English Majors will recognize the illustration as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath as created by the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. It’s the closest we’re going to get to Alice Perrers who was, some think, the template for the cheery chatty wife.
Scholars have their reasons, and I’m not about to weigh in on the question of attribution, but Alice had a decidedly more adventurous life than Ms of Bath could ever dream of.
A mistress of the king and one of the most vilified women in England, she came from obscurity to end on the top of the fourteenth century heap and despite the best efforts of some of the best minds in the country, managed to keep her head and a good part of her irregularly gotten fortune.
Alice Perrers was born 1348, the daughter of a merchant or a knight or neither, depending on what source you prefer. Whatever the rank, she somehow got entre to the court of Edward III (1312-1377). She found herself lady-in-waiting to the Queen Philippa of Hainault (1314-1369), and when the queen became ill, comforted the King presumably in ways that he had not quite anticipated. She was fifteen, he, fifty one. The best one can say is that you have to give the old boy props for being able to keep up with her.
Enough for three illegitimate children, in any event. The first serious gift she got in return was two tuns of wine. It was a start.
Over time the tab grew. She had not one but two manor houses. In 1373, Edward gave her the queen’s jewels. And, as happens in these cases, the habits of avarice only grew. She liked real estate, eventually acquiring by gift or purchase fifty six different manors. To help finance the lifestyle, she sold influence.
Her apogee was 1375 as she headed the opening parade for a week long tournement, styling her self as the Lady of the Sun.
No one does that well that fast without creating enemies and hers were in the church. John Wycliffe, translator of the bible into English, thought her the devil’s tool. The St Albans chronicles mention her possession of the manor of Oxeye, rightful property of the church. More specifically, of the Abbey of St Albans. The brothers went to law over it, and would press their case for years.
Alice meanwhile had other more important things on her mind. An aging king, perhaps doddery and under the influence of a young woman, attracts the ambitious looking to get in on early on the winning side. The Prince of Wales was the obvious favorite, but nothing is guaranteed at times like these. Edward’s third son John of Gaunt had his own eye on the prize. Certainly his followers were all for it, and several of them gathered her into their circle. They also got a little grasping in financial matters, which right minded people thought bad for the kingdom.
When the greed became too much, Alice’s enemies girded themselves up to petition the king to get rid of her, pointing out that, in case he wasn’t aware, she was already married to the deputy of Ireland. His reaction was simply to plead ignorance and ask them to be gentle with her. The Good Parliament of 1376 took up the matter, impeached a number of her new friends on charges of usury and fraud. Alice invaded the benches of Westminster to keep an eye on proceedings and ensure that things went her way. (One consequence of this was a new law preventing women from from appearing in law, which was used to arrange her banishment.)
But the 14th century in Europe was one giant game of snakes and ladders (or Game of Thrones, if you prefer). The Prince of Wales died suddenly and John of Gaunt was on the ascendency. Alice was able to reverse the ruling against her and return to her old habits of nudging the course of justice.
The king died, she either at his side, or not, and either stealing the rings off his fingers, or not
John of Gaunt became regent. Eventually Richard II came to the throne. More condemnation of Alice from Parliament, but not for long. Richard apparently had a small liking for her – or he disliked her enemies – and he let her return to court, though never with the same kind of influence she had enjoyed under his father.
That suit from the St Alban’s monks continued like a medieval Jarndyce v Jarndyce. Eventually she retired to one of her remaining estates in Essex and like retired people of a certain type spent the rest of her earthy efforts in legal fights to get back the rest of it. She failed. So too did her health. She died in 1400 of natural causes, leaving a few questions still unanswered.
The final judgement on her character? Her enemies (the men of St Albans) could say nothing good of her (she was accused of witchcraft, else how could such a plain woman have bewitched the king?), others could only allude to her being open handed when she was in funds. Some novelists have recently employed a little (okay, a lot of) artistic license to re-float her reputation, but it’s uphill work. Generally speaking, people who get that kind of fortune in those kinds of circumstance in that short a period of time, well – shall we suggest that the burden of proof is kind of on them to show it was honestly got?
And the Wife of Bath bit? Well, Chaucer had been one of her patrons; it is likely Alice who got him the sinecure and set him up for life. A juicy part in his little roman a clef was little enough in return.
The chief sources are Gesta Abbatum S. Albani mentioend above and the Ypodigma Neustriae (as well as scads of official records). Froissart is absent on the story of Alice Perrers, which is sad since hers is just the kind of juicy gossip he lived for.
See also W.M. Ormrod, ‘The Trials of Alice Perrers’, Speculum (2008), 83 : pp 366-396
W. Mark Ormrod, Edward III, Yale University Press, 2011