The Civil Servant - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)

Chapter 5. The Civil Servant


The most important of Chaucer’s royal posts was awarded to him on 8 June 1374 when, in his early thirties, he was appointed as controller of the wool custom and wool subsidy for an annual income of ten pounds per year with a bonus of ten marks. In this role he administered the collection of the various taxes and imposts paid upon exports of wool and leather leaving the Port of London; a sack of wool equivalent to 364 pounds in weight, for example, would be taxed at fifty shillings. At the same time he was made controller of the “petty custom.” The “petty custom” comprised taxes other than those imposed on wool; the goods included wax, cloth, beds, and what was known as “divers merchandise.” It was not an easy sinecure, as some have suggested, but a responsible and in certain respects arduous job. Chaucer would have been responsible for keeping a “counter-roll” of accounts to check those presented by the collectors of the tax. This “counter-roll” had to be written in the controller’s own hand, although none has survived from the pen of Chaucer himself. Since there was much scope for corruption, when ready money or “bonds” were involved, Chaucer would have required a keen eye and a ready wit to authenticate what may have been somewhat dubious accounting practices. The accounts themselves were written in Latin, with an admixture of French and English; it is an indication of the polyglot tendencies of the age, of which Chaucer took full advantage in his poetry.

The collectors themselves were responsible for investigating and weighing merchandise, counting the sacks of wool, settling disputes between merchants and the officials of the custom house, imposing fines and collecting custom duty. Chaucer himself may not have engaged in these activities, but he would need to be well acquainted with them. It was he who took action, for example, against merchants who had unlawfully landed cargoes upon the shore. He also retained control of a seal, or “cocket,” which was used to verify the legality of a shipment of wool or leather. In his oath he pledged to serve the king loyally, to remain on constant duty in the port of London “en proper persone ou par suffisante depute,” and to render faithfully the custom accounts “saunz fauxme or fraude,” without falsehood or fraud. That this was not some stock or standard injunction was made plain in the case of Richard Lyons, a rich London vintner and lifelong companion of Chaucer’s father. In this period he was in overall charge of the petty custom and subsidy and thus Chaucer’s employer; it is fair to assume, in fact, that he had some role in obtaining the post for his former friend’s only son. But Lyons was an old-fashioned speculator who was not averse to pocketing money for himself; only two years after Chaucer’s appointment, Lyons was accused of extortion, removed from his post, and despatched to prison. It cannot be said, then, that Chaucer had taken on an altogether comfortable appointment. In the beginning, at least, he seems to have dispensed with the services of a “suffisante depute ” and, as custom required, to have filled out the rolls and accounts in his own hand.

It is of course a matter of historical regret that none of these hand-written accounts survives; a graphologist might then have found some inkling to Chaucer’s character in this busy period. Here was a poet who, having acquired his reputation as a courtly poet of dream vision, now found himself surrounded by London businessmen and clerks who were hard-headed, argumentative and not averse to sharp practice. He had of course known these people all his life, and it can be assumed he had already evolved a way of conversing and of dealing with them. We may imagine a man of infinite bonhomie and tact, but shrewd and quick-witted none the less. He may even have prided himself upon his ability to move between two worlds—between the court and the city, between the poetry of love and the prose of business. It might almost be said that the variety and heterogeneity of his own verses lie precisely in their ability to live “between” various poetic dispensations. He was a man of infinite jest.

In his next long poem, written after taking on the controllership, The House of Fame, his working life is peremptorily described:

For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed ys thy look.

We know of Chaucer’s bookishness but, by good fortune, we also know precisely where his “hous” was situated. The poet lived above Aldgate, one of the eastern gates of the city. The dwelling seems to have come with the job. The lease was granted to him a month before he took up the post of controller and it comprised, according to the London Letter Book of the period, “the whole dwelling-house above Aldgate Gate [supra portam de Algate] with the chambers thereon built and a certain cellar beneath the said gate, on the eastern side thereof, together with all its appurtenances, for the lifetime of the said Geoffrey.” The property was also granted to him rent-free for the course of his life which, even by medieval standards, was a significant gift. His beneficent donors were the mayor, Adam de Bury, together with the aldermen and the “communitas civitatis Londonie”; but it seems like the civic authorities were acting at the behest of, or in collaboration with, the royal court. The bonds and affiliations between the courtiers and the richer merchants were, as we shall see, very close indeed.

