was necessarily of humble birth, and the circumstances of her first marriage would provide grist to the mill of a chronicler intent on demonstrating her unworthiness to take the place of her former employer Queen Philippa in Edward III's affections and bed. Walsingham's comment that Alice was "not attractive or beautiful" can be read not merely as some kind of male expression of astonishment at Edward's ability to fall for a woman less than perfect in outward form, but also as a reinforcement of the chronicler's prejudice about her humble origins. Very similar things about the equation between low birth and physical ugliness were said (by Walsingham and others) about another queen's lady, Agnes Lancecrona, a domicella of Anne of Bohemia, who in the mid-1380s caught the attention of Richard II's great friend Robert de Vere and caused the latter to desert and divorce his high-born wife, Philippa, a granddaughter of Edward III.26 A generation earlier, and a little before Edward III took Alice Perrers as his mistress, David II of Scotland seems to have begun his liaison with his infamous mistress Katharine Mortimer while he was in captivity in London during the long negotiations for his ransom following the Battle of Neville's Cross of 1346. Katharine's origins are as elusive as Alice's, but despite some efforts to associate her with the aristocratic marcher family of Mortimer, it seems most likely that she was the daughter of a London family and found her way into David's affections through service in the household of his wife (and Edward III's sister), Queen Joan.27 Chroniclers concerned about a rash of royal infidelities with women of low birth commonly defamed mistresses as enchantresses who had bewitched innocent kings and princes into unworthy liaisons: Walsingham himself could not resist spicing his account of the Good Parliament with the alleged exposure of a Dominican friar who had assisted Alice Perrers with potions and charms in her evil campaign to seduce the vulnerable Edward III.28 Whatever the significance of that particular episode, the definitive evidence now revealed for Alice Perrers's first marriage, and the possibility that her early life was spent in a London context, certainly suggests that, in spite of the obvious contempt for her and her kind, Walsingham's account of Alice's origins may indeed contain important elements of truth that cast her not as a gentlewoman gaining access to royal circles through the privilege of birth but as a person of lower birth who made her fortune essentially through her own innate talent and ambition. [End Page 225]
1. "Erat in Anglia eadem tempestate quedam mulier inpudica meretrix procacissima, appelata Alicia cognomento Pereres genere infirna, quippe quos tectoris cuiusdam de villa de Henneye fuerat filia, set elata fortuna, neque Formosa neque pulcra, sed que sciret hos defectus supplere blanda lingua. Quam ceca fortuna ad tantum fastigium eleuauit, ut eam de ancilla et pelice cuiusdam Lumbardi et que solebat, ad usum domus eiusdem necessarium, aquam a conductu propriis suis humeris comportare, ad familiaritatem Regis plus quam debitam promoueret, et adhuc uiuente regina ab eodem rege in amore preferret." John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, and Leslie Watkiss, eds. and trans., The St Albans Chronicle: The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham, I: 1376–1394 (Oxford, 2003), 42 (text), 43 (translation, slightly adapted). This article arises from material analyzed for the project "Medieval Petitions: A Catalogue of the Ancient Petitions in the Public Record Office," funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I am very grateful to the research assistants on this project, Simon Harris, Jonathan Mackman, and Shelagh Sneddon, for expert advice, and to Chris Given-Wilson, who read and commented on an earlier draft of this article.
2. See also St Albans Chronicle I, 45, 46–48, 118–20, 168–70.
3. For the political context, see George Holmes, The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975); and Chris Given-Wilson, The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England, 1360–1413 (London, 1986), 142–54. For Walsingham’s own information on the Good Parliament, see Anthony Goodman, "Sir Thomas Hoo and the Parliament of 1376," Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 41 (1968): 139-49; and John Taylor, English Historical Literature in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1987), 199. For other studies see F. George Kay, Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers (New York, 1966); John A. Yunck, The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Mediaeval Venality Satire (Notre Dame, Ind., 1963); and Stephanie Trigg, "The Traffic in Medieval Women: Alice Perrers, Feminist Criticism and Piers Plowman," Yearbook of Langland Studies 12 (1998): 5–29.
4. Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England II: c. 1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century (New York, 1982), 118–56, at 129, 136–44; George B. Stow, "Richard II in Thomas Walsingham’s Chronicles," Speculum 59 (1984): 71–102; and W. M. Ormrod, "Knights of Venus," Medium Ævum 73 (2004): 290–305. See also, in general, James Clark, A Monastic Renaissance at St. Albans: Thomas Walsingham and His Circle c. 1350-c. 1440 (Oxford, 2004).
