Childhood & Early Years
Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1343, most probably in his parents’ house on Thames Street, adjacent to the west bank of the Walbrook in London, England.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s father, John Chaucer, was a vintner; he also served as the deputy to the King’s butler. His mother Agnes nee Copton, came from a rich family and inherited two dozen shops in London from her uncle.
Apart from Geoffrey, John and Agnes Chaucer possibly had a daughter named Katherine. According to Geoffrey Chaucer’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, she later married somebody called Simon Manning of Codham. She is not to be confused with Chaucer’s sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford née (de) Roet.
It is believed that Chaucer had his schooling at the St. Paul’s Cathedral School, where he studied Latin and Greek. His writings show that he was familiar with the works of both ancient and contemporary writers. He was also fluent in French.
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Entering Royal Service
The first record that we come across in Chaucer’s life is dated 1357. It mentions him as a page in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, the Countess of Ulster, the wife of Prince Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence. He possibly secured this position through his father’s connection.
Since Prince Lionel was the second surviving son of King Edward III, the position brought him very close to the royal court, helping him to make many important connections. Most significant among them was his friendship with John of Gaunt, the third surviving son of King Edward III.
Belonging to the same age group, Chaucer and John of Gaunt soon became very close. Later in life, John of Gaunt would yield immense influence on Chaucer’s diplomatic career.
In 1359, Prince Lionel joined his father, King Edward III, in his unsuccessful expedition to France. Although Chaucer was still in his teens he accompanied his master as a part of the English army.
In 1360, during the siege of Rheims, Chaucer was captured by the enemy forces. The King paid £16 as his ransom, thus securing his release. The incident shows that by then Chaucer had already established himself at the court; otherwise the King would not have paid such a huge ransom.
In 1363, on the death of Elizabeth de Burgh, he was sent to work for Queen Philippa of Hainault, the consort of King Edward III. Here, his task was to look after their infant daughter, Philippa of Eltha. A 16th century report suggests he also studied law during this period.
On the Kingï¿½
From 1366 onwards, he frequently traveled to Spain, Flanders and France on diplomatic missions. On February 22, 1366, a certificate of safe-conduct to enter Spain was issued in the name of Geoffrey Chaucer and his companions by the King of Navarre. It was possibly the first of many such travels.
On 20 June, 1367, Chaucer was inducted into the royal court of King Edward III as a valet de chambre, yeoman, receiving a handsome annuity. The position required him to take a wide variety of task and travel abroad.
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In 1368, he was listed as King’s Esquires, a position that required him to live in the court and perform important duties. Also in the same year, he went to Milan to attend the wedding of Lionel of Antwerp. In the following year, he was sent on military service to France.
Possibly In December 1369, Chaucer wrote his first major poem, ‘The Book of the Duchess’. Written in English, it was an elegy to Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of John of Gaunt, who died in September 1369. Prior to that, poems in English court were always written in French.
The 1370s saw him traveling frequently to France, Flanders and Italy. His first visit to Italy took place sometime between December 1372 and May 1373. Visiting Genoa, he helped to establish an English port there; while in Florence, he negotiated a loan for King Edward III.
Most scholars believe that he came in contact with Petrarch or Boccaccio during this trip to Italy. It is possible that they introduced him to medieval Italian poetry of Vigil and Dante. He would later use their forms and stories in his own work.
Chaucer success as a diplomat and a poet did not go unnoticed. In 1374, he received an unusual grant of "a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life" from King Edward III on St George’s Day (23 April), a day when artistic endeavors were traditionally rewarded.
On May 10, 1374, he obtained his own dwelling, free of rent, above the Aldgate. One month later on 8 June, 1374, he was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides for the Port of London, holding the position for twelve long years.
In 1375 he was granted two wardships, which provided good income. In the following year, he received good amount of money from a fine. All along, he and his wife continued to receive grants from the King and also from John of Gaunt.
In June 1377, on the death of King Edward III, Richard II succeeded him. The new King confirmed not only Chaucer’s comptrollership, but also his annuities. Moreover on 18 April, 1378, the stipend of ‘one gallon of wine per day’ was converted into monetary grant.
On May 28, 1378, he left for Milan for military matters, remaining there till September 19 of the same year. Also during the 1370s, he is believed to have written another of his major works, ‘Hous of Fame’, showcasing his increasing skill as a poet.
