Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)
Chapter 10. Residence in Kent
Chaucer had by now acquired a considerable reputation. In this period his younger contemporary, Thomas Usk, wrote of “the noble philosophicall poete in Englissh” and his “boke of Troilus”; at the same time the French poet, Eustache Deschamps, saluted him as “Ovides grans en ta poeterie,” the Ovid of your poetry. In the poem that succeeded Troilus and Criseyde, The Legend of Good Women, Alcestis commands the poet thus:
And whan this book ys maad, yive it the quene,
On my byhalf, at Eltham or at Sheene.
We may surmise, therefore, that Chaucer’s poetry would not be unwelcome at the royal palaces. As a reward or recognition of his services, perhaps, he had been appointed controller of the petty custom in the spring of 1382. He had been granted that post eight years before, but not as part of any permanent arrangement. Now it had become a more secure source of income. The fact that in the following month he was allowed to name a deputy suggests that it had also become something of a sinecure; the deputy would do the work, for an appropriate sum, and Chaucer would collect the fee. It was an old medieval custom, reflected also in the number of benefices available in the Church. In the following year Chaucer was also granted a deputy for the controllership of the wool custom and subsidy, on the grounds that he was “grandement occupez” with “certeines ses busoignes” — greatly occupied with other necessary matters. It has been surmised that this other business was the completion of Troilus and Criseyde, but he may simply have been growing tired of the occupation of customs official. It is also possible that he was once more engaged upon the king’s “secret business.” Another deputy, for more general matters pertaining to the customs house, was appointed in 1384 to cover Chaucer’s absence for a month on affairs unspecified. On 17 February 1385, a permanent deputy was installed. The records represent a gradual if steady withdrawal from the busy and sometimes perilous world of the Port of London. It would have been a noisy, as well as a busy, world. During this period the customs house was being extensively rebuilt; a new counting-house, and a new latrine, were some of the additions. Yet during these years of semi-detached attendance, Chaucer was not entirely free of duties. He still had to view the accounts, and ultimately to take responsibility for them to the exchequer. The audits and bills are presented “per visum et testimonium Galfridi Chaucer.” On one occasion, when his name was left off from an account, he had to appear in person—“in propria persona sua” — to take an oath regarding its authenticity.
His wife was certainly not “in propria persona.” Far from being at her husband’s side, Philippa Chaucer had joined her sister, Katherine Swynford, in her house in Lincolnshire; as John of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine was in charge of a large household, and all the evidence suggests that Philippa was resident there for some years. Her annuities were paid in Lincolnshire in 1378; she was admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral in 1386. For a period of at least eight years, therefore, she is connected with that county. These were also the years in which Chaucer was residing above Aldgate, and cover the period when he was in some form of legal contention with Cecily Champain. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he led a somewhat unconventional marital life.
Husband and wife would have been reunited, however, for the funeral of Princess Joan, the mother of Richard II, in January 1386. There is an account of the great wardrobe giving details of the black cloth granted to Chaucer for the livery of mourning; interestingly enough, the poet is classed with esquires and sergeants-at-law, which testifies once more to Chaucer’s high status in fourteenth-century England; to be an esquire was to be one rank below that of knight. Since Princess Joan had exercised her influence on John of Gaunt’s behalf on several occasions and had in addition been close to Philippa’s old mistress, Queen Philippa, Chaucer’s wife would undoubtedly have been at the same courtly ceremony. Whether the pair exchanged ritual kisses, or whether they recognised some more intimate bond, is not known. In the late medieval period there is the strangest amalgam of theoretical devotion and cool practicality—between the ready emotionalism of Chaucer’s love poetry, for example, and the more pragmatic arrangements between husband and wife.
The queen had in fact died in the autumn of 1385, her funeral delayed by matters of state, during which period Chaucer was appointed a Justice with the Commission of the Peace for Kent. His predecessor, Thomas de Shardelowe, had been the king’s coroner and attorney in the King’s Bench; Chaucer had become part of a distinguished tradition. It is another measure of his standing in the relatively small community of medieval administrators, and an indication that he was not known solely or simply for his poetry. He was, before all else, a man of affairs; he was, in the words of the Statute of Cambridge, one of “the best and most lawful men.” As a Justice of the Peace he would sit in judgement upon the transgression of civic laws, such as “regrating” or profiteering and offences against the statute of labourers, or in the preliminary investigation of more serious offences, such as rape or murder, which would subsequently be tried in the London courts. His colleagues were men of substance and reputation, among them peers and king’s councillors, but he would in certain instances have acted as an independent justice. His appointment does not necessarily imply, but it does suggest, that he was well versed in matters of law; it gives some strength to the argument that at some earlier point in his life he was instructed at an Inn of Court. It is perhaps also worth noting, in the light of Chaucer’s subsequent verse, that he is likely to have travelled to Canterbury on many occasions; the route which his pilgrims took was one that had become very familiar to him.
