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Introducing Alice Perrers

Alice was a hustler. She came from nowhere (there are theories starting her off as a tiler’s daughter in Essex, or a gentleman’s daughter in Hertfordshire, and many others). She was born at about the time the Black Death got to England, in 1349, but she was the type to survive. By the middle of the 1360s she’d already found a niche at court, serving Edward III’s Queen, Philippa, as a lady in waiting. Before the Queen quite knew where she was, Alice was in the King’s bed too. And that was only the beginning – because the Queen soon died, and there was so much more than an old man’s love that Alice was now finding she wanted.

The royal mistress with an eye to the main chance – pretty, witty, and out to get rich from her dalliance with a crowned lover – is a stereotype who’s been cropping up in the history books for hundreds of years. For 645 years, to be precise – since 1365, when Edward III was first lured into the bed of this young woman sharp enough to realise that she might get far more than sex, or a royal bastard to comfort her in her old age, out of her elderly widower.

Alice Perrers wrote the script many other royal mistresses have followed, or tried to follow, throughout the centuries since. Yet, to this day, it’s unlikely that any of her more famous successors have done better than Alice at milking her royal connections for financial gain.

She rose with dizzying speed, not only through the King’s favour but through her own dazzling business acumen, to become, for several years, one of the richest and most influential people in England. At the height of her fortune (and infamy), Alice Perrers owned more than 50 manors around England, controlled public policy, ran the royal palaces, nursed her senile lover, sat in the King’s seat in the law courts to issue legal judgements, and traded with sophistication in debt papers with the merchants of London – and was also, on the side, helping herself to the wealth of both Court lords and City merchants, raiding the coffers intended to fund England’s long-running war with France. The monkish chroniclers of the day couldn’t wait to get down on paper the shocking rumours that she was, at the same time, somehow finding the energy to sneak her merchant step-daughters into the royal chambers for three- and four-in-a-bed sex romps.

It took a corruption trial at the time of Edward’s death to call a halt to her various activities. Yet, even without her royal protector to save her, Alice still had the wit to wangle herself out of the threat first of burning and then of exile. It took time and fast talking, but she even got back a good part of her property. Eventually she also won a pardon. She spent her final two decades back in Essex, pursuing the rest of her lost estates in court. She never got back all the wealth of her glory days, but her chirpy never-say-die attitude seems to have endeared her to the next king. Edward’s grandson, Richard II, invited her back to the royal court she’d once “ruled” and never quite left several times in her last years.

If she’d lived in a more female-friendly age, Alice Perrers might have managed a glittering (and less dishonest) career of her own, one that would have rivaled those of our driven, go-getting female contemporaries, from Cherie Blair to Nicola Horlick. It was Alice’s tragedy – though one she never let get her down – that she was born several centuries too soon for her business abilities to find a legal outlet, or her quick wits to be properly appreciated. Still, becoming a royal mistress proved a good second best.

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