Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Alice Perrers - The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien



Synopsis:

"There was ... in England a shameless woman and wanton harlot called Ales Peres, of base kindred ... being neither beautiful or fair, she knew how to cover these defects with her flattering tongue ..."

A child born in the plague year of 1348, abandoned and raised within the oppressive walls of a convent, Alice Perrers refused to take the veil, convinced that a greater destiny awaited her. Ambitious and quick-witted, she rose above her obscure beginnings to become the infamous mistress of Edward III. But always, essentially, she was alone….

Early in Alice’s life, a chance meeting with royalty changes everything: Kindly Queen Philippa, deeply in love with her husband but gravely ill, chooses Alice as a lady-in-waiting. Under the queen’s watchful eye, Alice dares to speak her mind. She demands to be taken seriously. She even flirts with the dynamic, much older king. But she is torn when her vibrant spirit captures his interest…and leads her to a betrayal she never intended.

In Edward’s private chambers, Alice discovers the pleasures and paradoxes of her position. She is the queen’s confidante and the king’s lover, yet she can rely only on herself. It is a divided role she was destined to play, and she vows to play it until the bitter end. Even as she is swept up in Edward’s lavish and magnificent court, amassing wealth and influence for herself, becoming an enemy of his power-hungry son John of Gaunt and a sparring partner to resourceful diplomat William de Windsor, she anticipates the day when the political winds will turn against her. For when her detractors voice their hatred and accusations of treason swirl around her, threatening to destroy everything she has achieved, who will stand by Alice then?”


Biography:
Alice Perrers with King Edward on his deathbed

Alice was born the illegitimate child of a tavern whore and a town labourer during the one of the darkest periods of England when the Black Plague annihilated thousands and thousands of victims in the 14th century. Resilient from the start, she survived and ended up as an orphan in an abbey where she was raised by the strict, harsh sisters. Considered a very ugly child, she could never look into a mirror. Despite her lack of breeding, her unpleasant countenance, her lack of legitimacy, her lack of worldly possessions, she was blessed with a sharp wit and ruthless determination. And it was those qualities that helped her rise to the loftiest heights of society.

At a very young age, perhaps even twelve, she married a man named Janyn Perrers who died a few short years later. As a young widow, sometime before 1366 when she was a mere 15 years of age, Alice became a damsel of the chamber / lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife of King Edward III. 


Queen Philippa

Despite her lowborn status and her truly ugly appearance, and armed only with her wit and shrewd mind, she managed to catch the eye and the interest of the king. By her actions, the rumours and scandalous talk about her rose to a crescendo. Known as the greedy mistress of King Edward III, her uncharismatic personality and ruthless nature caused many to dislike her. 


Edward III

She became the king’s mistress six years before Queen Philippa’s death. It was kept secret and clandestine until the after the queen’s death. The king’s advisors believed Alice corrupted the king by making him commit the sin of adultery. King Edward gifted Alice with the queen’s garments and jewels. She adorned herself with the opulent clothes and blatantly flaunted the dead queen’s jewels, valued at over 200,000 pounds, about the court. If this didn’t set tongues a-wagging, in a slow but dazzling display of power, she began amassing manor houses and lands, all gifts and grants by her lover, the king. She was now the wealthiest common-born woman in all of England. 

During their relationship, she bore the king four children: Sir John de Southeray, Nicholas Lytlington - Abbot of Westminster, Jane Plantagenet, and Joan Plantagenet. Courtiers believed King Edward fell under the influence of Alice Perrers through beguilement and manipulation until he could refuse her nothing. Spending by the king became extremely extravagant and suspicions of corruption among the court’s ministers abounded. She managed to amass 56 manors, castles, and townhouses.  Lawsuits arose over these land transferred. Never afraid or shy, Alice went to court and intervened and bullied the judges to ensure the outcome was judged in her favour or that of her friends.

Whispers circulated that Alice manipulated and smote the king with occult spells and witchcraft. As a result, her physician was taken into custody and charged with concocting love potions and talismans on her behalf. When she secretly married William de Windsor, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, without the king’s knowledge or consent, all believed her morals completely corrupt.

As the suspicions increased, so did the accusations. Parliament stripped her of all land and homes, and banished her from court. But only 15 of her homes were gifts. The others, she legitimately owned through her strong business sense, shrewd contacts, and knack for investments.

Review:

I truly enjoyed Anne O’Brien’s interpretation of Alice Perrer’s life. It was written with a non-judgmental tone, providing an unbiased and fascinating description of her life.

The King's Concubine is an engaging novel, written in first person narrative and an easy-to-read style that allows the reader to completely immerse themselves in the story. The author skilfully portrayed the main characters so that they were believable. 

As with all good tales, there must always be a fascinating antagonist, and in this novel, there were several, but most enjoyable were Princess Joan and Princess Isabella. Understandably, both women were highly resentful of Alice’s influence over their father and the author did a fabulous job demonstrating their animosity.  Through their actions and bitter words, I could understand how strongly family and friends reacted to Alice’s presence in the king’s life.

Despite the fact that history has portrayed Alice Perrers in the most unflattering light – ugly, ambitious, ruthless, power-hungry, and greedy, the author was able to demonstrate Alice’s softer side – her loyalty to the king and queen, her need to protect and fend for herself, her need to support her children and house herself should the king discard her. It is also fair to keep in mind that Alice was surrounded by strong, duplicitous men as eager for wealth and power than she was. Women in that era were easily attacked and Alice's success in accumulating wealth provided ample fodder. 

Anne O’Brien did an exceptional job of balancing fact with fiction as attested in the explanation at the end. This is biographical fiction at its best. A fascinating and intriguing story, highly recommended. 

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