The Court of the Boy King - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

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

Chapter 6. The Court of the Boy King


The change of reign, however, did not affect Chaucer directly. Richard II, the young king, was grandson of Edward III and son of the “Black Prince” who had died in 1376. He was only eleven years of age when he succeeded to the throne of England and, throughout his minority, John of Gaunt was largely responsible for the conduct of the realm. Gaunt was never proclaimed as regent but he was none the less the “steward” of England. Chaucer might at least feel secure in his role as controller of the wool custom; the day after the death of the old king, Edward III, he was reappointed to the post. This may have been an entirely formal undertaking, given the transference of royal power, but it may none the less have been reassuring. Chaucer’s own family were also likely to benefit from Gaunt’s ascendancy. His wife and son were part of Gaunt’s household; in particular, his sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford, was in a position of unusual influence as Gaunt’s mistress.

Chaucer was also well acquainted with the members and supporters of the young king’s household; he knew the chamberlain, Robert de Vere, and the sub-chamberlain, Simon de Burley, who at various times expedited the progress of Chaucer’s career. He knew the rich merchants of the city who subsidised the king, among them Nicholas Brembre and John Hende. He knew the Ricardian “knights of the chamber” such as John Clanvowe, Richard Stury, Lewis Clifford, William Neville and Philip la Vache; to the latter Chaucer addressed one of his most interesting short poems, entitled “Truth.” These friends and acquaintances emerge through Chaucer’s public life in the customary and familiar role of witnesses or guarantors. Most of these Ricardian knights had in fact been attached to the old king’s household in the period when Chaucer had also been enrolled there as an esquire; he had grown up in their company. He was very well connected, in other words, and perfectly equipped to weather the storms of factional politics which disturbed the realm in subsequent years.

But the knights also had a more intimate association with Chaucer. Lewis Clifford had brought back for Chaucer’s delectation the poem which Eustache Deschamps had composed in the English poet’s honour; it was the verse in which he celebrated Chaucer’s role as the “great translator” of French culture. John Clanvowe was an author; he wrote poetry, and an unpublished religious treatise entitled “The Two Ways.” They must have made up part of the audience to which Chaucer addressed his own poetry.

There is one other matter which touches upon Chaucer’s concentric circles of friendship and affinity. Many of the knights to whom he was socially or informally attached are suspected of being religious reformers; from the evidence of contemporary chronicles, wills and scattered historical allusions it is evident that they had some sympathy with the Wycliffites or lollards who were intent upon purging the Church of its worldly excesses. It need not be inferred that these knights were radical reformers, who denied the doctrine of transubstantiation or who rejected the sacrament of confession; they were, rather, intelligent and sophisticated men who deplored the corruption of the Christian faith. It ought to be remembered, too, that John of Gaunt protected Wycliff in his confrontations with the ecclesiastical authorities. There was a network of rich and powerful courtiers who were explicitly opposed to the arrogation of power and wealth by the prelates of the Church.

There is no real reason to doubt that Chaucer was sympathetic to their aims. On the face of it he was a man of unexceptionable piety. In one picture he is depicted with a set of rosary beads in his hands (see jacket image). One of his early poems, entitled An ABC and described in the manuscripts as “La priere de Nostre Dame,” is an elaborate encomium on the blessed virtues of the Virgin Mary; it is, however, a close translation of a French poem and may have been composed as a form of verse experiment. That is not to doubt its sincerity: a poem to the Blessed Mother was a token of public respect (or, perhaps, respectability) and might also merit good marks in the struggle for private salvation. He also composed a life of St. Cecilia, which later saw service as “The Second Nun’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales; but it is imbued with supernaturalism rather than piety, and in that sense resembles an old-fashioned “geste.”

