Heritage: The king's mistress lived in Upminster
PUBLISHED: 15:00 13 April 2019
Was Alice Perrers as bad as she's been painted? Prof Ged Martin looks at the story of Edward III's mistress
During her retirement at Upminster, Alice Perrers must sometimes have reflected that being a royal mistress was no bed of roses.
Medieval monarchs acquired wives as part of diplomatic agreements: a foreign prince would be a more reliable ally if you married his daughter.
Edward III married Philippa of Hainault to secure friends in Flanders, useful allies against France. Hainault is part of modern Belgium.
Philippa had nothing to do with the modern Central Line station. That area, which belonged to Barking Abbey, was originally called hyne-holt, the nuns’ wood.
In the 18th century, it acquired a posh pronunciation, and a fake association with Queen Philippa.
Queen Philippa was charming and popular. She got on well with Edward: they had thirteen children.
But, having made official marriages, kings often turned elsewhere for love.
Alice Perrers was born around 1348, when England was swept by the lethal Black Death. Maybe she realised that life was risky, and a girl should grab her chances.
She was no aristocrat. Some of her many enemies claimed her father was a roof-tiler. Others said he was a weaver, and that she started life as a skivvy.
She became the teenage bride of a jeweller called Perrers, but was soon widowed.
Maybe her jewels made her glamorous. By 1366, aged 18, she was at the royal court, as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, who was now in her fifties.
Alice soon became the king’s mistress: she was 18, he was 55. Within two years, she gave birth to three children.
(In fact, the first may have been born when she was just seventeen: her job with the Queen was possibly a cover story.)
When Philippa died in 1369, Alice moved centre-stage. In 1375, she rode in state through London, dressed as the Lady of the Sun, to preside at a jousting tournament in Smithfield.
Much of the information about her comes from the chronicle of St Albans Abbey, a business diary kept by the monks, which also recorded national events.
Unluckily, the Abbey was locked in a property dispute with Alice, and the holy men were viciously unkind about her.
It’s often claimed that, between 1370 and 1376, this young woman in her twenties virtually ruled England, by controlling the increasingly doddery king.
Critics said she enriched herself with cash and jewels (even getting her hands on heirlooms given to the late Queen). She controlled appointments and intimidated judges.
In 1376, an angry parliament briefly drove her into exile. But the doting king soon called her back to his side.
Edward III spent much of the final year at his palace in Havering-atte-Bower. Alice was a shrewd property investor. In 1373, she’d bought an estate nearby, at Gaynes in Upminster.
She also secretly married a government official, Sir William Windsor, to give herself a protector after the king’s death.
As Edward III lay dying in 1377, enemies alleged that she stripped the rings from his fingers, before abandoning him.
But it seems she stuck by her lover to the end. Perhaps she removed the rings to make him more comfortable – or to stop greedy courtiers stealing them. Fleeing for safety made sense.
The male chauvinist monks cruelly claimed Alice wasn’t good-looking, but owed her hold over the king to her brains and wit.
Predictably, she was accused of witchcraft.
Alice had to fight to retain her property – after Sir William Windsor’s death, his family made problems too – but it seems she retired to Upminster, leaving instructions at her death in 1400 to be buried in St Laurence’s church there.
Alice’s house probably stood near Parklands, the open space off Corbets Tey Road which formed part of the grounds of a later Gaynes mansion.
As Upminster people pass the ancient church, few will suspect that a king’s mistress is buried there.