Also known as the Father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer was the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages. He was also the first poet to be buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Chaucer was also famous as an author, philosopher, alchemist and astronomer. He also had an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. His most prominent role was developing the legitimacy of the vernacular, Middle English when French and Latin were the dominant literary languages in England. Chaucer’s most celebrated work is “The Canterbury Tales”. His other important works include “The Book of the Duchess”, “House of Fame”, “Legend of Good Women” and “Troilus and Criseyde”.
Geoffrey Chaucer Childhood and Life
The exact location and date of Geoffrey Chaucer’s birth are still uncertain, but it was believed that he was born sometime around 1343 in London. His father and grandfather both were influential London vintners. His father, John Chaucer married his mother, Agnes Copton in 1349 and inherited considerable amount of properties in London from her uncle, Hamo de Copton. In 1357, Chaucer became the page of Elizabeth de Burgh, the Countess of Ulster. Apart from working as a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant, he also worked for the king, collecting and inventorying scrap metal. In 1359, when Edward III invaded France, Chaucer traveled with Lionel of Antwerp, Elizabeth's husband, as part of the English army. He was captured during the siege of Rheims in 1360. Chaucer was later released after paying a ransom of £16. There are uncertainties regarding the next activities in his life, but it was believed that he traveled to France, Spain and Flanders, possibly as a messenger. It was even said that he perhaps went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet around 1366. She was the sister of Katherine Swynford, who later became the third wife of John of Gaunt. She was also a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen, Philippa of Hainault. The actual number of his children is still uncertain, but there are accounts of four of them. They namely were Thomas Chaucer, Elizabeth Chaucy, Agnes and Lewis Chaucer.
On 20 June 1367, Chaucer became a member of the royal court of Edward III as a varlet de chamber. His wife was also receiving a court payment. Due to his role as a valet, he traveled abroad many times. His famous book, “The Book of the Duchess” came in this period. This book was dedicated to Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of John of Gaunt, who died in 1369. The next year in 1370, Chaucer traveled to Picardy as part of a military expedition. He visited Genoa and Florence in 1373. Few scholars believe that on this Italian trip, he came in contact with Petrarch or Boccaccio. He was introduced to medieval Italian poetry, whose effects were seen later in his forms and stories. On 8 June 1374, Chaucer started his job of Comptroller of the Customs for the port of London. He worked at this post for the next twelve years. His most famous written works were produced in this period only. In 1378, Chaucer was sent by Richard II as an envoy to the Visconti and to Sir John Hawkwood, English condottiere (mercenary leader) in Milan. Chaucer was still working as comptroller when he moved to Kent after being appointed as one of the commissioners of peace for Kent. In early 1380s he started working on his most famous work, “The Canterbury Tales”.
In 1386, Chaucer became a Member of Parliament for Kent. His wife is believed to have died in 1387. Chaucer survived the political turmoil caused by the Lords Appellants, many of his known people were executed but he was saved. Chaucer was appointed the clerk of the king's works on July 12, 1389. His job was to organize most of the king's building projects. Though Chaucer took up no new projects, he conducted the repairs on Westminster Palace, St. George's Chapel and Windsor. As an honorary appointment, he was made keeper of the lodge at the King’s park in Feckenham. In September 1390, records shows that Chaucer was robbed, and injured, while working. He stopped working on 17th June 1391 but within a week on 22nd June, he took the job of deputy forester in the royal forest of North Petherton, Somerset. In 1394, Chaucer was granted an annual pension of twenty pounds by Richard II. With the overthrowing of his patron, Richard II in 1399, his name started fading from the historical records. He was last recorded on 5 June 1400, when some monies owed to him were paid.
Chaucer’s first major work was “The Book of the Duchess”, which he wrote in the honor of, Blanche of Lancaster. Two of his early works were “Anelida and Arcite” and “House of Fame”. Chaucer’s most productive time was during his job of customs comptroller for London when he wrote many significant works. His important works from this period were “Parlement of Foules”, “Legend of Good Women” and “Troilus and Criseyde”. In early 1380s, he started writing his most famous work, “The Canterbury Tales”. It was a collection of stories narrated by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury. “The Canterbury Tales” is one of the greatest epic works of world literature and it was believed that these tales helped in shaping the English literature. He also translated important works such as Boethius' “Consolation of Philosophy” and “The Romance of the Rose” by Guillaume de Lorris. His many works were loose in translations and were generally based on works from continental Europe. For his important translations, he received some critical praises. Eustache Deschamps wrote a ballade on him, while Thomas Usk made glowing mention of Chaucer, and John Gower in 1385. One of Chaucer’s significant works is his “Treatise on the Astrolabe”, which he probably wrote for his son. In this, he had described the form and use of that instrument in detail. This treatise showed that Chaucer had a considerable knowledge of science, apart from having literary abilities.
Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet around 1366. The couple was blessed with four children namely, Thomas Chaucer, Elizabeth Chaucy, Agnes and Lewis Chaucer.
Chaucer died on 25th October, 1400 of unknown causes. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. In 1556, his remains were transferred to Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey making him the first writer to be buried in this area.