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The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III by Gemma Holman: A Book Review

The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III
Author: Gemma Hollman
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography 
Publisher: Pegasus Books 
Release Date: April 4,, 2023
Pages: 246
Source: This book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: The riveting story of two women whose divergent personalities and positions impacted the court of Edward III, one of medieval England's greatest kings.

     There were two women in Edward III's life: Philippa of Hainault, his wife of forty years and bearer of twelve children, and his mistress, Alice Perrers, the twenty-year-old who took the king's fancy as his ageing wife grew sick. After Philippa's death Alice began to dominate court, amassing a fortune and persuading the elderly Edward to promote her friends and punish her enemies.

     In The Queen and the Mistress, Gemma Hollman brings the story of these two women to life and contrasts the "perfect" medieval queen—the pious, unpolitical, steady Philippa—with the impertinent youth—the wily, charismatic, manipulative Alice. One died a royal, adored, while the full force of the English court united against Alice, wresting both money and power from her and leaving her with nothing but a mission to try to reclaim all that was lost.

     Both women had wealth and power but used vitally different methods to dispense it.  In The Queen and the Mistress, Hollman brings to the fore their differences and similarities in a unique look at women and power in the Middle Ages.

     My Review: The Queen and the Mistress is a dual biography of Queen Philippa of Hainault and Alice Perrers. These two women came from different backgrounds but are the only women that King Edward III ever loved. Philippa of Hainault was an adored queen to the English people. However, Alice was reviled and feared as King Edward III’s mistress. While they were different in social status, they were able to become the wealthiest and most powerful women of England during King Edward III’s reign. 

     Queen Philippa of Hainault married King Edward III as part of a marriage alliance. However, they had a very loving and happy marriage. Initially, Queen Philippa of Hainault was often overshadowed by her mother-in-law, Dowager Queen Isabella of France. When her husband finally was independent from his mother, Queen Philippa started to gain power. King Edward III doted on her, trusted her, and relied on her. Queen Philippa gave King Edward III many children. She interceded for criminals, participated in charitable acts, and founded the Queen’s College at the University of Oxford. Therefore, she was seen as a good queen whom all of England adored.

     I found Philippa of Hainault to be a fascinating queen. I had never heard of her story. This may be because very few historians have studied her particularly,  focusing on her more scandalous mother-in-law, Dowager Queen Isabella of France. While her story is not as colorful as her mother-in-law, she  had a happier and a husband who loved her. She excelled in her duties in queenship. She was a faithful wife and caring mother. It is no wonder why she was considered to be one of England’s modeled queens.

     Alice Perrers came from a family of goldsmiths. She was a widow who served Queen Philippa of Hainault. She captured King Edward III’s attention when Queen Philippa of Hainault was terminally ill. King Edward III remained faithful to Alice until his death. Alice bore him three children. As King Edward III’s mistress, she was the most powerful and wealthiest woman in England. She often meddled in politics and increased her wealth. After King Edward III’s death, Alice lost most of what she had gained. Her lands were confiscated and given to others. Her daughters did not marry into noble households. Thus, Alice suffered the consequences as King Edward III’s mistress. 

     I have heard more about the notorious Alice Perrers than Queen Philippa of Hainault. This is because there have been many fascinating novels about her, especially The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion and The King’s Concubine by Anne O’Brien. Therefore, I was not a stranger to her story. In this dual biography, Alice comes across as more sympathetic. She was power-hungry and greedy, but she was faithful to King Edward III until his death. She was also very intelligent and persistent. She never gave up fighting for her rights. Thus, Alice is a very complex historical figure. She used her position as the king’s mistress to advance her own ends and tried to financially secure her future once King Edward III passed away.

    Overall, this book examined how women exercised power in medieval England either as a queen or a mistress. The biographies of the two women were brief but very detailed. There were a few times in which the book was repetitive. I also found Queen Philippa of Hainault’s biography to be better written than Alice Perrers’s story. This is because Alice Perrers’s biography often relied more on speculation because very little information is known about her. Still, The Queen and the Mistress was an enthralling read! This book is a must-read for fans of English royalty! I hope that there will be more studies on both Queen Philippa of Hainault and Alice Perrers in the future! The Queen and the Mistress is an extraordinary tribute to two very formidable yet forgotten women of the Middle Ages. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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