Geoffrey Chaucer

Canterbury Tales

It’s a rare thing for me to do a biographical post, but I had a discussion with Toutparmoi, whose excellent blog is The Earl of Southampton’s Cat, about Shakespeare scholars and, by extension, Chaucer scholars, embellishing the life of their subject of study. I said that Chaucer’s life was pretty exciting without the need for embellishment. It was so exciting that I think it’s worth sharing.

Chaucer’s father, John, was a wine merchant based in London, and Geoffrey was born there in about 1340, which means, amongst other things, that he lived through the Black Death. From 1347 to 1349 John Chaucer was the king’s deputy butler in Southampton, supervising wine shipments from Bordeaux to the king’s cellars. I like to think that Chaucer spent some time with his father in Southampton and knew the wine merchant’s house I use as the representation of this blog.

In 1357 Chaucer is recorded as being a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. Elizabeth was the wife of Lionel, the third son of Edward III. Born in 1338, Lionel wasn’t much older than his wife’s servant. Two years later, in 1359, Chaucer was serving in Lionel’s retinue in France. It had been Edward III’s plan to have himself crowned King of France at Rheims cathedral, but his armies were weakened by bad weather and poor supply line, and they were unable to continue the siege. Chaucer went on a foraging raid and was captured by the French. Fortunately, he was of some value and was ransomed for £16.

He married Philippa de Roet in 1365 or 1366. She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, but her main claim to fame is that her younger sister was Katherine Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Edward’s fourth son.

Chaucer was in Navarre in 1366. He might have been on a pilgrimage to Santiago, or on a diplomatic mission. He was recorded as being a king’s esquire in 1367, so he could have been doing something for him. In the same year his son, Thomas, was born.

In April 1368, Lionel, now a widower, travelled to Italy to marry Violante Visconti, daughter of the Lord of Milan. Chaucer was one of his esquires. In Milan he would have seen Sir John Hawkwood, the renowned English mercenary, who served the Lord of Milan. Chaucer would have been below his notice, however, even though he was well-known for writing many songs, mostly bawdy, about love. These were sung widely in England. This wasn’t the last time Chaucer was to visit Italy, and Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio were his greatest influences.

By the end of 1368, Lionel, still celebrating his marriage, was dead. It was said by some that he was killed on the orders of his father-in-law. Chaucer was able to move into the household of Lionel’s younger brother, John of Gaunt.

On 12 September 1368 Blanche, John of Gaunt’s wife, died of the plague, inspiring Chaucer’s first major work: The Book of the Duchess.

By 1369 the war with France was picking up again and Chaucer went there in John of Gaunt’s retinue. Chaucer was in France again the following year, although it’s not clear what he was doing.

By 1371 he was an esquire of the king’s chamber, Edward III’s inner household, and he was sent back to Italy in December 1372. He visited Genoa as part of a diplomatic and trading mission sent to negotiate with the Doge of Venice and to hire Genoese mercenaries for the war in France. There was another, secret, mission for the king in Florence. Chaucer carried this mission out alone and returned to England in May 1373.

On 23 April 1374 Edward III granted him a pitcher of wine a day for life. 23rd April is St. George’s Day and it was Edward III who adopted him as his own saint, leading to him becoming the patron saint of England. A few days later Chaucer was given a rent-free dwelling above the gate at Aldgate. Of the two, I suspect he appreciated the latter more. In June of that year he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs of Hides, Skins and Wools in the port of London. This would have been a lucrative position, since wool was England’s main export. I don’t know what Chaucer did to warrant all this preferment, but I like to think that it was a reward for concluding the king’s business successfully in Florence the year before.

Despite his new post, he was frequently in France in 1376 and 1377. On one of these visits he was a member of a diplomatic mission to negotiate a marriage between Richard of Bordeaux, Edward III’s grandson and heir, and Marie, daughter of the King of France.

In May 1378 he was negotiating for a different bride for Richard, now King of England, in Milan.  This time it was Caterina Visconti, the daughter of the Lord of Milan (not the same lord of Milan who had been Lionel’s father-in-law). Chaucer had another secret mission. He arrived in Milan in late June and stayed at least 6 weeks. He met John Hawkwood, this time as a valued representative of the king. It’s possible he read Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato on which Troilus and Criseyde is based while he was in Milan.

