Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author who served three different English Kings in a variety of different roles. In the course of his career, he became close to John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, the 3rd son of King Edward III. Chaucer is best known for his work the Canterbury Tales, but many of his other works survived as well.
He is the first author/poet to write in Middle English, the vernacular of the time. This marked an important shift at the time. During the latter part of the 14th Century most of court spoke French and wrote in Latin. He also introduced a number of poetic conventions to English poetry, including iambic pentameter and the rhyming pattern called rhyme royal.
Geoffrey Chaucer came from a solidly middle class background.
While many details about his early life are unknown, Chaucer’s father was a London merchant, most likely of wine. Chaucer probably went to school at St. Paul’s Cathedral, although that is not confirmed. We do know that he was formally educated and familiar with the literature of his time. In addition to Middle English, he knew French, Latin, and Italian.
The first recorded account of Chaucer comes from household records in 1357. They listed him as a page to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and wife to King Edward III’s son Lionel, the Duke of Clarence. This was during the Hundred Years’ War. Chaucer went with the Duke of Clarence to France, where he was captured by the French in 1359. King Edward III ransomed Chaucer.
Chaucer went on to serve King Edward III as a messenger and diplomat.
Though the details of this part of Chaucer’s life are uncertain, it is believed that he studied law during his early adult years. He married Philippa de Roet around 1366. Philippa served as one of the Queen Philippa of Hainault’s ladies-in-waiting. Philippa de Roet’s sister, Katherine Swynford, eventually married John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward II and the Duke of Lancaster.
Chaucer and Philippa had 4 children, Elizabeth, Agnes, Lewis, and Thomas. Of them, Thomas is the best known. He had a successful political career and became Speaker of the House of Commons. The marriage to Philippa proved advantageous for Chaucer and helped promote his career at court. John the Gaunt was Chaucer’s friend and patron, promoting his career as a poet.
By 1937, King Edward III listed Chaucer as one of his yeoman, or royal servants. By the next year Chaucer became one of his esquires. Edward III gave Chaucer increasingly lucrative and important jobs in court. These included serving as a civil servant, courtier, and diplomat. Chaucer’s diplomatic missions took him to Flanders, France, Spain, and Italy.
In addition to providing Chaucer and his family with a steady, income, his travels exposed him to new authors, especially the Italian writers Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. These authors influenced Chaucer’s later poetry .
Chaucer left the court for the first time in 1374.
After he left Court, he worked as a Controller of Customs at the port in London. While this was a lucrative job, it did not apparently give him much time to write. When Richard II became king in 1377, Chaucer continued both the appointments and the annuities Edward III had granted him, and even expanded upon them.
Chaucer left his job at the customs office in 1386 . He moved to Kent, where he served as a Justice of the Peace. Richard II made Chaucer a knight in August of the same year. Philippa died in 1387, shortly after their move to Kent.
Chaucer served in the Wonderful Parliament of 1386, a tumultuous year politically (Woodger 1993).
In 1386 the House of Lords and the House of Commons united against an increasingly unpopular King Richard II. This led to an armed conflict between Richard II and his opposition in Parliament at the Battle of Radcot Bridge on the 19th of December, 1387. The opposition won. This resulted in the removal of Richard II’s powers and placing him under a regency of the opposition leaders.
Chaucer was a staunch supporter of both Richard II and John of Gaunt. It is possible that his move to Kent may have been the result of this fallout between King Richard II and Parliament. As a result of his friends falling out of favor, he struggled financially from 1386 to 1389. He continued to serve as a Justice of the Peace but did not return to Parliament. He however, wrote some of his best work during this time in his life.
In 1389, King Richard II regained control over the government, and appointed
Chaucer as Clerk of the King’s Works.
Chaucer traveled quite a bit for this job and was robbed multiple times. This prompted him in 1391 to change jobs and he became a subforester of the King’s Park in Somerset. While this job was a step down from his previous position, it was safer. It also gave him more time to write.
King Richard II’s control of the government was fragile, however. He viewed Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of the Duke of Lancaster, as a threat and exiled him. Henry returned to England while Richard II’s forces were in Ireland and seized control of England. On 1 October 1399, Parliament officially disposed of Richard II and, on the 13th of October, crowned Henry IV as King of England.
Chaucer, through his ties with Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, had become friends with Henry IV. As a result, Chaucer managed to stay in favor at court through the political upheaval. King Henry IV confirmed the appointments Chaucer had received from King Richard II and added an additional annuity to it.
Chaucer kept this position until his death on 25th October, 1400.
After his death, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. In 1556, his remains were moved to a more elaborate tomb. He was the first author buried in what is now known of as the Poets’ Corner.
Look for more on Geoffrey Chaucer in our upcoming blogs about his Impact on Literature and an Overview of Chaucer’s Works.
Want to know more about Chaucer, check our these posts, too!
- Authors, Poets, and Playwrights: Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer
- Geoffrey Chaucer: His Impact on English Literature