Geoffrey Chaucer is the most famous writer of Medieval England. Geoffrey Chaucer immortalised Medieval England in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ – the stories of various people gravitating to Canterbury Cathedral at the end of a pilgrimage. Geoffrey Chaucer has to go down as one of Britain’s finest writers.
No one knows the exact date of Chaucer’s birth. Chaucer was probably born sometime between 1340 and 1345. Chaucer’s mother is thought to have been Agnes de Copton and his father was called John. The family lived in Thames Street near the Tower of London. John Chaucer was a vintner and he was a reasonably prosperous middle class man whose family had been in the wine trade for a number of generations.
John Chaucer’s trade relied on foreign exports and imports. There is little doubt that he was literate and Geoffrey was also brought up to be able to read and write. There is a belief that Chaucer could read and write before he went to school – taught by one of his father’s clerks who supplemented his income by teaching such skills to the young Geoffrey. It is thought that Geoffrey attended St. Paul’s Almonry Grammar School – the nearest to his home. Here his education would have been primarily in Latin. At home he would have picked up French – therefore, his upbringing was based around having a good education.
In 1357, Geoffrey Chaucer was sent off to be a page in the household of the Duchess of Ulster. She was the wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. Chaucer remained at this post for a number of years – possibly as long as 1368, the year of Lionel’s death. In his position as page, Chaucer would have come into contact with many important people. He rose to be a squire – possibly in 1362. It is not known when Chaucer started to write poetry but ‘The Book of the Duchess’ was written in 1369 and the poems in this reflect Chaucer’s time while a page under the Duchess. It was very common for squires to pen poetry so this would not have been unusual.
In 1359, Geoffrey Chaucer was sent to fight in the Hundred Year’s War. In the same year he was taken prisoner near Rheims. In 1360, he was ransomed for £16 and released. It is known that Edward III paid part of the ransom for Chaucer – so he must have held the squire in some high regard.
In 1366 Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, lady-in-waiting to the Queen and sister of John of Gaunt’s third wife. However, none of Chaucer’s poetry is addressed to his wife so it is assumed that this was essentially an arranged marriage. Very little of what Chaucer wrote was complimentary towards marriage.
In 1373, Chaucer went to Italy on royal business. It is not known what this business was but it was probably wrapped around trade. We do know that Italy had a huge impact on him. He returned to London in 1374 where he was made Controller of Customs on wools, skins and hides in the Port of London. Chaucer held this position until 1386. The position was not too exerting and it allowed Chaucer time to write. He wrote ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ which many believe is the first true English novel. He also wrote ‘The Parliament of Fowls’, ‘The House of Fame’ and ‘The Legend of Good Women’. Chaucer was now a famous writer and in 1386 he was made a Justice of the Peace and was elected to Parliament as Knight of the Shire of Kent. However, in the same year his patron John of Gaunt, was sent to Spain. He was replaced at court by the Duke of Gloucester who put his own men in positions that Chaucer held. Chaucer lost all of his offices. However, the time he now had gave him the opportunity to write his greatest glory – ‘The Canterbury Tales’.
In 1389 John of Gaunt returned to England and Chaucer regained his old positions. He was given the task of maintaining the king’s residences – Windsor Castle, the Tower of London etc – and it seems that Chaucer may not have been up to the task as he was replaced as Clerk of Works in 1391.
Chaucer’s final years were spent comfortably. He was now a widower and his poems relate the sadness of growing old, of his loss of poetic powers and of his general disillusionment.
Geoffrey Chaucer died on October 25th 1400 at his leased home in Westminster Abbey.