In this latest guest post, I am honoured to welcome Gemma Hollman for part of a book tour to promote her latest book, The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III. The book tells the story of the women in Edward’s life, his queen, Philippa of Hainault, and his mistress, Alice Perrers. It shows how two very different women, from very different backgrounds, were able to make their way in the royal court.
Gemma Hollman is a historian and author who specialises in late medieval English history. Her previous book, Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville, was published in 2019. When not working in the heritage sector, she also runs a history blog, Just History Posts, which features many different periods of history.
Being a woman in medieval England could be tricky. Society was run by men, and whilst women could and did have freedom and power, there were lots of conflicting social pressures placed upon them. They should be pious, quiet, affable, submissive, and fertile, but many women were also expected to be clever, able to run an estate or business in her husband’s absence, wise to politics and diplomacy and otherwise be an asset in a marriage.
One part of being a woman which was viewed with the most suspicion was her sexuality. Women were seen as emotional creatures, would-be-Eves just waiting to lead men into temptation and sin. Women could control men with the lure of the bedroom, and so they were seen as a danger. This danger was particularly heightened with the women who found themselves around the king – even his wife and queen.
Philippa of Hainault was the wife of Edward III for four decades, and she amply fulfilled her duties as consort by providing a vast number of children and heirs for her husband. But though their sexual attraction was clear, Philippa knew well not to flaunt her sexual status at the king’s side. Her mother-in-law, Queen Isabella, had come under scandal during her effective regency of England for taking a lover, and her potential pregnancy by this man was what ultimately led to Edward III to rebel against her and seize the reins of power for himself. Philippa had seen the damaging effects of a loose woman in power, and she was happy to demonstrate that she did not have undue influence over Edward because of her position in his bed. On one occasion when the couple were travelling their kingdom, they stayed at a monastery. The resident monks were uncomfortable with the king and queen sharing a bed in their religious institution, and Philippa happily agreed to stay in separate accommodation so as not to insult her hosts.
But though Philippa downplayed her sexual hold over the king, she profited greatly from her position as a mother. By caring personally for her children instead of placing them in separate households, she obtained extra lands and income in order to pay for their upkeep. The close relationships she cultivated with her children gave her influence over them and their extended network later in their lives. And even the image of Philippa as mother was used as propaganda in pieces of history. One of the most famous stories of Philippa’s life places her as a heavily pregnant woman pleading at the feet of her husband to spare the lives of the Frenchmen of Calais who had come under Edward’s wrath. The visceral image of a pregnant queen gave Philippa great political currency, and she was apparently able to succeed in intervening in politics in a way that none of the lords of Edward’s council were able to as a result.
Whilst Philippa had found a way to carefully navigate the power and suspicion that being a lover of the king entailed, towards the end of her life another woman was to take up this mantle. Alice Perrers was one of Philippa’s ladies-in-waiting and not long after her arrival at court she became the king’s only known mistress. As a young, lower-class woman who was causing the king to sin in adultery, Alice was in a far more immoral position than Philippa. Philippa’s position as the king’s partner was sanctified by marriage and her coronation, blessed by the church, but Alice could not be further from this. Though the couple kept their relationship secret during the lifetime of the queen, it still nonetheless resulted in three children. Once Philippa died, Alice was thrust into the limelight of Edward’s court as he became more open to sharing the place Alice had in his heart.
Though Edward was very much in love with Alice and lavished her with attention and gifts, others were more conflicted by her position. As the only woman who now shared Edward’s bed, powerful men across Europe recognised Alice’s influential position and they were not shy to petition her for help. But many also found her undue influence distasteful. Thomas Walsingham, a monk and chronicler, criticised Alice’s ugly appearance and shameless behaviour as a loose woman, attributing her rise in favour with Edward to witchcraft and good luck.
As if Alice’s position as a mistress was not bad enough, she had no qualms reminding those around her exactly how she gained her influence with the king. During her downfall and trial in Parliament, the men of Edward’s household described how Alice sat at the head of the king’s bed beside him, and how Edward sometimes seemed to change his mind overnight – a suggestion that a certain woman had entered his bedroom that night and changed it for him. Alice directed orders to the men around her from the same bed that she slept in with the king, and this overt reminder of her sexuality was severely disapproved of. Alice was not ashamed of her sexuality and the power it brought her, and this was brought into sharp contrast with the behaviour of the queen before her.
Ultimately, the womanly behaviour of both women was reflected in their subsequent legacies. Philippa was seen as the ideal queen who never mis-stepped, who blessed the kingdom with her generosity and fecundity, whilst Alice was despised for being a power-hungry woman who used sex to her advantage and had none of the shame and modesty a woman of her time should have. In looking back on their legacies and attempting to find their real stories, we need to remember just how important gender roles were in their reputations amongst their contemporaries – and make sure this doesn’t unfairly colour our modern opinion of them.
For UK readers, Gemma’s second book, The Queen and The Mistress: The Women of Edward III is out now, you can buy it from Amazon. For American readers, the book is due for release in Spring 2023.
You can find Gemma’s site here: http://www.justhistoryposts.com/.
You can find Gemma’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/JustHistoryPosts
You can also find Gemma on Twitter here: @GemmaHAuthor