Chaucer’s association with Kent became more obvious at a later date, when he left Aldgate for Greenwich, but he could scarcely have been named as Justice of the Peace for that county if he was not in residence there. It has been argued that the king had appointed Chaucer to be steward of the royal palaces at Eltham and at Sheen; they are both situated in Kent and, if the surmise were to prove correct, they provided an appropriate link with the county. It is a theory which at least has the merit of consistency. Other Justices of the Peace had been stewards of great men, and earned a place upon the bench as their representatives. It would also form an appropriate prelude to Chaucer’s later appointment by the king as clerk of the king’s works. We may possibly imagine the poet, then, living for some of the time in a manor upon one of the royal estates.
Further public recognition was bestowed upon him in the year succeeding his appointment as Justice of the Peace. In the summer of 1386 he was nominated as a Member of Parliament for Kent as an honorary “knight of the shire.” His brief membership of that Parliament is well enough attested. It met, in the Great Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, on the first day of October, and became known as the “Wonderful Parliament”; it gained this honorific by demanding tighter scrutiny of the king’s expenditure and by curtailing the privileges and powers of the king’s chief ministers. Chaucer had of course been despatched there as a king’s man—all his affluence and prestige flowed directly from the court—and would have attended the proceedings as a hapless and unhappy witness. His discomfiture was no doubt increased by a petition presented to this Parliament which demanded that the controllers of customs at the English ports—or at least those appointed for life—should be disciplined or dismissed because of their manifest corruption. The leader of the revolt against the king, his uncle the duke of Gloucester, was in fact owed five hundred pounds by the customs which Chaucer himself controlled. Although he had not been appointed for life at the Port of London, he might justifiably have considered himself a direct target of Parliament’s complaints.
Four days after the Parliament met he gave up the lease to his lodgings in Aldgate. It was a coincidence of timing, but it was not a coincidence of planning. He was already engaged in steady withdrawal from the work of the Port of London, as has been noticed, and his removal from Aldgate was the preliminary step to giving up the controllership altogether. He may have anticipated the general assault upon the king’s controllers, and removed himself from the scene of the contention, but this is unlikely. No one could have anticipated the actions of the “Wonderful Parliament” in that much detail. It is possible that he was actively encouraged to leave his post by Gloucester and by others, but he was in any case growing more detached from the office. His only interest lay in its income.
He had already vacated Aldgate by the time he surrendered the lease to his successor, Richard Forster, on 5 October; since he was soon known to be a resident of Kent it seems likely that he had moved to that county. He is named in a Kentish legal action as early as 13 November 1386, in connection with some men of Greenwich; there is some evidence that one of these men, Simon Manning, was married to a sister of Chaucer. An official document of 1419, concerning a Kent Visitation, contains the sentence, “Simon Manning de Codham, superstes 46 E.3 et 5 R.2 = Catherina soror Galfridi Chawcer militis celeberimi poetae Anglicani.” Katherine Chaucer herself remains obscure. It is not even known if she could read. As a Justice of the Peace in 1387 her brother sat at Dartford, in Kent, and in the following year an exchequer action against him was heard in the same county. In another legal document of the same year he is noted as being “of the county of Kent.” The evidence, then, is conclusive. It seems likely that he migrated to Greenwich, or to the neighbouring town of Deptford, in which vicinity he remained for the next thirteen years. These were the years of The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer alludes to his own neighbourhood:
Lo Depeford, and it is half-wey pryme!
Lo Grenewych, ther many a shrewe is inne!
It were al tyme thy tale to bigynne.
No doubt he had particular “shrewes” in mind.