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The 1380s began with bad note for Chaucer. On 4 May 1380, he was mentioned in law papers, being charged with ‘the raptus’ of Cecilia Chaumpaign. While some scholars have taken raptus to mean molestation or rape, the case resolved quickly, leaving his reputation intact.
In 1382, while continuing to work as a comptroller of service, he was also appointed comptroller of the petty customs for wine and other merchandise, remaining in both the position till 1386.
In 1385, while he was still the comptroller of custom as well as service, he moved to Kent, and was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Kent in the month of October. By then, he had arranged for deputies to carry on his duty at the comptrollers’ offices.
Most scholars believe that Geoffrey Chaucer had foreseen the political upheaval that was to follow and so he made arrangement for leaving London. His wife’s ill health, resulting in her death in 1387, might also have influenced him to take the decision.
In, August 1386, he became the Knight of the Shire for Kent, and attended the Parliament in that capacity in October. In the same month, his house in London was leased to another man and in December, the names of his successors as comptrollers of custom and service were announced.
In 1386, as King Richard lost his control over the realm, Chaucer too fell from grace. Although in 1387, he was reappointed Justice of the Peace for Kent, he was not returned to the Parliament. Moreover, with the death of his wife, her annuities were stopped, causing some hardship.
In 1388, he had to face a series of debt suits, which forced him to sell his royal pension for a lump sum amount. In the same year, many of his friends in the royal court were executed, causing a great deal of distress.
Between 1381 and 1388, in spite of the difficult period, Chaucer produced a large volume of works, some of which were of high order. Surprisingly, none of them reflected the present political turmoil, leading to the assumption that Chaucer concentrated on writing to take his mind off the terrible situation.
Some of the major works, which he wrote during this period, are believed to be ‘Troilus and Criseyde' ‘The Parlement of Foules’, ‘The Legend of Good Women’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’. The last mention work is considered his magnum opus.
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The political situation changed for the better when in May 1389, King Richard II regained control. On 12 July 1389, Chaucer was appointed the Clerk of the King's Works, a position he maintained until June 1391.
In his capacity as the Clerk of the King's Works, he was responsible for maintenance of royal buildings, undertaking thorough repair of Westminster Palace, St. George's Chapel and Windsor. Concurrently, he was appointed Keeper of the Lodge at the King's Park in Feckenham.
In 1390, Chaucer was robbed several times while conducting his duty. Once he was also beaten up. Sometime in September, he asked for a transfer; but continued working till 17 June 1391. Five days later on 22 June 1391, he was appointed Deputy Forester in the royal forest of Petherton Park.
In 1394, he was granted an annual pension of twenty pounds by King Richard II. Concurrently, from 1395, he began to develop a close relationship with the Earl of Derby, son of John of Gaunt.
On 30 September 1399, the Earl of Derby ascended the throne of England as King Henry IV. On 24 December 1399, he confirmed the grant bestowed on Chaucer by his predecessor, also adding an additional annuity. In December, Chaucer took a house on lease in the garden of Westminster Abbey.
The last record that we come across about Chaucer is that he received some payment due to him on 5 June 1400. What happened to him thereafter is not known.
Geoffrey Chaucer is best remembered for his unfinished work, ‘The Canterbury Tales’. It is a collection of 24 stories running to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English sometime between 1386 and 1389. Written mostly in verse, it represents a critical portrait of the then English society.
Although ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is more popular, according to some critics 'Troilus and Criseyde', set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, is his finest work. Completed during the mid 1380s, it is believed to the source of the proverb, “All good things must come to an end”.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1366, Geoffrey Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, the daughter of Sir Gilles de Roet. She was one of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Philippa of Hainault. Earlier both of them worked for the Countess of Ulster. It is believed Queen Philippa arranged their wedding.
The couple had four known children; Elizabeth, Thomas, Agnes and Lewis. Among them, Thomas Chaucer was most famous and he became chief butler to four kings. He was also envoy to France, and Speaker of the House of Commons. Elizabeth was nominated a nun, possibly in Barking Abbey, by the Royal privilege.
From the plaque on his grave, we know that Geoffrey Chaucer died on 25 October 1400. He was buried at West Minister’s Abbey, a rare honor for a commoner.
In 1556, his remains were relocated to a more ornate tomb in an area, which later became known as Poets' Corner. Thus he became the first writer to be buried in the Poet’s Corner.