The King’s Mistress
by Emma Campion
The daughter of a cloth seller, Alice thinks little of the glittering world of the noble class, and never dreams that her marriage to merchant Jayne Perrers will be a gateway to the court of King Edward III. But Jayne and his mother protect the Queen Mother’s greatest secret, and in return they are greatly favored by the royal family. When sudden tragedy leaves Alice a widow, she joins the household of the Queen. Her ‘common’ business acumen and knowledge of fabric earn her the Queen’s friendship, but she is not the only member of the royal family to single Alice out. The King himself showers Alice with gifts and attention. Alice must tread most carefully; the higher a commoner is raised, the farther she has to fall if the King’s favor falls elsewhere.
Even when Alice Perrers is at the height of her prestige, she is not considered equal to the noble class and is largely ignored by others in the court. Having risen so high, she’s no longer considered a commoner, either, so her life is largely isolated. It seems fitting that one of her closest friends is Geoffrey Chaucer, since he too rose from a common birth, and he is one of the few people willing to tell her what others say and think of her relationship with the King. There doesn’t seem to be much historical evidence for this friendship, but I liked that the author included it, because someone was needed to keep Alice alert to the ever-shifting moods of her fellow courtiers. Chaucer certainly worked better than having Alice constantly hiding in closets or peeping in keyholes to keep abreast of the political climate! As an interesting aside, some scholars think that Alice Perrers served as the inspiration for the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales. Certainly she married enough times!
The glorious court of Edward III is lushly described in great detail. It was very easy to sink into Alice’s world and feel her awe at the rich decadence surrounding her. The one problem I had was identifying Alice’s attraction to the King. I mean, she was young when she met him – still in her teens. He was in late middle age. When she would gush on and on about how powerful he was, how handsome he looked with his sleek grey hair and beard…I would just think Really? Granted, not every society is/was as youth-obsessed as modern America….but would a nineteen-year old really go for a man old enough to be her grandfather? Maybe.
For a full immersion experience into medieval England, this is a great read. The King’s Mistress brings history to life and makes it exciting. Alice is a great heroine who fits right into her time period; she’s obedient to the men in her life, but clever enough and talented enough to make the most of her limitations and rise higher than should have been possible for a woman of her social rank.
4.5 out of 5 stars