The Canterbury Tales itself bears witness to Chaucer’s piety in another sense. It is well known that it ends with “The Parson’s Tale,” a penitential sermon which itself concludes with Chaucer’s retraction. He disavows all of those poems “that sownen into synne,” which include many of the Canterbury tales as well as Troilus and Criseyde, and recommends only that literature which “is writen for oure doctrine.” These may be the conventional sentiments of a medieval author preparing himself for death, but they may also afford a glimpse of Chaucer’s genuine faith. A large proportion of The Canterbury Tales are overtly Christian in theme and inspiration, while ecclesiastical protagonists figure prominently among the roll-call of pilgrims. It is here that the question of lollardy arises, since in the framework of The Canterbury Tales Chaucer obliquely or indirectly satirises all the representatives of the Church’s hierarchy. The Prioress is silly and self-indulgent; the Summoner is grotesque and corrupt; the Pardoner is an effeminate hypocrite; the Monk is worldly and greedy; the Friar is, in Chaucer’s own words, “a wantowne and a merye.” Only the Parson fulfils God’s commandments and he, significantly, is suspected by the Host of being a lollard. Chaucer seems to be intimating here that the calls for religious reform should be heeded, if the purity and grace of the Church are to be re-established upon earth. Of course he never makes such statements directly; all the forces of his nature and character prompted him into modest disclaimers of personal opinion. Unlike his contemporary, William Langland, he never broke out in passionate remonstrance. But the general sentiment is clear enough. He joined forces with his knightly colleagues in desiring a wholesale reform of Church practices. This is not to claim him as a lollard or a Wycliffite, however. There is no evidence that he wished to undermine the sacramental system, or cast into doubt the rituals, of the Church. It should be remembered in this context that the lollards opposed pilgrimages, particularly to that saint whom they nominated as “Thomas of Cankerbury”; it would have been odd, to say the least, to devote a long poem to just such a pilgrimage. Instead Chaucer seems to have shared the opinions of the most intelligent men of his period.


John Wycli f, whose followers became known as the lollards

The accession of the new king did not materially affect Chaucer’s employment as a diplomat. In the spring of 1378, for example, he was sent on a mission to Lombardy concerning “lexploit de notre guerre” —the conduct of our war. The war in question was of course that against France which, on the death of Edward III, had been inflamed by several French incursions against the Channel ports. The English counter-offensive had begun inconclusively in the year of Chaucer’s mission and, by the time of his departure, was effectively stalled. Chaucer was travelling to Lombardy in order to find allies. He had with him a retinue of six officials and bodyguards; his English superior in the negotiations, Sir Edward de Berkeley, had about twice that number. They had come to treat of war and money. They paid suit particularly to Barnabo Visconti, the lord of Milan, and the English mercenary commander, Sir John Hawkwood. Chaucer’s was to be a protracted mission of some five months; he arranged for a deputy to take his position in the controllership of the wool custom and also appointed his friend and fellow poet, John Gower, as his attorney ready to conduct legal business on his behalf. It seems possible that, even at this early stage, there was the prospect of a legal challenge of “raptus” or rape by one Cecily Champain. We may be allowed to envisage a man who was under the pressure of some heavy private anxieties.

It says much about Chaucer’s emollient reputation, however, that he had been despatched to enter negotiations with a man who was generally perceived to be a cruel if single-minded tyrant. We have Chaucer’s own word for it. In “The Monk’s Tale,” Barnabo Visconti is apostrophised thus:

Off Melan grete Barnabo Viscounte,
God of delit and scourge of Lumbardye.

In The Legend of Good Women the God of Love is asked to treat his subject, Geoffrey Chaucer, mercifully

And not ben lyk tyraunts of Lumbardye.

So Chaucer was entering Milan as if he were entering a tiger’s den. The mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, was also Visconti’s son-in-law. Power and violence were compounded in this northern city, therefore, and Chaucer was considered the man to deal with them in every sense.

There was one other grave matter which had brought them to Italy. Pope Gregory XI had died on 27 March 1378, two months before Chaucer’s departure. A conclave of cardinals had elected Pope Urban VI, amid scenes of mob violence and intimidation; the Roman crowds demanded a Roman, or at least an Italian, pope after the enforced reign of the popes in Avignon. The cardinals, supposed to be in secret conclave, were in fact threatened by the mob that pillaged the Vatican in the process. But sharp beginnings often have unfortunate ends, as Chaucer himself once had cause to notice, and the pontificate of Urban VI was already proving to be disastrous by the time Chaucer had reached Milan. It was said that his sudden elevation had disturbed his mind; he railed against his cardinals, and had to be physically prevented from attacking one of them. When the bishops came to pay homage to him in Rome, he accused them of deserting their flocks. When given money due to the Holy See he told his treasurer “to keep thy money to thyself, to perish with thee.” It is almost as if a lollard had ascended the throne of Peter. In August of that year, when Chaucer was still in Milan, the cardinals fled from Rome and in the relatively safe kingdom of Naples declared that the election of Urban was invalid and in his place raised Clement VII to the pontificate. Thus began the Great Schism, which had incalculable effects upon the political and religious history of Europe for the next forty-five years.