There was no forced retreat from London, however, in the autumn of 1386. He had left Aldgate on 5 October, but he must have found sufficiently comfortable lodgings elsewhere in the city. On 15 October, in the middle of the “Wonderful Parliament” he was called to give evidence in a case of some celebrity. He was a witness in an action brought against Sir Robert Grosvenor by Sir Richard Scrope over the right to bear a certain coat of arms. The trial took place in the refectory of Westminster Abbey, so Chaucer would have walked from the chapter-house where the Parliament was assembled in order to make his deposition. Chaucer gave evidence on behalf of Scrope, whom he had known over the years as an armed knight and as a courtier. They had both served in France twenty-seven years before, and Chaucer testified that the plaintiff had then carried the arms currently in dispute. But a more immediate, and more interesting, part of his testimony concerned his perambulations around London.
It is likely that he gave his evidence in “law French,” a corrupted form of Anglo-Norman, and we may even hear him talking in this transcription: “il dist qil estoit une foitz en Fridaystrete en Liundres com il alast en la rewe … ,”he said that he was once in Friday Street and as he was walking along the street … Chaucer saw the said coat of arms hanging outside a house. He asked if these were the arms of the Scropes when “un autre luy respondist et dit: Nenyl sieur,” another person answered him and said Not at all, sir. He was told: These are the arms of Sir Robert Grosvenor. Chaucer then averred that “ceo fuist le primer foitz,” it was the first time, that he had ever heard of Grosvenor. At this late date the niceties of the matter are of no importance; Scrope eventually won the case, no doubt by the claim of reputation rather than of justice. But the shape of Chaucer’s testimony is interesting. He gives his evidence in the form of a little story—the stranger in Friday Street, the forthright response, the personal demurral. It is all of a piece with what we know, or suspect, of his character in the world. He may even have imitated the voice of the Londoner who expostulated, “Nenyl sieur.”
He formally resigned his offices as controller in the last days of 1386. On 4 December he gave up the controllership of the wool custom, and ten days later he relinquished his post as controller of the petty custom; his successors, Adam Yardley and Henry Gisors, were known to him as city men of repute. He had served in the Port of London for more than twelve years; only one controller had served longer. The duration of his office suggests Chaucer’s adaptability as well as his efficiency, in other words, and further royal appointments would soon be bestowed upon him.
In this period of change and instability, however, he attended continually to his poetry. There are short poems attributed to him, among them a work entitled “Lak of Stedfastnesse” which has been considered as an address to Richard II. One copy of the poem has an “envoy” or postscript to the young king:
O prince, desyre to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun.
Another short poem, “Truth,” has the distinction of being Chaucer’s most popular lyric in subsequent years. It is suffused with Boethian doctrine and is composed of memorable lines:
Her is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
At some point in this period, too, he began work on a translation of Pope Innocent III’s treatise De miseria condicionis humane, otherwise known as De contemptu mundi. The title was translated by Chaucer himself as Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde, which may give some clue to its morbid and penitential contents. The translation itself has not survived, but the fact that the poet must have pored over it word by word—transmitting it, as it were, into the centre of his own creativity—is suggestive enough. On one level such a pious and lachrymose work must have deeply appealed to his own sensibility. It is an apt rejoinder to those who believe that “The Parson’s Tale” is too gloomy an ending to The Canterbury Tales. On the contrary, Chaucer may have seen it as the perfect summation for the caricature of a wicked world. There is always a certain darkness within Chaucer’s merriment; like many other artists his comic genius may have been in part inspired by an unhappy and obsessive temperament.
Chaucer’s principal efforts in this period, however, were devoted to another long poem. The success of Troilus and Criseyde must have emboldened him to embark upon another comprehensive poetic work, although one conceived in quite a different manner. It was entitled The Legend of Good Women.
It is a court poem; it was dedicated to Queen Anne, and may well have been commissioned by her. The theme lies in its celebration of women who have died or been betrayed for love: the fates of Dido, Philomela, and Cleopatra are among those lamented in a series of short verse biographies. Chaucer meets in dream the god and queen of love; the god berates him for writing of love’s failures, and the queen requests him to compose threnodies of those good women who had been abandoned or destroyed. Chaucer is once more concerned with the revision of old stories, or familiar legends, for a contemporary audience. That is perhaps enough in itself to identify The Legend with the court, where such material was considered to be the materia prima of poetry itself. It seems in every sense to have been a command performance. John Gower was charged with precisely the same task in his Confessio Amantis, where a series of love-tales are finished within an elaborate frame in which the poet meets the king and queen of love. Gower even describes the occasion when Richard II met him, when they were both sailing upon the Thames. “He bad me come in to his barge” and thereupon “this charge upon me leid.” It is more than coincidence that the two greatest poets of the age should embark upon the same task at the same time. It suggests a definite commission. In Confessio Amantis , too, John Gower delivers to Chaucer a message from the queen of love:
Queen Dido. Nineteenth-century tapestry panel designed by William Morris to illustrate Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women
And gret wel Chaucer whan ye mete,
As mi disciple and mi poete.