Another son, Lewis, was born in 1380. It was around this time that Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls, about birds choosing their mates. He also wrote Palamon and Aricite, which is the tale later told by the knight in The Canterbury Tales. Between 1381 and 1386 he wrote Troilus and Criseyde.

In the 1380s he had to get permission to appoint deputies to carry out his customs duties, presumably because he was so busy with his writing. By now he was also a member of Richard II’s household.

Philippa Chaucer died in 1387. About the same time Chaucer started work on The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s advancement in the civil service continued and on 12 July 1389 he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works. This wasn’t an altogether happy experience, however. In September 1390 highwaymen stole his horse and the king’s money that he was carrying. He was robbed twice more before the end of the year. The following June he resigned from his position.

In 1391 he wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe for his son, Lewis.

Information is sparse after this point.  On 24 Dec 1399, three months after the coronation of John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, Chaucer took a 53-year lease on a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. There’s no contemporary record of his death, but the date usually given for it is 25th October 1400.

I think you’ll agree that Chaucer’s life was pretty exciting. If we knew about his secret missions, it might be even more exciting.

 

Sources:

The Canterbury Tales edited by Jill Mann

Chronicles by Froissart

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders

Richard II by Nigel Saul

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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43 Comments

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43 responses to “Geoffrey Chaucer

  1. Yes, it’s a pity he didn’t write a memoir! Loved this post, April.🌹

    Liked by 4 people

  2. It certainly was exciting! And busy. I’m surprised he found time to write so much.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Starting in early January. I’ll be taking a Chaucer class at uni. We’ll be doing “The Canterbury Tales” and “Troilus and Criseyde.” I already have my Riverside new 3rd edition Chaucer textbook, which I have dipped into. I am enjoying the Middle English language that Chaucer used. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. You may well be right. His was an extraordinary talent – and the fact that he took on so many other roles makes him a Renaissance man ahead of the English Renaissance.

    Was Edward III in the habit of borrowing money offshore? Perhaps Chaucer was negotiating loans.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Edward III was so much in the habit of borrowing money from Florence that two banks there went bust because of him. I hadn’t thought of loans, but it’s a possibility.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Woohoo. I just tracked down a reference to the ransomed horse story, though I’ve no idea where I originally read it because it’s not in the Neville Coghill Foreword.

        This reference is in “The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer” by Mark Allen and John H Fisher (2010). The book contains a section called “Chaucer in His Time” by John H Fisher, in which there’s a mention of Chaucer’s 16 pound ransom being 13 shillings and 4 pence less than was paid for Sir Robert de Clinton’s captured horse “as has been often remarked”. Unfortunately, Fisher doesn’t give any sources as to when/by whom it was first remarked, so the story may be a myth.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’ve made a note and I’ll have a search in my books for Roger de Clinton. I did look out for references to ransomed horses, but I suspect ‘de Clinton’ is more likely to appear in an index somewhere.

          £16 wasn’t a huge ransom. The book about ransoms in the 100 Years War says that £50 was the top rate for people of Chaucer’s rank and he wasn’t worth even half that. It’s just as well it wasn’t higher; he might have spent years trying to get the money together and his future might have been very different.

          Liked by 2 people

          • The “Chaucer in His Time” section looked interesting, but I only read a bit of it on line in a Google book preview. There’s a suggestion that son Thomas may have been sired by John of Gaunt, because he later took to using de Roet rather than Chaucer as his surname. Marrying an already pregnant Philippa wouldn’t have done Chaucer’s career any harm! I’m tempted to see if the university library has a copy of the book.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I’ve wondered why Chaucer seemed to carry a dim view of marriage in his later years. Perhaps it may have something to do with Gaunt’s philanderings. Katherine, Philippa’s sister, was one of his great loves, but men in Gaunt’s position routinely took their pleasures where they wist while husbands had to accept being cuckolded (perhaps beating the wives out of frustration).

              Doubtless, Philippa must have been attractive, as Gaunt was known for preferring the belles for his paramours.

