Research is shedding new light on one of medieval England’s most notorious women. An investigation by University of York historian Mark Ormrod has revealed that Alice Perrers, Edward III’s mistress, was almost certainly from the peasant background.
Historians already knew that Alice was a shrewd financial ‘wheeler-dealer’ who amassed a substantial fortune – and infuriated much of the establishment in the process – but until now most thought that she was born in to the gentry, not as the daughter of a merchant or a knight.
The research also shows that Perrers was not her original name. professor Ormrod has unearthed evidence suggesting that she was born Alice Southbury or Salisbury in East Hanney, Oxfordshire. She then moved to London and married an Italian merchant called Perrers before being widowed.
Alice was a maid to Edward’s wife, Queen Phillipa of Hainault – and became the King’s lover in c 1362, when she was 14. Although several other kings – including Henry I and Henry II – had mistresses, Alice was unique, becoming politically and financially powerful.
She epitomised a newly emancipated breed of women that emerged after the Black Death. Plague had reduced the working population, creating an increased demand for labour, and forcing employers to take on female workers.
Alice took full advantage of these social changes, befriending the King, and building up a vast property portfolio, consisting of at least 70 estates in 25 counties. Yet her success provoked a furious reaction from the establishment, whose more misogynist members were unhappy with the increasing level of female emancipation.
In 1376 the so-called ‘Good Parliament’ passed a law (aimed no doubt to Alice) banning women from having undue influence at court.