There seems to be here some elaborate game of cross-reference, between two poems upon the same theme. It is a testimony to Chaucer’s influence, too, that Gower chose to compose Confessio Amantis in English; it was the first time he had written a long poem in the vernacular (and indeed in the octosyllabic couplets which Chaucer employed in The House of Fame), and he must have been emboldened by Chaucer’s considerable example and not inconsiderable success.
The legends themselves have been abbreviated so that they might easily fall within the scope of an evening’s reading, and there are several references to elaborate court games and rituals. There is a wonderful encomium upon the daisy, for example, which refers to the cult of the marguerite imported from France. It has also been surmised that the “ladyes nyntene” who accompany the god of love are in fact the nineteen ladies who had been enrolled in the Order of the Garter at the time of the poem’s composition. There is also the type of humour which is best suited to personal delivery:
Syn yit this day men may ensaumple se;
And trusteth, as in love, no man but me.
There is also a suggestion of oral delivery in one of Chaucer’s asides:
But in this hous if any fals lovere be,
Ryght as hymself now doth, ryght so dide he.
We may, then, still safely imagine Chaucer to be the favourite poet of the royal family.
The precise date of composition is not known, but internal evidence suggests that The Legend of Good Women was written at some time between Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales. The Legend itself purports to be an act of atonement for Chaucer’s description of the infidelity of Criseyde in the earlier poem. The Canterbury Tales is anticipated in the form of the decasyllabic couplet, which Chaucer employs with confidence and delicacy; as generations of English poets have since discovered, it is the perfect medium for conveying the rushing power of speech as well as the more ornate cadences of interior monologue. The compilation of so many different legends under the rubric of one general theme also testifies to Chaucer’s innate love of difference and diversity. It is the key to his creativity. Just as The Canterbury Tales harbours many different kinds of story and story-teller, so The Legend of Good Women includes an extraordinary range of material from the myth of Philomela to the more carnal story of Cleopatra. They are all considered to be tales within a “frame,” old stories within a new framework; in that respect they resemble other great cultural artefacts of the period, such as the familiar words and letters of the gospels within the newly illuminated borders of a medieval manuscript. Chaucer seemed also to relish the prospect of intricacies within an overall pattern, like the Anglo-Saxon “interlace” of his forebears. If there are general differences, there are also diverse particulars. The music of high lament is interrupted by asides of a more direct nature:
“Have at thee, Jason! Now thyn horn is blowe!”
And the cunningly wrought narrative is sometimes abruptly discarded for what seem to be expressions of private frustration with the sources:
But whoso axeth who is with hym gon,
Lat hym go rede Argonautycon,
For he wole telle a tale long ynogh.
Chaucer, like two of his great successors Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, can move from high tragedy to low comedy in the space of a phrase or a stanza without losing any control over his narrative. His is the genius of heterogeneity or what Dickens called the technique of “streaky bacon.”
This is nowhere more evident than in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women. It survives in two versions, commonly known as “F” and “G.” The “G” version appears to have been written after the death of Queen Anne in the summer of 1394; all references to her are excised, no doubt in deference to the king’s grief, and “my lady” becomes “Alceste.” Her death so profoundly affected the king that he ordered the destruction of the manor at Sheen, which was so closely associated with his wife’s happiness that he could no longer endure the sight of it. Chaucer may have also mourned. It has been suggested that, upon news of her death, he finally abandoned work upon The Legend. He was undoubtedly present at her funeral.
The lily is introduced in the later version, however, in celebration of the fleur de lis and the king’s subsequent marriage to Princess Isabella of France. This late date also suggests that Chaucer was still returning to the poem long after he had started The Canterbury Tales; the fact that The Legend remains unfinished also suggests that it remained by his side for many years. In the poem itself he pledges to complete one legend each year, so that in a sense it must remain perpetually incomplete until the time of his death. The prologue is also significant for the fact that Chaucer enters the poem in a direct fashion. He is one of the protagonists who must plead his case before the god of love. Once more he portrays himself as a somewhat dull-witted and fainthearted creature who bears no responsibility for what he utters. As Alceste, the queen of love, pleads in his defence:
But for he useth bokes for to make,
And taketh non hed of what matere he take,
Therfore he wrot the Rose and ek Crisseyde
Of innocence, and nyste what he seyde.
