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Sunday, 16 March 2014

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340- 1400) was born Upper Thames Street, Dowgate Hill, London. The house where he was born is now covered by the arrival platform of Cannon Street Station. .

His father, John, was deputy butler to the King and a London Vintner. His mother Agnes died in 1381.

Chaucer attended the Latin Grammar School of St Pauls Cathedral and studied law at the Inns of Court. He may have gone to Oxford or Cambridge but no one is too sure about this.

Chaucer was fined in his youth for beating up a Franciscan monk in the Strand, London.

In 1357, when he was between 13 and 17 years old, Chaucer was a page in the household of King Edward III's son Prince Lionel and his wife Elizabeth. This is known from an entry in Countess Elizabeth's household account book, which records the purchase of a suit of clothes for Geoffrey Chaucer, including a pair of red and black hose and a pair of shoes.

In 1359, in the early stages of the Hundred Years' War, Edward III invaded France and Chaucer travelled with Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, Elizabeth's husband, as part of the English army.

In 1360, he was captured during the siege of Rheims. Edward paid £16 for his ransom, a considerable sum, and Chaucer was released.

In 1366 Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen, Philippa of Hainault, and a sister of Katherine Swynford, who later became the third wife of Chaucer's friend and patron, John of Gaunt. It wasn't thought to be a particularly happy marriage and she died in 1387.

They had  four children: Thomas Chaucer, born 1369, Speaker of the House of Commons, who married Maud de Burghersh. Lewis Chaucer, who died young,  Elizabeth, who entered a convent; and Agnes Chaucer, lady-in-waiting at the coronation of her cousin-by-marriage, King Henry IV.

In 1367 Chaucer was appointed Esquire (shield bearer) to Edward III, and was paid the princely sum of £20 p.a. for life.

Chaucer obtained the very substantial job of Comptroller of the Customs for the port of London, which he began on June 8, 1374. He  continued in it for twelve years, a long time in such a post at that time.

An early indication that Chaucer's career as a writer was appreciated came when Edward III granted him "a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life" for some unspecified task. As this was given on a day of celebration, St George's Day, 1374, when artistic endeavors were traditionally rewarded, it is assumed to have been another early poetic work.

Portrait of Chaucer (16th century), f.1 – BL Add MS 5141

Chaucer acquired a taste for Italian poetry whilst on Kings business in Milan and French poems of courtly love whilst a prisoner of war in France. It was said he had a "downlook due to his habit of constant reading."

Chaucer greatly admired Dante's Divine Inferno, knowing much of it by heart and his favourite poet was Ovid.

Chaucer's wrote in the Midlands dialect generally after a days work. He would have read his works aloud to his fellow courtiers and officials and probably members of the Royal Family. He told tales of “everyday” folk, which were mostly about lust, alcohol and having a good time.  Because it was written in middle English, not many people noticed the bawdy element.

In the history of English literature, Chaucer is considered the introducer of continental accentual-syllabic metre as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre. He also helped to standardise the southern accent (London area) of the Middle English language.

Not one of the 500 references to Geoffrey Chaucer written in his lifetime refers to him as a poet.

Troilus and Criseyde (1385)  is a tragic, witty love story adapted from a Boccaccio romance. It has been called the first modern novel, so complex is it's characterisation.

The phrase “people who live in glasshouses should not throw stones” originates from Troilus and Criseyde: ("And forthi, who that hath an hed of verre. Frocast of stones war hymn in the werre.")

Chaucer is thought to have started work on The Canterbury Tales in 1386. In ten fragments, 17,000 lines long, Canterbury Tales was a collection of tales, written in English prose and verse told by different pilgrims (including Chaucer himself). They met at Tabard Inn, Southwark then told their stories on their way to Thomas Becket's tomb in Canterbury.

Opening prologue of The Wife of Bath's Tale from the Ellesmere Manuscript.

The word "canter" was entered into the English language from the pace of the horses heading for Canterbury in Chaucer’s book, called the "Canterbury gallop."

Chaucer described a simple cat flap in the "Miller's Tale." In the narrative, a servant whose knocks go unanswered uses the cat door to peek in.

Amongst the phrases originated in Canterbury Tales were:

"Thanne is it wisdom as it thinketh me to make virtu of necessitee." Knights Tale 3v11 the origin of necessity is the mother of virtue.")

"Winsinge she was , as is a jolly colt
Long as a mast and upright as a bolt." Millers Tale 77 (origin of "upright as a bolt.")

"Whoso first cometh to the mill,
First grint." The Wife of Bath prologue. (the origin of "first come first serve.")

Chaucer wrote a treatise for the son of a friend on the Astrolabe, an Astronomical instrument that was a forerunner of the Sextant. His treatise described the form and use of that instrument in detail. Although much of the text may have come from other sources, it indicates that Chaucer was versed in science in addition to his literary talents.

Chaucer described himself in Canterbury Tales, as "small and fair of face” with “a beard of ripe wheat." In fact his beard was a sort of Chinese reddish brown goatee variety. Another source claims he was plump and full eyed so presumably he put on weight as he got older.


Chaucer dressed soberly and conservatively in a hood and gown. Only the upper classes in his day experimented with fashion. He would have worn pointed toe leather shoes and according to his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery he wore a floppy hat.

Chaucer was sympathetic to the reformative religious group, The Lollards and some of his friends were connected with John Wycliffe's movement. He was critical in his writings of lazy clerics and indulgences and accused priests of spending their time hunting game rather than preaching the word and the Friars of preaching "for profit of their bellies."

On July 12, 1389, Chaucer was appointed the clerk of the king's works, whereby he was in charge of royal buildings and parks. He was paid well: two shillings a day, more than three times his salary as a comptroller.

As clerk of the king’s works, Chaucer oversaw the scaffolding for the three grandstands at the jousting area at Smithfield. There was one grandstand for the king and his courtiers, one for the ladies and one for the London corporation members.

In September 1390, records say that Chaucer was robbed of the Kings money, and possibly injured. In total he lost 20 pounds, 6 shillings and 8 pence in various locations in Surrey. The next year he was robbed again. This time he lost 10 pounds at Westminster.

In 1391 Chaucer was appointed Deputy Forester for the Kings forest at Petherton in Somerset. A bit of a demotion this. (England was divided by political rivalries which spelt trouble for him and consequently his career at court faltered).

After the death of Philippa and the cessation of her grants, Chaucer was forced to sell two of his pensions and he had many lean years to endure until the accession of the more friendly Henry IV, who increased his income substantially.

In 1399 Chaucer took a lease on a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey.

Chaucer died October 25, 1400 of unknown causes having failed to complete his 14 year old project, Canterbury Tales. By the time of his death twenty-four tales have been told. Chaucer had intended 31 pilgrims would tell two tales each on their way to Canterbury and another two on their way back.

According to some theories, including one advanced by historian (and Monty Python alum) Terry Jones, Chaucer was murdered by political opponents.

He was buried at Westminster Abbey. In 1556 his remains were transferred to a more ornate tomb, making Chaucer the first writer interred in the area now known as Poets' Corner.

Not one of the 500 references to Geoffrey Chaucer written in his lifetime refers to him as a poet.

The first book known to have been produced by William Caxton at Westminster after introducing the printing press to England was an edition of The Canterbury Tales. He described  Chaucer as "The worshipful fader and first fondeur and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our englissh."

On July 8, 1998 a first edition of The Canterbury Tales was sold for £4,621,500, breaking the record for the most expensive book.

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