5. James Bothwell, "The Management of Position: Alice Perrers, Edward III, and the Creation of a Landed Estate, 1362–1377," Journal of Medieval History 24 (1998): 31–51
6. Martha Powell Harley, "Geoffrey Chaucer, Cecilia Chaumpaigne, and Alice Perrers: A Closer Look," Chaucer Review 28 (1993): 78–82, at 80. [End Page 227]
7. Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sir Leslie Stephens and Sidney Lee, 63 vols. (London, 1885–1900), 15:898 (hereafter cited as DNB).
8. DNB, 15:898.
9. Notes and Queries, 9th ser. 2 (Sept. 17, 1896): 236.
10. Haldeen Braddy, "Chaucer and Dame Alice Perrers," Speculum 21 (1946): 222–28, and "Chaucer, Alice Perrers, and Cecily Champaigne," Speculum 52 (1977): 906–11. For the documentation and a detailed discussion of the meaning of raptus within the Chaucer case, see Christopher Cannon, "Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer," Speculum 68 (1993): 74–93. For the wider context, see Corinne J. Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge, Eng., 2001).
11. Harley, "Geoffrey Chaucer," 78–82.
12. Notes and Queries: 7th ser. 7 (June 8, 1889): 449–51; 7th ser. 8 (July 13, 1889): 30–31; 7th ser. 8 (Aug. 3, 1889): 97–98; 9th ser. 2 (Sept. 17, 1896): 236. Times Literary Supplement: July 3, 1919, p. 364; July 17, 1919, p. 389; July 31, 1919, p. 413; Aug. 7, 1919, p. 425; Aug. 14, 1919, p. 437; Aug. 21, 1919, p. 449; Aug. 28, 1919, p. 461; Sept. 4, 1919, p. 473. Braddy, "Chaucer and Dame Alice Perrers," 226; Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (London, 1984), 13; and Given-Wilson, Royal Household, 147.
13. DNB, 15:898–900; Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1919, p. 389.
14. Notes and Queries, 7th ser. 8 (July 13, 1889): 30.
15. Times Literary Supplement, Aug. 14, 1919, p. 437. For analyses of the queen’s household, see Thomas Frederick Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Mediaeval England, 6 vols. (Manchester, 1920–33), 5:231–430; Hilda Johnstone, "The Queen’s Household," in The English Government at Work, 1327–1336, ed. J. F. Willard et al., 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1930–40), 1:250–99.
16. There is an interesting comparison to be made here with Katherine Swynford, whose origins certainly were gentle, and who became John of Gaunt’s mistress through her own service as ancilla to his first wife; see Anthony Goodman, John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe (Harlow, 1992), 363.
17. DNB, 15:898–900. In this entry, Kingsford pointed out that there were in fact at least two different men called Sir Richard Perrers, and stressed the hypothetical nature of the link. For Walsingham on Richard Perrers (or Perers), see St. Albans Chronicle I, 509–11.
18. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 60 vols. (Oxford, 2004), 43:794–95 (hereafter cited as ODNB).
19. Calendar of Close Rolls, Richard II, 1377–81 (London, 1914), 112; John Strachey et al., ed., Rotuli Parliamentorum, 6 vols. (London, 1767–77), 3:12–15. The scale of the business that resulted has never been assessed, but the cataloguing project for the Ancient Petitions is revealing a considerable number of complaints submitted either on this occasion or in the years that followed. I plan to publish this material elsewhere.
20. Holmes, Good Parliament, 97–98; S. Harbison, "William of Windsor, the Court Party, and the Administration of Ireland," in England and Ireland in the Later Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, ed. James Lydon (Dublin, 1981), 151–54; St Albans Chronicle I, 47 and n. 56; and ODNB, 43:794–95.
21. ODNB, 43:794–95.
22. Harley, "Geoffrey Chaucer," 78–82
23. Arthur Hermann Thomas, ed., Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Eng., 1926–1961), 2:76.
24. Janyn occurs as a forename in contexts where it clearly applies to aliens in Kew, The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office), E 210/2837, E 210/6029, [End Page 228] SC 8/48/2383, SC 8/71/3539. It occurs in contexts where the relevant person is not readily identifiable as an alien in C 1/69/256, C 1/82/71, C 1/373/32, SC 8/24/1162A.
25. Margeret Galway, "Alice Perrers’ Son John," English Historical Review 66 (1951): 242–46; ODNB, 43:794–95.
26. Ormrod, "Knights of Venus," 296.
27. W. M. Ormrod, "Katharine Mortimer’s Death at Soutra," Sharp Practice 4: Fourth Report on Researches into the Medieval Hospital at Soutra, Lothian/Borders Region, Scotland, ed. Brian Moffat (Edinburgh, 1992), 110–20.
28. St Albans Chronicle I, 46–49. For another example, this time in relation to John of Gaunt’s mistress, Katherine Swynford, see Goodman, John of Gaunt, 363.
29. June 24, 1360.
30. January 1360-January 1361.