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.
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.