Book review: The King’s Concubine by Anne O’Brien

In the male-written history books, Alice Perrers was little more than a whore ... an unscrupulous, greedy and manipulative woman of humble origins who became one of the most powerful figures at the court of Edward III.

Alice was lady-in-waiting turned royal mistress and mother of a brood of children to the mighty Plantagenet monarch, but was she really the scheming harlot famously described by John Wycliffe as the ‘devil’s tool’?

Anne O’Brien, historical novelist and magician of medieval history, brings us a new Alice in this extraordinary retelling of the life of a notorious and much vilified 14th century courtier who rose from penniless orphan to one of the most influential women of her age.

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In O’Brien’s brilliantly told, unashamedly romantic and compelling novel, Alice becomes flesh-and-blood; a tenacious, loyal, astute and passionate young woman whose path from poverty to extravagant wealth was one determined chiefly by the ambitions and desires of others.

Using a fascinating blend of fiction and the very little that is actually known of Alice Perrers’ life, The King’s Concubine is a plausible and engrossing account of how her bizarre and fantastic destiny might just have unfolded.

Alice was conceived out of wedlock and abandoned to the nuns at the Abbey church of St Mary in Barking near London in 1348. A headstrong girl, born without beauty but with plenty of spirit, she is determined to make something of her life beyond the governance of others and to be ‘neither nun nor wife nor whore.’

Alice’s chance of advancement comes when the rapidly ageing and ailing Philippa of Hainault, King Edward’s wife and queen, visits the abbey and is so taken with the 15-year-old girl’s kindness and care that she whisks her to the royal palace at Havering-atte-Bower.

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Soon Alice is promoted to lady-in-waiting but the queen has another, more important role waiting for her at court.

Still deeply in love with her vigorous and charismatic 50-year-old husband but too sickly now to be a proper wife, Philippa has chosen Alice, who has become a young woman of ‘strange charm,’ to be Edward’s lover.

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‘This is my gift to him, and yours to me. I have lifted you from nothing, Alice. Now you can repay me,’ she informs Alice.

Alice is soon swept up in Edward’s lavish court, amassing wealth and influence for herself, but she has also become an enemy of the king’s power-hungry son John of Gaunt and the cruel and arrogant Princess Joan, wife of heir to the throne Prince Edward.

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Wily Alice must balance her future with caution as her star begins to rise because the despised concubine is not untouchable. Politics and pillow talk are dangerous bedfellows. The fading king wants her in his bed but her foes want her banished.

Power has a price, and Alice Perrers will pay it...

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O’Brien’s book is a masterful portrayal of a woman known only as an infamous mistress. Using her persuasive imagination and her ability to recreate the court of Edward III in all its dangerous magnificence, a femme fatale becomes not just a pawn of the 14th century powerbrokers but also a woman with more character, charm and charisma than those medieval historians would have us believe.

(Mira Books, paperback, £7.99)