The property itself was spacious enough for a rising official. It comprised the floor above the gateway itself, including the two towers on either side and a large rectangular room between them. The towers were some twenty-six feet across and twelve feet in depth (nearly eight metres by over three-and-a-half metres), while the intervening room was some twenty feet by twelve (six metres by over three-and-a-half). There were two smaller rooms behind the towers. The “hous” was reached by spiral stone stairways on either side; there were two windows, one looking west into the city and one east towards the suburbs beneath the wall and to the country beyond; Chaucer also had access to the parapet running along the wall itself. It was named “Aldgate” or “Aeldgate” because of its antiquity stretching back, in the medieval phrase, beyond the memory of man; in the thirteenth century it was repaired after various armed incursions into the city had rendered it “ruinous.” In the words of the antiquary, John Stow, it was “repaired, or rather newly built, after manner of the Normans, strongly arched with bulwarks of stone from Caen in Normandy, and small brick, called Flanders tile.” The topography of the area has been well described, by Stow and others; it comprised the usual London mingling of gardens and workshops, grand houses built of squared stone and sagging low-roofed tenements, inns and hostels for travellers together with wooden sheds and stalls, yards and alleys, stables for horses and churches for the faithful.

The noise of the city began at dawn when the porter of Aldgate, William Duerhirst, opened the gates. It was the signal for the commercial life of London to begin, with the entry of innumerable pack-horses, carts, wagons and traders on foot bearing eggs and poultry from the suburban farms. A toll was levied on each horse or vehicle, in order to pay for the road leading to Aldgate itself. Chaucer woke each morning to the sound of the traffic below, and it would have been the constant accompaniment to all the work he undertook in his lofty apartment; he would have discerned, too, the various cries of entry and departure in the endless passage of people and of goods. He would have recognised certain voices, like that of the porter William, as well as the distinctive call of each trade or profession. But of course the gate was also erected as a means of defence. In times of civic tension chains and bars were attached to the gates, and guards assigned to their positions on the walls; at the time of the insurrection later known as the “Peasants’ Revolt” Aldgate itself was covertly opened by an alderman, William Tonge, to allow the rebels access into the city. It says something about Chaucer’s proximity to major urban events that he was residing above the gate at the time. What sounds would he have heard then?


Engraving for Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1754. Aldgate, where Chaucer lived in chambers above the gateway itself, was on the east side of the city

From the eastern window, looking out towards Essex, Chaucer would have known the sprawling and squalid suburb which had grown up beside the wall. Here were cheap lodgings, inns, cook-shops and stalls selling supplies for the vast army of travellers who made their way in both directions. Chaucer describes such a place with its “hernes” (hiding places) in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue”:

“In the suburbes of a toun,” quod he,
“Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde,
Whereas thise robbours and thise theves by kynde
Holden hir pryvee fereful residence …”

From the window in the west he would have looked out over the city itself. Just within the city bounds, a few yards from Chaucer’s lodging, was the famous meeting-place of “Aldgate Well” with its water-bearers carrying their leather buckets. The manor house and gardens belonging to the earl of Northumberland were in the immediate vicinity, together with the church of St. Katherine Coleman and the manor of Blanche Appleton where basket-makers and wire-drawers had their shops. The priory of the Holy Trinity was also here. Some of the houses adjoining that priory, which Chaucer would have known, were excavated in Stow’s time; by the sixteenth century they were already “two fathoms deep” under the soil, comprising “a wall of stone, with a gate arched of stone, and gates of timber to be closed in the midst towards the street.” The poet would have passed these gates almost every day. It is an indication of how quickly London was built and rebuilt, even within Chaucer’s own lifetime, and how new buildings were erected on the ruins of the old. It was a place of perpetual change. From Aldgate to his work in the Port of London he would have walked through the busiest, noisiest and most populous streets of the city. From his vantage above the gate he was well acquainted with the figure of the traveller and with the image of life as an endless journey.

He lived here for twelve years, during which period he wrote The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls, “The Knight’s Tale” and Troilus and Criseyde from which this local reference to driving the beasts in or having to stay (“bleven”) outside is taken:

The warden of the yates gan to calle
The folk which that withoute the yates were,
And bad hem dryven in hire bestes alle,
Or all the nyght they moste bleven there.

