Geoffrey Chaucer is widely regarded as England’s greatest medieval poet and has been called the father of the English language. Despite a great deal of scholarship, the exact details of Chaucer’s life are far from clear. The following provides an introduction to some of the key known moments in Chaucer’s life.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London c. 1340 to John Chaucer, a London wine merchant, and his wife Agnes. John and Agnes owned a house on Upper Thames Street which stands today between London Bridge and Monument Stations. John Chaucer supplied wine to King Edward III’s court and through this royal contact the young Geoffrey was employed in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster and wife of Lionel, a son of Edward III. In April 1357 he was granted a set of clothes and 2s. 6d. – suggesting he may have been a page in the household. Nonetheless, even at a young age Chaucer was in an excellent position to observe people from across the social spectrum.
In 1359 (probably not yet twenty years old), Chaucer joined the army of Edward III for Edward III’s invasion of France, just one of many campaigns of what would be known as the Hundred Years War. During the campaign Chaucer was taken prisoner and released only upon payment of a ransom – £16 of which was paid by the king himself. One might easily imagine that without his royal patronage the life of Geoffrey Chaucer might have been eventful but brief.
In October 1368 Prince Lionel died, at which point it seems Chaucer moved into the service of his younger brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. In autumn 1369 Gaunt’s wife, Blanche of Lancaster, died, possibly of plague. Chaucer wrote the poem ‘The deth of Blaunche the Duchess’ (The Book of the Duchess) in her honour.
In the 1370s and 80s Chaucer traveled widely on diplomatic missions for the king, especially in Italy. Chaucer’s good service of the crown brought him a variety of rewards. In April 1374 Edward III rewarded Chaucer, at the St George’s day celebrations at Windsor Castle, with a grant for a pitcher of wine a day from the king’s butler. In May that year Chaucer took the lease of a house in Aldgate from the Corporation of London (which he gave to a friend in 1386). In June that year Chaucer was appointed Comptroller of Wool Customs in London, and a few weeks later John of Gaunt granted him a life pension of £10 per year. In 1375 Chaucer received lands in Kent from the crown for three years, during which time they brought him over £100. In 1377 and 1378 Chaucer on diplomatic missions to France and Italy, which brought him great rewards. At this time Chaucer appointed John Gower, a poet and friend, to act as his agent in his absence. In 1380 was released from a court case against him by a lady named Cecilia Chaumpayne.
In 1382 Chaucer was appointed Comptroller of Petty Customs in London, while still retaining the Comptrollership of Wool Customs. In February 1385 he was granted the great privilege of nominating a permanent deputies in these duties, perhaps through the patronage of Queen Anne, wife of Richard II.
In 1386 Chaucer was elected a Knight of the Shire of Kent (a member of the House of Commons), during which time he was probably living in Greenwich. That year Philippa Chaucer was admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral. In 1387 Philippa Chaucer disappears from the records and his presumed to have died. They had been married for more than twenty years.
In 1390 Chaucer was appointed clerk of the works at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. He was also put on a commission to repair the banks of the river Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich. In 1391 Chaucer lost his appointment as clerk of the works; the same year he composed Treatise of the Astrolabe for his son Lewis.
In 1394 Chaucer was awarded £20 a year for life by King Richard II. In October 1398 he was granted a tun of wine each year for life. In 1399 Henry IV doubled Chaucer’s pension of 20 marks a year (£13 6s. 8d.) in addition to the grant of £20 a year of 1394. The same year Chaucer took a long lease on a house in the garden of the Chapel of St Mary, Westminster.
Death and Burial
Chaucer died in 1400, perhaps in his new home at Westminster, leaving his greatest work The Canterbury Tales unfinished. The Tales begin in The Tabard Inn in Southwark. The likely location of the inn is marked today by a blue plaque.
Chaucer was buried in Westminster abbey, in likelihood because of his years of faithful service to the crown, rather than for his fame as a writer. Nonetheless, Chaucer’s tomb became the first in Poet’s Corner where writers including Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson have since been interred.