              If you find the book, Toutparmoi, would you be so kind as to share your findings? I would be very grateful!

              Liked by 1 person

            • It’s always possible, but nothing I read hinted at it. I’ll have to take another look. John of Gaunt. like most of the fourteenth century royals, wasn’t ashamed of claiming his illegitimate children as his own, so it would be odd if he didn’t claim Thomas.

              Liked by 2 people

              • You’re probably right, April. I’m just thinking that IF Gaunt fathered Thomas, and openly owned it, might it have severely hurt his relationship with Katherine? That she was one of his greatest loves, and Philippa being her sister, perhaps Gaunt decided to keep this one concealed?

                More musings. ☺

                Like

            • I had a quick look in Terry Jones’ ‘Who Murdered Chaucer?’. If anyone’s going to relish reporting that Thomas was John of Gaunt’s son, it’s him. There was nothing, though. He even talks about Thomas inheriting his father’s negotiating abilities.

              The interesting thing he did mention, though, was that Thomas was Henry IV’s Chief Butler. When Henry IV died, he was Henry V’s Chief Butler.

              Liked by 2 people

              • If I come across anything else, Shaun, I’ll let you know. However, the Philippa/Gaunt connection was just speculation. Hughes account of Chaucer’s life is only 3 or 4 pages of a book that runs to about 1000. I suspect Chaucer, as an author, takes a dim view of marriage because that’s what his listeners/readers found entertaining.
                No surprise there; we’re still entertained by dim views of marriage.

                Hughes also said that it wasn’t possible to write Chaucer’s biography – in the modern sense of the word – because there are no letters, observations from people who knew him well, etc. (The same is equally true of Shakespeare – yet “biographies” of Shakespeare keep on being written!) He did suggest the Terry Jones book as a fun read, and commend a book by Derek Pearsall.

                Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post April, really interesting. I had no idea of all the things he was involved in. He was clearly doing valued work -£16 ransom seems impressive to me. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Portia. It was a disappointingly modest ransom, but that reflected his status at the time. It was paid quickly, though. Some men spent years as prisoners, sometimes being inherited by their original captors’ sons.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. In reading this, I have to keep reminding myself of the difficulty of travel then vs. now. Missions to foreign lands must have been challenging.

    He certainly had an interesting and successful life, beyond his writing. I supposed the tro are connected. One fueling the other.

    Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dan. Yes, if you were going to Milan from London you would be away for some time. If was winter, you’d also have to decide whether you were going to risk your life on the Alpine passes or in a boat on the Mediterranean.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I wonder if Chaucer’s missions had any bearing on marriage negotiations? While the important issues were handled by the elite, spies were often sent to ferret out what the lower ranks knew.

    A lot of important information might be learned and used for leverage by the power brokers.

    Just a thought. ☻

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! Who knew one of England’s most renowned poets led such an exciting legacy beyond his books. I’d love to read more biographies like this from you, April!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. April this post was very informative. I had learned some of Chaucer’s background, but much of what you tell here is new to me. I love it. Great post, April.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Fab post April, I knew very little about Chaucer, and only did him in passing at school strangely, emphasis on Shakespear that year I think! Very interesting stuff, would love to know about his secret missions!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. lydiaschoch

    I’ve read (translated versions of) some of Chaucer’s works, but I didn’t realize we knew so much about his life. The age gap between his sons is pretty big. I wonder if Chaucer and his wife had fertility problems or had a few babies who died very young and weren’t recorded? Or maybe he did so much travelling that it took a while for them to conceive again.

    What do you know about the lives of Lewis and Thomas when they were adults?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Quite a bit is known about Thomas. He was Henry IV’s chief butler and was the equivalent of an MP at a few parliaments. He also lived in the house in Westminster. I don’t know about Lewis.

      There might have been other surviving children, but baptismal records weren’t kept until much later. They would only be known about if there are records of them being appointed to a position, as there are for Thomas, or if they were involved in a case in court, or were mentioned in a will. It would also depend on whether or not the records survived.

      Liked by 2 people

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  13. Pingback: Troilus and Criseyde | A Writer's Perspective

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