- Born: c. 1340s, London, England
- Died: October 25, 1400 (aged 56-57), London, England
- Notable Works: The Canterbury Tales, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Criseyde
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s – 25 October 1400) was an English author and poet, most known for his The Canterbury Tales. He is widely considered one of the greatest English poets of the Middle Ages and has been called the “father of English literature”.
Chaucer had a career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier, diplomat, and member of parliament, as well as writing well-known works such as The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde.
He is credited as legitimising the literary use of Middle English when the dominant languages in England were still French and Latin, and his poetry went on to shape future of English literature. Chaucer was the first writer to be buried in what has since come to be called Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London, between the years 1340-1345. The precise date and location remain unknown. He was born to John and Agnes (de Copton) Chaucer and both his father and his grandfather were London vintners. The family name is derived from the French chausseur, meaning “shoemaker”.
In 1324, when John Chaucer was twelve years old, he was kidnapped by an aunt in the hope of marrying him to her daughter in an attempt to keep property in Ipswich. The aunt was imprisoned and fined £250, now equivalent to about £200,000, which suggests that the family was financially secure. Agnes had also inherited properties in 1349, including 24 shops in London from her uncle Hamo de Copton.
Chaucer’s official life is well-documented, thanks to the fact he was a public servant. There are nearly five hundred written items testifying to his career, with the first being dated from 1357. The document shows that Chaucer was squire in the court of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel, Earl of Ulster (later Duke of Clarence), most likely through his father’s connections. Here, he would have served as a gentleman’s gentleman; essentially a butler.
A young man in this position would be in service to the aristocrats of the court who required diversions as well as domestic help. This was a common medieval form of apprenticeship for boys into knighthood or prestige appointments. The countess was married to Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the second surviving son of the king, Edward III, and the position brought Chaucer into the close court circle.
He also worked as a courtier, a diplomat and a civil servant, as well as, in his later years, working for the King from 1389 to 1391 as Clerk of the King’s Works.
In 1359, Chaucer travelled with Lionel as part of the English army when Edward III invaded France in the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. A year later, in 1360, he was captured during the siege of Rheims. Edward paid £16 for his ransom, which was a considerable sum equivalent to £11,610 in 2019, and Chaucer was released.
Travel and Study
After this, it is not completely clear what Chaucer did. It is thought that he travelled in France, Spain, and Flanders, possibly as a messenger and perhaps even going on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It was during this time, around 1366, that Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet.
Chaucer studied law in the Inner Temple (an Inn of Court) at this time, according to tradition. On 20 June 1367, he became a member of the royal court of Edward III as a valet de chambre, yeoman, or esquire, which was a position which could entail a wide variety of tasks. His wife also received a pension for court employment.
He travelled abroad many times, possibly even to the wedding of Lionel of Antwerp to Violante Visconti, daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti, in Milan in 1368. There were two other famous authors in attendance there — Jean Froissart and Petrarch. It is thought that during this time he wrote The Book of the Duchess in honour of Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of John of Gaunt, who died of the plague in 1369.
In 1370, Chaucer travelled to Picardy as part of a military expedition and, in 1373, he visited Genoa and Florence. According to scholars such as Skeat, Boitani and Rowland, this could have been the trip to Italy where Chaucer met Petrarch or Boccaccio, who introduced him to medieval Italian poetry, the forms and stories of which he would use later.
Another voyage occurred in 1377, although the purposes for this voyage are unclear and there are conflicting historical records. Some documents suggest it was a mission, along with Jean Froissart, to arrange a marriage between the future King Richard II and a French princess, which would end the Hundred Years War. However, if this was the purpose of their trip, it would have been unsuccessful, as no wedding occurred.
Back in London, Chaucer obtained the very substantial job of comptroller of the customs for the port of London on 8 June 1374. This job lasted for twelve years, which was unusual for the time and shows he must have been suited to the role.
For the following ten years, there are no documents that indicate what Chaucer was up to. However, it is believed that he wrote, or began writing, most of his famous works during this period.
In law papers of 4 May 1380 Chaucer’s name was mentioned, indicating he was involved in the raptus (rape or seizure) of Cecilia Chaumpaigne. However, what took place was unclear and the incident seems to have been resolved quickly with an exchange of money in June 1380. It did not tarnish Chaucer’s name or reputation.
Chaucer moved to Kent while he was still working as comptroller. He was appointed as one of the commissioners of peace for Kent, at a time when French invasion was a possibility. It is during this time that he started work on The Canterbury Tales.
