Geoffrey Chaucer’s life is an interesting one, not only because he was a poet and wrote the now famous ‘Canterbury Tales’ but also because he lived at an interesting time in history and because we know so much about him. Here is an outline of his life with particular reference to London at that time. The text is not in exact chronological order, due to the various events in Chaucer’s life that have been included.
Chaucer was born about 1340 in the City of London to John Chaucer and his wife Agnes. The house in which he was born has long since gone and even its site is not known exactly but it stood between Thames Street (now known as Upper Thames Street) and College Hill. It was a part of the City known as The Vintry because the Vintners’ Hall was nearby and also because of the many vintners (or wine importers) that lived and worked in the vicinity. Chaucer’s family was descended from an affluent family who made their money in the City’s wine trade. John Chaucer carried on the family wine business and is believed to have had a wine shop in Cheapside. French wine – mainly from Bordeaux – was imported into England from ships which landed their goods at The Vintry. The best wine was conveyed to the Palace of Westminster for use by the court. John Chaucer supplied wine to Edward III’s court.
In 1349 the Black Death struck London when Chaucer was only a young child. It was a frightening time. The suffering by those who caught the disease was terrible and it is estimated that about a third of the City’s population died – in fact, about a third of the population of Britain died.
As a child, Chaucer is thought to have attended St Paul’s School which was then situated near the eastern end of the old cathedral. The school claims to have been founded in 1509 but there would have been a school – for the children whose parents who could afford it – to send the sons of wealthy families for education by the Canons at the cathedral. Lessons would have been mainly the teaching of Latin and Greek. Chaucer would have been introduced to the great writings, including the poetry of Virgil and Ovid.
In 1357, Chaucer became a public servant to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster, the Duke of Clarence’s wife, for which he was paid a small stipend – with enough money to pay for his food and clothing. In 1359, the teenage Chaucer went off to fight in the Hundred Years’ War in France, and at Rethel he was captured for ransom. Due to Chaucer’s royal connections, Edward III helped pay his ransom. After Chaucer’s release, he joined the Royal Service, travelling throughout France, Spain and Italy on diplomatic missions throughout the early to mid-1360s. For his services, Edward granted Chaucer a pension of 20 marks.
In 1366, Chaucer married Philippa Roet, the daughter of Sir Payne Roet. The marriage would have helped further Chaucer’s career at Court in Westminster. The wedding, by the way, was held in one of the chapels of the Savoy Palace – a large stone building which used to occupy land between Strand and the Thames, just east of (but not on the site of) today’s Savoy Hotel.
In October 1368 Prince Lionel died, at which point it seems Chaucer moved into the service of the Prince’s younger brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. In 1368 Chaucer was promoted from page to squire (a position of status above a page and below a knight). In autumn 1369 Gaunt’s wife, Blanche of Lancaster, died, possibly of the plague. John of Gaunt asked Chaucer to compose a memorial poem to be recited at the Mass for his deceased wife and Chaucer wrote the poem ‘The Death of Blanche the Duchess’ (The Book of the Duchess) in her honour. It was a fitting memorial to one of the highest-ranking ladies of the English royal household.
In the 1370s and 1380s, Chaucer travelled widely on diplomatic missions for the king, especially in Italy. Chaucer’s good service to the crown brought him a variety of rewards. In April 1374, at the St George’s day celebrations at Windsor Castle, Edward III rewarded Chaucer with a grant of a pitcher of wine a day from the king’s butler. In May that year, Chaucer took the lease of a house in Aldgate from the Corporation of London – which he gave to a friend in 1386. In June the same year, Chaucer was appointed Comptroller of Wool Customs in London, and a few weeks later John of Gaunt granted him a life pension of £10 per year. In 1375 Chaucer received lands in Kent from the crown for three years, during which time they provided him with earnings of over £100. In 1377 and 1378 Chaucer was sent on diplomatic missions to France and Italy, which brought him great rewards. At that time Chaucer appointed John Gower, a poet and friend, to act as his agent in his absence. Gower’s tomb can be seen in the nave of Southwark Cathedral.
In 1386 Chaucer was elected a Knight of the Shire of Kent (a member of the House of Commons), during which time he was probably living in Greenwich. That year Philippa Chaucer was admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral.
In 1390 Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the Works at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was also put on a commission to repair the banks of the River Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich. In 1391 Chaucer lost his appointment as clerk of the works; the same year he composed ‘Treatise of the Astrolabe’ for his son Lewis.
In 1394 Chaucer was awarded £20 a year for life by Richard II. In October 1398 he was granted a tun (a large barrel) of wine each year for life. In 1399 Henry IV doubled Chaucer’s pension of 20 marks a year (£13 6s. 8d. which equates to about £15,000 in today’s money) in addition to the grant of £20 in the year 1394 (about £25,000 in today’s money).
Some of the Written Works
In addition to the other work that Chaucer undertook, he is well-known for his writing, most of which was not published until long after his death. Most of his writings are difficult to date with any certainty but despite being written about 600 years ago, his major works have retained their relevancy even in colleges and schools for today’s students. ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ is considered to be one of Chaucer’s greatest works.
One of Chaucer’s most well-known writings today is probably the ‘Canterbury Tales’ – estimated to have been written between 1387 and 1400. Initially, Chaucer had planned for each of his characters to tell four stories. The first two stories would be set as the character was on his or her way to Canterbury and the second two were to take place as the character was heading home. Apparently, Chaucer’s goal of writing 120 stories was too ambitious. In total ‘The Tales’ were made up of only 24 stories and they end rather abruptly – before its characters even make it to Canterbury. The ‘Canterbury Tales’ were not printed until 1532 – 133 years after Chaucer’s death.
From 1389 to 1391, after Richard II had ascended to the throne, Chaucer held a tiring and dangerous position as Clerk of the Works. He was robbed by highwaymen twice while working, which only served to further compound his financial worries. To make matters even worse, Chaucer had stopped receiving his pension. Chaucer eventually resigned the position for a lower but less stressful appointment as sub-forester or gardener, at the King’s park, in Somerset.
When Richard II was deposed in 1399, his cousin and successor, Henry IV, took pity on Chaucer and reinstated Chaucer’s former pension. With that money, Chaucer was able to lease a residence in the garden of St Mary’s Chapel in Westminster – beside Westminster Abbey. He lived there modestly for the rest of his days.
Chaucer died on 25 October 1400 – of unknown causes – while living near Westminster Abbey. He was 60 years old and was buried in the Abbey. His gravestone became the centre of what was has become known as Poet’s Corner, a spot where famous British writers such as Robert Browning and Charles Dickens were later honoured by being interred.
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