It is sometimes assumed that his was a domestic as well as a creative environment, and that with his wife, Philippa, he lived in familial contentment above the thriving city. This was in fact not the case. They were a professional couple who generally lived apart. Their mutual supporting role is emphasised by the grant of ten pounds each year which Chaucer received from John of Gaunt, since the annuity was also awarded “for the good service that our well loved Philippa, his wife, did for our honoured lady and mother the queen, whom God pardon, and for our very beloved companion the Queen [of Castile].”

Here lies a story. Soon after the death of Blanche, commemorated by Chaucer in The Book of the Duchess, John of Gaunt married Princess Constanza of Castile. Philippa Chaucer seems to have become a member of the Gaunt household upon the death of Queen Philippa; after this second marriage she became a “damoiselle” in attendance upon Constanza, and in 1372 had been granted an annuity of ten pounds. Over the next few years she also received money and gifts from John of Gaunt. She was more than a paid attendant, however. Her sister, Katherine Swynford, had become John of Gaunt’s mistress and had an important place in the household. So even while Philippa Chaucer was in attendance upon Constanza, her sister was an attendant in quite another sense. That Philippa and Katherine were very close is not in doubt: when Katherine eventually set up her own household in Lincolnshire, Philippa and her son, Thomas Chaucer, followed her. It throws an interesting light upon the nature of the royal household, where ties of loyalty and affinity were intertwined. The suggestion that Philippa herself had a liaison with Gaunt, and that her children were part of that union, and not Geoffrey Chaucer’s children, has already been raised. Whatever the truth of that matter, it is clear that personal religious faith or public professions of morality had nothing to do with the court which Chaucer inhabited. When reference is made to the poet’s irony and scepticism, in all human affairs, his immediate circumstances might usefully be taken into account.

He was, in every sense, deeply implicated in the world around him. In the summer of 1375 he stood as “mainprise” or security for John de Romsey, the treasurer of Calais who had once been Chaucer’s superior in the royal household; it seems that he was accused over the seizure of the goods belonging to a man accused of sedition. In effect Chaucer made himself legally responsible for the appearance of Romsey before the Court of the Exchequer. It could not have been an onerous or perilous responsibility, since Romsey was treasurer of an important English possession, but it illuminates the network of duties, favours and obligations that comprised the social life of the period. In later years he would act as surety for other old friends, with the unspoken assumption that they would perform the same service for him.

There were other and more profitable services that Chaucer could undertake. In the same year as he stood mainprise for Romsey, he purchased the “wardship” of two Kentish heirs. This was a highly profitable venture whereby orphaned heirs of the king’s tenants, if they had not come of age, were given into the protection of suitable guardians who managed their estates for them. Chaucer purchased the right to look after the affairs of Edmund Staplegate, the son and heir of a wealthy Canterbury merchant, which two years later he relinquished to him for the sum of £104. Staplegate had bought back “his marriage and the custody of his lands,” so we can assume that Chaucer would have had some role in arranging a suitably profitable union for the young heir. It may seem odd that a stranger might purchase control of your life for a significant period, but it was an ingrained part of medieval social law. Staplegate himself was murdered twelve years later, in another example of that constant interplay between intricate legalism and explosive violence.

Chaucer must in fact have considered himself affluent in this period since, the month after buying the wardship of Edmund Staplegate, he also purchased the guardianship of William Soles; Soles was heir to the manors of Betteshanger and of Soles in Kent, and may again have seemed like a rich prize in the medieval battle of life. The fact that both heirs came from Kent is significant, in the sense that in later years Chaucer himself would be heavily identified with Kent both as Member of Parliament and as Justice of the Peace. He lived in that county after leaving London, where it is surmised that he wrote much of The Canterbury Tales, and it is at least possible that he already owned property there at this early date.

His affluence in this period, then, is not in doubt— well-paid employment, a wife in well-remunerated royal service, a free house leased to him for the rest of his life. There is no extant record of his silver or of his tapestries, of his beds and “tables” or paintings, but he makes one reference to his possessions in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women:

Yis, God wot, sixty bokes olde and newe
Hast thow thyself, alle ful of storyes grete.

Of course a line in a poem could not be taken as evidence in a court of law, but the specific allusion to “sixty” books—he could have written “twenty” or “thirty,” and maintained the cadence—does at least suggest the presence of individual memory. He might be accused of boastful-ness, however, since to possess sixty books was to possess wealth and luxury. But the fortune accruing to these books was, for Chaucer, of quite a different kind. As he also wrote in The Legend of Good Women:

And yf that olde bokes were aweye,
Yloren were of remembraunce the key.