In 1836, he lost his job as controller, but became a member of parliament for Kent, and attended the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ that year. On October 15, he gave a deposition in the case of Scrope v. Grosvenor. He also survived the political upheavals that were caused by the Lords Appellants, despite the fact that he knew some of the men executed over the affair.
In 1387, Chaucer’s wife received the last payment of her annuity, which suggests she died in the following year. Two years later, following the coming to power of Richard, Chaucer was named clerk of public works, which was a sort of foreman organising most of the King’s building projects. Although no major works were begun during his tenure, he did conduct repairs on Westminster Palace, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, continue building the wharf at the Tower of London, and build the stands for a tournament held in 1390. This job was difficult for Chaucer, but it paid well — more than three times his salary as a comptroller.
Chaucer was also appointed keeper of the lodge at the King’s park in Feckenham Forest in Worcestershire during this time, which was a largely honorary appointment.
However, one of the duties of being clerk of public works required him to carry large sums of money, and, in 1390, he was robbed of both his and the King’s money three times in the space of four days. Although there was no direct punishment, he was appointed subforester of North Pemberton in Somerset, which was a difficult job. Around this time, 1390 or 1391, he was eased out of his clerk’s job and he eventually got into financial trouble. In 1398, he borrowed against his annuity and was sued for debt.
Richard II granted him an annual pension of 20 pounds in 1394 (roughly £25,000/US$33,000 in 2018 money), however Chaucer’s name fades from the historical record not long after Richard’s overthrow in 1399. It is thought that his last poem, “The Complaint to his Purse,” is a letter asking King Henry for money. The last mention of Chaucer is on 5 June 1400, when some money was paid which was owed to him.
Chaucer died on 25 October 1400, of unknown causes. The evidence of the date comes from the engraving on his tomb which was erected more than 100 years after his death. There is some speculation that he was murdered by enemies of Richard II or even on the orders of his successor Henry IV, but this hasn’t been proven.
Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in London, as his residence was on the abbey grounds. In 1556, his remains were transferred to a more ornate tomb, and the space around this tomb became the area now known as Poets’ Corner.
John of Gaunt
Chaucer was the close friend of John of Gaunt (6 March 1340 – 3 February 1399), the wealthy Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV. Chaucer served under Lancaster’s patronage. Lancaster and Chaucer also became brothers-in-law when Chaucer married Philippa (Pan) de Roet in 1366, and Lancaster married Phillippa’s sister Katherine Swynford (de Roet) in 1396.
Chaucer references Gaunt in many of his works, including Book of the Duchess and his short poem Fortune. Gaunt heavily influenced his political career, too, although Chaucer was always on the fringes of the world of courtly political intrigue.
Marriage and Family
In around 1366, Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet, who was lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, and a sister of Katherine Swynford, who later (around 1396) became the third wife of John of Gaunt.
It is not known how many children Chaucer and Philippa had, but three or four are most commonly cited. Chaucer’s son, Thomas Chaucer, had a distinguished career, as chief butler to four kings, envoy to France, and Speaker of the House of Commons.
Thomas’s daughter, Alice, married the Duke of Suffolk, and his great-grandson (Geoffrey’s great-great-grandson), John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was the heir to the throne designated by Richard III before he was deposed.
It is thought that Chaucer’s other children probably included Elizabeth Chaucy, a nun at Barking Abbey, Agnes, an attendant at Henry IV’s coronation, and another son, Lewis Chaucer. Chaucer’s “Treatise on the Astrolabe” was written for Lewis.
The Canterbury Tales
It is thought that Chaucer started The Canterbury Tales in the 1380s, but he never finished them. They are a collection of 24 stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English, mostly in verse, although some are in prose.
They are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.
The tales paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. While Chaucer seems to have respected and admired Christians and to have been one himself, he also recognised that many people in the church were venal and corrupt. He writes in Canterbury Tales, “now I beg all those that listen to this little treatise, or read it, that if there be anything in it that pleases them, they thank our Lord Jesus Christ for it, from whom proceeds all understanding and goodness.”
The Canterbury Tales are also sometimes considered the source of the English vernacular tradition, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time.
There is much speculation as to why Chaucer left The Canterbury Tales unfinished. One theory is that he left off writing them in the mid 1390s, some five or six years before his death. It is possible that the enormousness of the task had overwhelmed him, as he had been working on The Canterbury Tales for ten years or more, and he was not one quarter through his original plan.
Chaucer’s first major work, The Book of the Duchess, is an elegy on the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s first wife, in 1368. His other two early works were Anelida and Arcite and The House of Fame, while some of his most known works — Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde — came from the period when he held the job of customs comptroller for London (1374 to 1386).
