Above: Print showing how the Tabard looked in the 15th century.
In the ‘Prologue’ to the ‘Canterbury Tales’ written by Geoffrey Chaucer, the account tells us that he was among a group of pilgrims who met at the Tabard Inn. Sadly, there is no long description of the inn (If only there was!) but there are a few details which Chaucer weaves into the narrative, along with brief mentions of ‘The Host’ – meaning the innkeeper.
“It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
The rooms and stables of the inn were wide:
They made us easy, all was of the best.”
Further into the ‘Prologue’, we learn a little more about the Tabard Inn –
“In Southwark, at that high-class hostelry
Known as The Tabard, close beside The Bell.
And now the time has come for me to tell
How we behaved that evening; I’ll begin
After we had alighted at the Inn,”
The Tabard Inn was one of the larger inns which stood beside Borough High Street. In Chaucer’s day, it was a well-known inn and there is little doubt that he had visited it as he walked up and down the street in connection with his everyday work. Chaucer may even have known the innkeeper. He certainly gives him a fine write-up –
“Our Host gave us great welcome; everyone
Was given a place and supper was begun.
He served the finest victuals you could think,
The wine was strong and we were glad to drink.
A very striking man our Host withal,
And fit to be a marshal in a hall.
His eyes were bright, his girth a little wide;
There is no finer burgess in Cheapside.
Bold in his speech, yet wise and full of tact,
There was no manly attribute he lacked,
What’s more he was a merry-hearted man.
The Host was obviously someone that Chaucer approved of and probably admired. We then hear a little of what the Host was planning –
“After our meal he jokingly began
To talk of sport, and, among other things
After we’d settled up our reckonings,
He said as follows: Truly, gentlemen,
You’re very welcome and I can’t think when
– Upon my word I’m telling you no lie –
I’ve seen a gathering here that looked so spry,
No, not this year, as in this tavern now.
I’d think you up some fun if I knew how.
I’ll go along with you myself and ride
All at my own expense and serve as guide.”
Although Chaucer states in the ‘Prologue’ that there were 29 people who went 0n pilgrimage to Canterbury, he counts himself in the number and also includes ‘The Host’. Therefore, the people in the ‘Prologue’ are actually only 27.
While on the subject of the Tabard Inn when Chaucer knew it (in the 1380s), we should not think of the building looking anything like the prints we have become so familiar with – showing a galleried inn that we associate with those in Borough High Street. The Tabard Inn is likely to have looked rather like a series of separate buildings all standing side-by-side. The only visual representations are prints like the one shown above. Even that has no certainty about how accurate it is.
With Easter fast approaching, our thoughts also turn to the pilgrims of old who, according to Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ set off from Southwark to walk or ride on horse-back to Canterbury. The last journey that Thomas a Becket made, just a few days before his awful death, was to ride from the Priory of St Mary Overy, at Southwark, and return to Canterbury Cathedral. That journey inspired so many pilgrims to follow in his footsteps, arriving daily at Canterbury in their hundreds – sometimes in their thousands. This year we look at the description of The Host of the Tabard Inn and at another character to pay homage to Chaucer’s remarkable work. Other characters from the ‘Prologue’ have already been considered in previous years on these pages.