Books were for him a source of doctrine and of delight; they were the very source of knowledge and tradition, without which nothing could certainly be understood. Chaucer lived upon books; he adapted books; he translated books; he copied books endlessly in his own writing; he understood, too, that by the alchemy of his writing, old things were made new, as familiar and ever renewed as the daisies with which in The Legend of Good Women he contrasts the art of reading itself. Art and nature are not severally divided in his work; they are aspects of the same abiding reality which is endlessly re-created:

For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere.

By his own account Chaucer possessed a “cheste” for some of his volumes. Books were considered so valuable, in fact, that in libraries they were chained to the shelves and could only be loaned on the security of a significant deposit. But we may also imagine Chaucer in the fortunate position of the clerk in “The Miller’s Tale” who possessed:

His Almageste, and bookes grete and smale …
On shelves couched at his beddes heed.

The paradox is of course that most of the prepared manuscripts of Chaucer’s own poetry were manufactured after his death; the paucity of evidence for manuscript circulation in his own lifetime suggests also that most of his poetry was conveyed by oral delivery.

Chaucer had a well-paid governmental position, but it was not necessarily a secure one. In the last years of Edward III’s reign there were continual complaints of nepotism and maladministration, largely brought about by the king’s lax hold upon affairs of state. There were favourites who suborned the commonwealth, officials who engaged in full-scale bribery, and courtiers who used their influence corruptly. It is the usual story of a reign coming to an end. Yet it might have affected Chaucer directly. In the “Good Parliament” of 1376 the Commons, under the leadership of its first elected “Speaker,” Peter de la Mare, delivered their main grievance in the complaint that the king “has with him certain councillors, and servants who are not loyal or profitable to him or the kingdom.” Among the miscreants named were Alice Perrers and Richard Lyons, both of whom were closely associated with Chaucer himself. Lyons was specifically accused of using his position as “farmer” of the petty custom in order to extort money. Chaucer’s friends were under attack. Perrers was banished from the household, and Lyons was incarcerated for an indefinite period. It would seem likely, then, that Chaucer would be caught in the general rout of corrupt officialdom. He was, after all, Richard Lyons’s deputy and friend. Yet he survived.

He was perhaps not considered prominent enough to be mentioned in the Commons’ indictment. The Members of the Parliament House were pursuing the principal figures in what they considered to be a malign conspiracy; to have brought in Chaucer, and other of his contemporaries, would have deflected their main accusations and weakened their case. It is also possible that as a result of the king’s incapacity the principal man in the realm, John of Gaunt, threw the shield of his favour over one of his chosen men. He was certainly powerful enough to be able to overturn the decisions of the Parliament House later that year, and to imprison or otherwise remove from office the leaders of the “Good Parliament.” Peter de la Mare, for example, was arrested and imprisoned. Nevertheless it must have been a salutary warning to Chaucer, and a reminder that the favour of princes might not be wholly benign.

Yet he was still deeply involved in royal business. In the last week of December 1376 he was despatched upon a clandestine mission on the king’s behalf—“in secretis negociis domini regis” —but the nature and purpose of the mission are unknown. He may have been concerned with the imprisonment of Peter de la Mare in Nottingham Castle. He may have been engaged in negotiations for the marriage of the young heir apparent, Richard, with a princess of France. The latter seems most likely since he was accompanied by the brother of Richard’s tutor. Yet nothing is certain. All that can be said with some authority is that Chaucer was personally involved in the most pressing matters of the realm. He was not a poet who happened to be a diplomat and government official; he was a government official and diplomat who, in his spare time, happened to write poetry.

Over the next few months, in fact, he embarked upon no less than four separate missions to France. He was so occupied that in the spring of 1377 he was given leave to appoint a deputy to his post at the Port of London, Thomas Evesham, on the grounds that “sepius in obsequio nostro in partibus remotis occupatus”; he was, in other words, occupied on the king’s allegiance in distant lands. The purpose of these journeys is again obscure—his first destination was Paris, but the others are not recorded—but the likely concern is once more with the proposed union of the young Richard with the French dynasty. And the matter was no longer hypothetical. On 21 June 1377, at the palace of Sheen, in the words of Froissart, “The gallant and noble King Edward III departed this life to the deep distress of the whole realm of England.” All was changed.