Famous Londoners – Geoffrey Chaucer

Best remembered for his landmark Middle English work in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer is known by many as “the father of English literature”.

But he also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, civil servant and courtier and while much of his life (and death) remain something of a mystery, there’s no doubt that he spent a considerable part of it in London.

Chaucer (the name comes from the Latin for ‘shoemaker’) was born into a wealthy London family sometime between 1340 and 1345 and nothing is known of his early life or education. In 1357 he was working as a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and daughter-in-law of King Edward III.

Two years later, he travelled in the retinue of the countess’ husband, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, to France with the army of King Edward III but in 1360 was captured near Rheims. He was subsequently ransomed with the king himself contributing to the sum needed.

Soon after Chaucer formally joined King Edward III’s court and was over the next two decades was sent on numerous missions by him to places as far flung as France, Genoa, Florence and possibly Padua (it was on these trips that he was apparently exposed to the writings of men such as Dante, Boccaccio and Froissart).

In 1366 he married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Philippa of Hainault, King Edward III’s queen (and, some suggest, the sister to Katherine Swynford, mistress to John of Gaunt). Chaucer and his wife are believed to have three or four children – their son, Thomas, was later chief butler to English kings and served as the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In 1374, Chaucer was appointed as Comptroller of Customs for the Port of London, a post which he held until 1386 or so. It was during this time that he wrote many of his other major works including Parlement of Foules and Troilus and Criseyde (he had written his first major work, The Book of the Duchess, in honor Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of his friend John of Gaunt sometime earlier following her death in 1369). Chaucer was also known at this time to have lived rent free in an apartment above the now removed Aldgate.

At some time in the 1380s, it is suggested Chaucer moved out to Kent where he is thought to have started work on The Canterbury Tales and where he also served as a local MP. His wife is believed to have died while they were there.

In 1389, he was appointed to the position of Clerk of the King’s Works and oversaw building projects at the Palace of Westminster, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and at the Tower of London (building the wharf). Later he served as deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset.

Chaucer’s name disappears from records in 1400 and he is believed to have died either that year or shortly after. The cause of his death remains unknown although writer Terry Jones, in his book Who Murdered Chaucer?, has suggested Chaucer was murdered in 1402 at the behest of Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury – a claim which has met with short shrift with many.

Chaucer’s remains were later transferred to a more elaborate tomb and he become the first writer to occupy a space in Poet’s Corner – a fitting place for a towering figure of English literature.

PICTURE: Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from Ellesmere Manuscript in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The manuscript is an early publishing of the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikipedia.

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