The King’s Mistress – by Emma Campion – #bookreview

A mixed review for this one. One the one hand, I admired the author’s effort to present a new take on Alice Perrers. But on the other hand, I felt the book lacked a deep emotional dimension. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.

king'smistressTo me, the protagonist Alice Perrers is a fascinating historical figure. I believe she is the ONLY known mistress of England’s King Edward III (1312-1377) and usually gets a pretty bad wrap. Based on several contemporary historical references she has come down in history as a greedy, manipulative shrew. Consider this description from Thomas Walsingham’s St. Albans Chronicle:

Here was a woman in England called Alice Perrers. She was a shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth…She was not attractive or beautiful, but knew how to compensate for these defects by her seductive voice. Blind fortune elevated this woman to such heights and promoted her to a greater intimacy with the king than was proper, since she had been the maidservant and mistress of a man of Lombardy…Even while the queen was still alive, the king loved this woman more than he loved the queen.”

Like the author, Emma Campion, I too question this description of Alice. Edward III is widely known to have been happy in his marriage to Philippa of Hainault (they did have eight children) and Alice is his only known mistress. I doubt she could have captured the king’s attention with only a “seductive voice, as a mere teenager. More likely, as Campion suggests, Alice was VERY attractive, VERY young, and VERY appealing to an aging king of more than 40.

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Depiction of Alice Perrers at King Edward III’s deathbed. (Courtesy of Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images)

Central to Alice’s true character is the question – what rights did women have in medieval England? And the answer is — not many. Generally, fathers arranged marriages, usually to promote the interests of the family, without regard for their daughters’ personal feelings. Any property women brought to a marriage automatically became her husband’s property. Women, once widowed, generally moved onto a new marriage – since it was not considered proper or safe for them to live on their own, without a husband’s protection. Even maintaining custody of one’s own children was in the control of the men in a woman’s life. So, if the King of England expresses a carnal interest in you, it’s unlikely Alice could have done anything but say YES.

And, it seems to me, IF you’re a King of England, with a very young mistress, you might naturally want to flaunt that relationship, as a sign of your own prowess, by giving her expensive jewels and property and prominence in your court. Then, over time, when Alice eventually becomes the wealthiest woman in England and a very influential one after the Queen dies, that would certainly stir up lots of jealousy and resentment. Particularly among those of higher birth. It’s always important to remember how large a role class plays in British history. And Alice was a commoner living and wielding power among upper class peers of the realm. Not exactly a recipe for acceptance.

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Emma Campion

Campion has written a book that, in her own words, she hopes would have pleased Alice. And I think she succeeded in this goal. But, as a devout reader of historical fiction, I didn’t finish the book feeling that Alice was fully fleshed out. I got that Alice loved her children. I got that she loved the king. But for someone whose life was so full of drama (multiple marriages, children by different fathers, escalating wealth, imprisonment, political pawn, lots of lawsuits), she still remained two-dimensional. And the book, as a whole, didn’t engross me as much as I wanted or expected it to — given my deep interest in the subject matter.

More about the author, medieval scholar Emma Campion. According to the publishing company, Random House, she is considered the foremost scholar on Alice Perrers.