The Freelance History Writer is pleased to participate in the blog tour for Gemma Hollman’s new book: The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III. She is the author of Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville and manager of the blog Just History Posts. You can follow Gemma on Facebook, and Twitter here and here.
From a 21st-century perspective looking back in time, we think we know what it was like for people like us in different time periods. In Western Europe, we think we know (and the image is reinforced by portrayals of the “medieval” in popular media) what it was like for women in the Middle Ages. They were supposed to be meek, quiet, submissive to men, and produce lots of babies. So what happened when a woman did what was expected of her – and what happened when she didn’t?
Luckily for us, the 14th-century court of King Edward III of England provides us with a perfect case study. In 1326, Edward supported his mother’s invasion of England in a bid to rid her husband, Edward II, of his hated favourites and restore order to the court and the royal family. The invasion was a greater success than anyone anticipated, and it led to Edward II’s deposition. In late 1326, Prince Edward was made Keeper of the Realm, and in January 1327 Parliament declared that he was to take over from his father and become king instead. Vital to the success of this invasion had been the foreign territories of Holland, Hainault, and Zeeland.
The ruler of these lands was a man named William, whose wife was Queen Isabella’s cousin. This familial connection, and the availability of one of William’s daughters led to the suggestion of a mutually beneficial alliance. William provided ships and troops to Isabella, and in return Prince Edward would marry William’s daughter, Philippa. In time, William knew his daughter would become Queen of England, a very powerful position, and he was happy to spend some money to fund Isabella’s plans in return. Once Prince Edward became king, plans were set in place to bring Philippa over to England for their marriage. In early 1328 the couple were wed. The bride was likely just shy of her 14th birthday.
So whilst their marriage started under less-than-ideal circumstances, the young bride and groom were taken with each other and quickly grew close, bonded by their poor treatment by Edward’s mother. As Edward grew up and took control of his kingdom, Philippa was always by his side. Philippa was not shy to place herself in danger to support her husband, and she travelled with him into Scotland – her safety directly threatened by the Scots with whom Edward was fighting – and later on to the frontline of the wars with France. Perhaps more impressively, she often undertook these dangerous travels whilst pregnant, for the couple’s love for each other led to 12 children, 11 of whom were born within 18 years of each other.
Philippa certainly fulfilled the expectation that a medieval queen provide heirs for her husband. But she also held influence at court, ensuring she obtained pardons for criminals and gifts for her loyal servants. She helped to found a new college at Oxford University, for which she gathered ample endowments, and thus left a legacy for future generations who would be educated there. Her parents’ court had been filled with books and music when she was a child, and she brought this passion with her to the English court. She patronised poets and chroniclers who flocked to witness the glamorous court of her husband. These same writers would be responsible for great eulogies mourning her passing when she died. They extolled her virtue and generosity, crediting her with the flourishing of the English monarchy during her lifetime.
But whilst Philippa had been seen to be the ideal medieval queen who could do no wrong, towards the end of her life there emerged a rival for her husband’s affections. Throughout her life, her husband had been loyal and adoring of her. But as Philippa grew sick and neared death, Edward III’s eyes wandered to another. One of Philippa’s ladies-in-waiting, a young woman named Alice Perrers, captured Edward’s attention. Alice was more than half his age, had a body unmarked by childbearing, and was clever and headstrong.
Alice and Edward’s love quickly blossomed, and across the next few years Edward was made a father three more times. The couple kept their relationship secret, partially to protect the feelings and reputation of the queen, but also to protect Edward’s reputation – and even Alice herself. A recent mistress of the Scottish monarchy had been murdered for her influence over the king. Alice, though, had to think of her own needs as a single woman without a husband. She needed a contingency plan were her favour with the monarchy to falter, and she quickly set about making powerful allies amongst the men at court. She befriended knights, merchants and lords, and started to obtain pieces of land.
Across the 1360s, Alice slowly gathered enough pieces of land to place herself respectably amongst the knightly classes. Alice was a single woman, a daughter of a mere goldsmith, and this success alone made her stand out amongst her contemporaries. But once the queen died, Alice was vaulted into the spotlight. No longer did she and Edward have to be so discrete about their relationship, and soon people were flocking to Alice to gain her favour. In her life, the queen had acted as an intermediary between her people and her husband, and people now hoped that Alice could fill this spot. Even the Pope petitioned Alice for help, having no qualms writing to a mistress if she could get what he needed done.
However, Alice was not as virtuous as Philippa had been. Philippa was driven by a sense of duty and expectation of her position, but Alice held an unofficial place at court that had never quite seen this level of power before. No other English royal mistress had leveraged their position in the way that Alice did before. She gladly took the favourable business deals from the men who came to her, but she did not always follow through on obtaining favours for them from Edward.
As the 1370s progressed, Alice got more and more powerful, and Edward started to decline. Finally, the commons of the kingdom had enough: Alice had to go. As Edward’s days were numbered, Alice was being banished from his presence. After Edward’s death, her punishment went even further. For being a meddlesome woman who had counteracted the decisions of Edward’s council, gaining favours for her friends, she was to be banished from the kingdom and have all of her goods and lands taken from her.
Alice, though, had spent almost two decades at the royal court. She knew how ruthless politics could be, and how her presence as a powerful single woman grated on the men whose authority she overstepped. She had made a contingency plan, and secretly married a powerful knight. Together, the couple endlessly campaigned the government for restitution of Alice’s possessions. Alice continued this fight to her death, adamant even in her last moments that her rights had been overstepped by the men around her. In the end, her greatest crime had been transgressing her place as a woman in society.
Philippa and Alice were two women from vastly different stations in life united in their love for the same man. Though on the surface they seem so different, a perfect queen against the scheming mistress, there was plenty that they had in common. They both fought to protect the rights of their children, who were not shy to assert their legal rights to money and land, they both enjoyed the finer things in life, and they were both intelligent women. Edward III saw loveable qualities in both of them, and they were both powerful women in their own rights. Both women used their femininity in vastly different ways to leverage influence over king and court. But one woman died adored by her kingdom, whilst the other was vilified for centuries. Did they deserve their subsequent legacies?