Or hym was boden make thilke tweye
Of som persone, and durst it not withseye.
In the last two lines he is suggesting that his translation of the Roman de la rose, and his composition of Troilus and Criseyde , were the result of his being “boden” or commanded to write them. There is no external evidence to support this contention, which may be some kind of private joke, but it does help to illuminate the context in which Chaucer worked. He did not necessarily approach a theme or a story out of private considerations; he may have been commissioned, like any royal servant, to work upon worthwhile enterprises. It is also worthy of note that by writing a prologue devoted to his incapacity he manages to advert to his own poems, and to the whole arc of his professional career, without the taint of self-advertisement. It is yet another of his diplomatic accomplishments.
In the summer of 1387 those skills were required in a more obvious way; he was despatched to Calais in the king’s service, and travelled with the Captain of Calais, but the nature of his business is unknown. He could not have remained there for very long, since in the following month he was in Dartford where he was acting as a justice ad inquirendum; Isabella Hall had been abducted by her husband, John Lording, from the custody of Thomas Carshill at Chislehurst. Lording was, however, rescuing his wife from a previous abduction conducted by Carshill himself. It must have been a sufficiently interesting case at the time, and the repeated use of the phrase “rapuerunt et abduxerunt” may have stirred Chaucer’s memories of a court hearing in which he himself had once been involved.
In this period Philippa Chaucer died. It is perhaps appropriate for a woman about whom so little is known that her death can only be adduced from the absence of official records; her life annuity is no longer paid after 18 June 1387. She probably died at her sister’s house in Lincolnshire, but no other circumstances can be recovered. Chaucer never mentioned her death in any public way, except insofar as he wrote one or two short poems in which he declared his intention never to remarry—never “to falle of weddynge in the trappe.” It would seem that he had no very high opinion of the matrimonial state. Yet Philippa’s influence may have had a more enduring legacy. Some of the narratives in The Canterbury Tales have been classified as “the Marriage Group”; the tales of the Franklin and the Merchant, among others, are concerned with the theme of “maistrie” or the battle for supremacy between husband and wife. It was one of Chaucer’s abiding concerns and, despite their long if not permanent separation, may in part have been derived from Philippa’s presence in his life.
Chaucer himself can often only be glimpsed in official records. On two occasions in 1388, for example, he was sued for debt. This was not an unusual circumstance for a middle-aged man in the late fourteenth century, but it does at least emphasise that the poet was by no means as affluent as the courtiers and London merchants with whom he had dealings. In the spring an exchequer action was taken against him by a grocer, John Churchman, for a debt of £3 6s 8d; in the following autumn a plea of debt was registered against Chaucer, for the sum of £7 13s 4d, by Henry Atwood. Atwood’s occupation was given as “hostelere” or inn-keeper, and it seems likely that Chaucer had taken a chamber in his inn when he had business in London. The eventual outcome of the suit is unknown, but it seems that Chaucer reached some private arrangement with Atwood. On this, the records are silent. It says something about the complicated forensic environment of the time that, in the same legal term as Chaucer was summoned to court for this debt, he himself was guaranteeing the appearance in court of Matilda Nemeg; she had been the victim of an abduction which, judging by the available records, was a most common offence in the period.
There was one other, and more important, legal process in this period. In the spring of 1388 Chaucer transferred all of his exchequer annuities to John Scalby; all of the payments made to him on the king’s behalf were now to be given to Scalby, for which privilege Chaucer no doubt received a sum of money. The reasons for this transfer are obvious enough. In the Parliament then sitting, known for its attacks upon the king’s councillors as the “Merciless Parliament,” it was proposed that all annuities should be cancelled if the grantee had received any subsequent payments from the king. This was unfortunately Chaucer’s case, and the threat that any future payments would be forfeit encouraged him to sell them as soon as possible. Once more he seems quick and efficient in the affairs of the world. That world, however, was now being turned upside-down.
Richard II was under severe threat from rebel lords and from the commons, to the extent that he may have been temporarily deposed. Certainly he was humiliated and threatened in the most obvious ways. Some of his closest and most important councillors were summarily tried and executed, among them friends of Chaucer himself. Sir Simon Burley and Nicholas Brembre, men whose names are closely connected to that of the poet in innumerable dealings, were beheaded. It must have occurred to Chaucer himself that he was safer in Greenwich than in London.