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Geoffrey Chaucer

A Concise Biography

By

Geoffrey Chaucer

A close-up of Geoffrey Chaucer, taken from an image in Cassell's History of England - Century Edition, published c. 1902

Public Domain

Geoffrey Chaucer came from middle-class people of some financial standing, who made their modest fortune from wine and leather. His father was a vintner; the name Chaucer derives from the french chaussier, a maker of footwear. Geoffrey was probably born in 1342 or 1343, although 1340 is traditionally given as his birth year.

As a teenager, Geoffrey served in the household of Elizabeth, the countess of Ulster, who was the wife of Lionel, third son of Edward III. By 1359 he was a member of Edward's army in France. When Chaucer was captured during the siege of Reims, Edward helped pay his ransom; then, during the peace negotiations of 1360, Chaucer served as messenger from Calais to England. What happened next is unknown; Chaucer may have remained in the king's service, and he may have studied law in preparation for further duties to the king.

By 1366, Geoffrey Chaucer had married. His wife is believed to have been Philippa Pan, whose receipt of annuities indicate she was financially well-off herself. Like Geoffrey, Philippa had served Elizabeth, the countess of Ulster, and upon Elizabeth's death in 1363 she entered the service of the queen consort, Philippa of Hainaut.

In 1366 Chaucer went to Spain on a diplomatic mission of which he was apparently in charge. In 1367, he received an annuity for life as yeoman of the king. In 1368, he was listed among the King's esquires, an important office that required him to live at court.That year he was also in Europe on another diplomatic mission, and the next year, 1369, he was on military service in France.

Also in 1369, Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer were official mourners for the death of Queen Philippa, and it is probably late in this year or early in 1370 that Geoffrey wrote his first important poem, Book of the Duchess. Composed as an elegy for Blanche, first wife of John of Gaunt (the king's third son), who also died in 1369, Book of the Duchess is fairly clear evidence of a close relationship between the poet and the prince.

For the next decade, Geoffrey Chaucer was frequently on diplomatic missions to Europe, including trips to Flanders, France and Italy. He and his wife received several grants of money from Edward III and John of Gaunt, as well as a rent-free home. Chaucer was also appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides for the Port of London, and received two wardships that paid very well. When Edward died in 1377, and Richard II succeeded to the throne, the new young king confirmed Chaucer's appointments and annuities.

Geoffrey Chaucer had little time to write during the 1370s, but on his trips to Italy he encountered the works of Dante, Petrarch, and, most significantly, Boccaccio, whose Decameron was undeniably influential on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He did produce one notable work: Hous of Fame, which, though unfinished, displays his increasing poetic skill.

In 1380, Chaucer was released from a charge of rape (which could have meant either sexual assault or abduction; it is unclear which) by one Cecily Chaumpaigne. The fact that the plaintiff withdrew her charge suggests he was not guilty of the crime, although some question remains. His career continued unabated for the next few years. In October, 1385, Chaucer was appointed a justice of the peace for Kent; in August, 1386, he became a knight of the shire for the same county. He probably moved to Kent in 1385.

However, in the mid-1380s Geoffrey Chaucer's prosperity began to slide somewhat. His close association with John of Gaunt and Richard II may have endangered his position at court when a political coup led by Thomas of Woodstock took over the royal administration. Many officeholders that had been, like Chaucer, appointed by the king lost their positions, and it is possible that he, too, was discharged. It's also possible, though unverified, that his wife became ill; Philippa died in 1387, and an extended illness could explain some of the events that took place before and after that year. In October 1386 his dwelling in London was leased to someone else; sometime before 1387 he arranged for deputies to continue his work at customs; in 1388 the first of a series of suits against him for debts was filed, and he sold his royal pension for a lump sum to pay them.

Whatever the reasons for his financial struggles, the time period was not a good one for Chaucer personally; not only did he lose his wife, but some of his closest friends were executed by the Merciless Parliament. Yet literarily, Chaucer was more productive than ever before. He wrote the Parlement of Foules, Troilus and Criseyde, and the Legend of Good Women, translated Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, and may even have begun sketching out the Canterbury Tales.

By 1389, after Richard II at last regained control and began re-hiring his old supporters, Chaucer was back in the king's service as a clerk. However, within two years he was beaten once and robbed several times, so it is entirely likely that he sought a change himself. In June of 1391 he was appointed subforester of the king's park in North Petherton, Somerset. Still in favor at court, he received royal grants and remained comfortable in his home at Kent. At about this time Chaucer developed a close friendship with Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt.

During the 1390s, Geoffrey Chaucer accomplished his best known, and some consider his finest, literary work: The Canterbury Tales. Though unfinished (Chaucer evidently envisioned each of the 30 pilgrims telling four tales), it stands as a remarkable and significant accomplishment, and offers an unparalleled window on 14th-century English life. For this and his other works, Geoffrey Chaucer towers above all other English authors of the High Middle Ages.

In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke maneuvered Richard into abdicating and took the crown himself. The new King Henry IV confirmed Chaucer's grants from Richard and added a generous annuity. Geoffrey Chaucer took a lease on a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey in December, where he lived until he died in the following October. He is buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

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