Chaucer indicated he was versed in science in addition to his literary talents when he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe, which describes the form and use of the astrolabe in detail. It is sometimes cited as the first example of technical writing in the English language
Chaucer didn’t just write; he also translated. He translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris (extended by Jean de Meun).
Chaucer’s original audience was a courtly one, and would have included women as well as men of the upper social classes. Yet even before his death, Chaucer’s audience had begun to include members of the rising literate, middle and merchant classes.
A possible indication that Chaucer’s career as a writer was appreciated came when Edward III granted Chaucer “a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life” for some unspecified task. This was an unusual grant, but it was given on a day of celebration, St George’s Day, 1374, when artistic endeavours were traditionally rewarded. It is not known which, if any, of Chaucer’s works prompted the reward, but the suggestion of him as poet to a king places him as a precursor to later poets laureate. Chaucer continued to collect the wine until Richard II came to power, after which it was converted to a monetary grant on 18 April 1378.
The poet Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer, considered him his role model and hailed Chaucer as “the firste fyndere of our fair langage”. During the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Chaucer came to be viewed as a symbol of the nation’s poetic heritage.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chaucer was printed more than any other English author, and he was the first author to have his works collected in comprehensive single-volume editions.
Although Chaucer’s works had long been admired, serious scholarly work on his legacy did not begin until the late 18th century, when Thomas Tyrwhitt edited The Canterbury Tales, and it did not become an established academic discipline until the 19th century.
Chaucer’s writing style was one that stood out from the crowd. He wrote in continental accentual-syllabic metre, which had developed in English literature since around the 12th century as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre.
He is known for metrical innovation, inventing the rhyme royal, and he was one of the first English poets to use the five-stress line, a decasyllabic cousin to the iambic pentametre.
Chaucer, along with other writers of the era, is credited with helping to standardise the London Dialect of the Middle English language from a combination of the Kentish and Midlands dialects. He is also considered the source of the English vernacular tradition, particularly thanks to The Canterbury Tales, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin.
Chaucer is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first author to use many common English words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time. Words such as acceptable, alkali, altercation, amble, angrily, annex, annoyance, approaching, arbitration, armless, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, artillery and aspect are just some of the many English words first used by Chaucer.
What’s more, the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is believed to be in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls (1382), a poem which in the form of a dream, portraying a parliament for birds to choose their mates.
Chaucer holds huge historical significance in the literary world thanks to his innovative style and accurate historical picture of English society at his time. By writing in English instead of French, which was the language spoken by those in power, Chaucer shifted the norm of British literature. He also managed to create realistic characters and replicate a natural conversational tone within the constraints of formal poetry, and, although his poems often address serious topics, he does so with humour.
Chaucer is said to have influenced William Shakespeare, who drew inspiration both from his stories and his writing style. Chaucer’s writing has shaped generations of poets, authors, and playwrights who followed.
- Translation of Roman de la Rose, possibly extant as The Romaunt of the Rose
- The Book of the Duchess
- The House of Fame
- Anelida and Arcite
- Parlement of Foules
- Translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as Boece
- Troilus and Criseyde
- The Legend of Good Women
- The Canterbury Tales
- A Treatise on the Astrolabe
- An ABC
- Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn (disputed)
- The Complaint unto Pity
- The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse
- The Complaint of Mars
- The Complaint of Venus
- A Complaint to His Lady
- The Former Age
- Lak of Stedfastnesse
- Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan
- Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton
- Balade to Rosemounde
- Womanly Noblesse
Poems of doubtful authorship
- Against Women Unconstant
- A Balade of Complaint
- Complaynt D’Amours
- Merciles Beaute
- The Equatorie of the Planets
Works thought to be lost/presumed lost
- Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde, possible translation of Innocent III’s De miseria conditionis humanae
- Origenes upon the Maudeleyne
- The Book of the Leoun
- The Pilgrim’s Tale – written in the 16th century with many Chaucerian allusions
- The Plowman’s Tale or The Complaint of the Ploughman — its body is largely a version of Thomas Hoccleve’s “Item de Beata Virgine”
- Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede
- The Ploughman’s Tale
- “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” – frequently attributed to Chaucer, but actually a translation by Richard Roos of Alain Chartier’s poem
- The Testament of Love – actually by Thomas Usk
- Jack Upland – a Lollard satire
- The Floure and the Leafe – a 15th century allegory
- God Spede the Plough – Borrows twelve stanzas of Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Geoffrey Chaucer" https://englishhistory.net/poets/geoffrey-chaucer/, November 18, 2021