Thursday, August 30, 2012

The King's Concubine

Anne O'Brien is the author of The King's Concubine A Novel of Alice Perrers. 
Summary of book:
Alice Perrers was born in the year of 1345 when plague was rampant in England.  Not much was known of her actual beginnings or parentage, but in the book she lives in a convent St Mary's.  She was constantly reminded how lucky she was to have been taken in when she had no parents to speak of.  While there, she came into contact with the beautiful widowed Countess Joan.  Alice found an opportunity and took the chance at helping serve as tiring maid for the Countess while there at the abbey.  She found her quite fascinating how she bathed and spoke, even though she did seem cruel.  When she left, Alice dared to ask her to take her with her and the Countess just smirked.  Some time later another royal visitor came to the abbey.  The Queen of England!  Queen Phillipa came with her daughter Isabella and looked quite ill.  She was suffering from dropsy, swelling of the body.  The Queen almost tripped when walking down the aisle and Alice took the opportunity to help her when no one else did.  She was rewarded with a rosary but could not accept it because of her vow of poverty.  The Queen took notice of her and asked for her as well to help her. 

Alice came to know the kindly Queen and her not as kind daughter Isabella.  Alice had become aware at this point through the Countess Joan's help that she was not beautiful.  She was quite plain and the princess noted it.  This seems to be the time that Alice's ambitions started growing and she wanted out of the convent.  Once the Queen left, Alice was sad and once again felt enclosed.  But there was another surprise in store for her- a local pawnbroker had paid the abbess for her services.  So Alice joined the household of Janyn Perrers at the age of 15 and helped around the house, but soon he asked for her hand in marriage.  Since he was so old she was more there to keep his hounding sister from pushing him towards a more advantageous marriage.  Janyn was kindly to her and taught her numbers and accounting.  He was soon struck down with the plague and she tended him to his dying day.  Left with nothing because of his evil sister, she was soon with no choice but to return to the convent.  Greseley approached her, he had worked for Janyn as well.  He helped Alice buy some property with her wedding money and from that day forth became her broker and agent.  Now not totally without anything, she returned to the convent again to await a better opportunity.  A courier named Wykeham came to her at the convent with a rosary from the Queen and said her services had been asked for.  Alice gladly went with him to the palace Havering-atte-Bower. 

Her beginnings at court were not easy- the princess Isabella contrived to have her work in the kitchens instead of where she was supposed to, with the Queen.  Weeks later and some of the kitchen workers discovered she had a rosary of the Queen's on her.  They accused her of stealing even when she told them the story, and she was brought before Wykeham and the princess.  Fortunately, the King and Queen were nearby and the Queen saved her.  She promptly brought her into her services as one of her damsels.  The princess did not agree but there Alice was- her own bed, freshly washed with new clothes of her own.  The Queen was very kind to her and took her under her wing.  Soon the Queen disclosed to Alice her real reason for bringing her to Court- she was ailing and needed a companion for the King.  She was no longer able to be touched without extreme pain and would rather have him a lover of her own choosing than some other ambitious or conniving woman.  Alice was shocked at the suggestion and the obvious pain it caused the Queen.  Alice could not deny the Queen and so did what she asked.  The King had noticed her through the court events and hunts and her sharp tongue.  Although not beautiful, he grew to like her sound advice and wisdom.  They became lovers in secret long before the court knew.  Wykeham, her first friend at court, was quite angry with her for betraying the Queen like that.  He was a priest and builder for the King.  Poor Alice had to keep it a secret that the Queen desired this of her, and so many thought ill of her.

At age 17 Alice was the mistress of the King, and was for over 13 years.  She bore him four children- two boys and two girls.  Upon the death of Queen Phillipa she became recognized as the King's Concubine.  She was able to travel back and forth to her children and buy more manors.  Many she bought with her own money, but some with the crown's that she paid back.  Alice understood all along that while she was his mistress she should take full advantage, even if it made her look worse, and secure means for her future and her children's security.  She was well aware of the enemies all around her, especially once the Queen died, and knew that once the King passed as well she would be left to the wolves.  One of the King's sons John of Gaunt was somewhat of an ally at some point because he needed her help when the King was desolate over the Queen's death.  Alice was the only one able to bring him back.  Alice also met a diplomat William Windsor that helped the King and his son in Ireland.  They became unlikely friends and he warned her to be careful.  The King slowly and painfully declined over eight years after his wife's death, and Alice prepared herself.  She married Will Windsor for protection and because he proposed to her.  When the court found out they issued a warrant for her banishment.  The King was too out of it to protect or defend her and so she left court.  Awhile later John of Gaunt sent a letter stating she could come back.  So many twists and turns at the end- her enemies conspiring against her for fraud, treason, even witchcraft.  When the King died she was barely able to be at his bedside and was not allowed to his funeral.  The Countess Joan of course ordered her to leave, as her son Richard II was heir to the throne.

Through stripping of her lands and manors, properties and belongings she was almost left with nothing.  Through Windsor's cunning and smarts he was able, as Alice's husband, to get most of her properties back and the order of banishment once again lifted.  He told John of Gaunt he would serve them in Ireland if they did this.  Alice at one point owned over 50 manors or properties, which would have made her an earl if she were a man.  She lived out the rest of her days in the country at Upminster with her husband and daughters.

My Thoughts:
I loved this book, it was thoroughly engrossing from the beginning to end.  The writing was smooth and so easy to read.  I wasn't stuck in facts and details but rather the characters.  I admire Alice Perrers for all that she went through and her rise.  While many tried to bring her down, in the end they couldn't.  I am glad she had Windsor there to support and marry her and protect her.  I admire her courage, her pluck and ambition.  Many hated her for having the king's ear, and even the Queen's jewels after her death.  She was there to care for the King, not just as a lover but his nurse.  She protected him and cared for him and ordered the household. She bore him four children, the eldest which was knighted.  Alice was obviously a smart businesswoman and very patient.  There is no record how she came to the attention of the Queen, and the novelist did a beautiful job of filling in the gaps.  I am sure it was hard for Alice in many ways, with no female companionship, basically alone at court and mocked and ridiculed for her actions.  Ambition was mistaken for greed and her duty to the Queen was taken for a whore.  I am sure to see the King, her lover, so in love with his wife was hard also.  Queen Phillipa always came first in the King's mind.  I would highly recommend this book, it was absolutely a wonderful read.

1 comment:

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