Chaucer was at the centre of events at a time of huge instability. The election of two separate popes, with separate allegiances, threatened the power relations between all the nations of Europe. It was to be expected that Visconti of Milan would attach himself to the Italian Pope, Urban, but in an age of internecine warfare and subtle stratagem no one’s loyalty or fidelity could be taken for granted. Sir John Hawkwood also controlled the finest mercenary army in Europe, so that his decision on the matter could powerfully affect the course of events. We do not know how Chaucer conducted himself in this affair; we may imagine, however, that he employed skill and good humour.

There were other negotiations in Milan which subtly accompanied those of war and peace. The newly crowned king, Richard II, needed a suitable wife. It was now proposed that he should marry the daughter of Barnabo Visconti, Caterina, a union which promised wealth as well as military alliance to the English king. The fact that these negotiations proved eminently successful is exemplified by the two Milanese ambassadors who returned with Chaucer to England in the autumn of that year. They were bringing with them proposals for the marriage, as well as a very large dowry.

There were other treasures to be brought back from Milan. In the great hall of the palace there, where Chaucer would have first confronted Visconti, the frescoes of Giotto sent out their own light into the proceedings. Petrarch had been godfather to Barnabo Visconti’s son, and Barnabo’s court was known to hold literary pre-eminence throughout Italy; it was rivalled only by that of his brother, Galeazzo Visconti, who ruled in Pavia and who had been Petrarch’s patron for many years. Like many tyrants, they combined violence with a love for the beautiful. In particular Barnabo Visconti’s library was by general consent the greatest in the country. There were some four hundred volumes in place here; it was the treasure-house of Italian literature which included works by Petrarch and Boccaccio as well as Dante’s Divina Commedia. It has in fact often been remarked that it was only after Chaucer’s sojourn in Milan that his poetry seems thoroughly to have absorbed the influence of Boccaccio. He may have studied the manuscripts there, but his diplomatic business could not have allowed him the luxury of continual contemplation. It is far more likely that Visconti, in reward for Chaucer’s excellent services as a diplomat and vicarious suitor for his daughter’s hand, gave Chaucer several of the Italian poet’s works. “The Knight’s Tale” is in places a close translation of Boccaccio’s original, Il Teseida. The resemblances are so close and continuous that Chaucer could not have relied upon a free memory of earlier reading; he must have had the manuscripts to hand, and worked upon them line by line or stanza by stanza. Since he could not have found copies of the Italian books in London, or even in Paris, it seems most likely that he brought them back across Europe as gifts from Barnabo Visconti. So did an Italian tyrant alter the course of English literature.

The first product of this unlikely union is to be found in The House of Fame, a comic poem of some two thousand lines which ends abruptly and inconclusively with the phrase:

“But he semed for to be
A man of gret auctorite …”

Indeed the whole notion of authority seems to be parodied in this poem concerned with unsteady fortune and false reputation. In his official services, Chaucer had come across many instances of fickleness or “brittleness” in the affairs of the world, and this poem is in one sense conceived in playful mockery. It uses the old English octosyllabic metre which has over the centuries become the engine of English humour:

Of trust, of drede, of jelousye,
Of wit, of wynnynge, of folye.

It is the unembarrassed cadence of “simple” English, often dedicated to the task of deflating pomposity or magnificence; it can also be used as an agent of self-deprecation, which is of course one of Chaucer’s favourite devices.

The poem opens with a dream or, rather, with a disquisition upon the nature of dreams. It has generally been argued that Chaucer borrowed the device of the dream vision from the French poets, most notably from Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la rose, but it is also worth noting that the dream is an essential part of the English imagination. Chaucer’s contemporary, William Langland, established The Vision of Piers Plowman in a series of dreams. The first poem in English, by Caedmon, was heralded by a dream. The works of John Bunyan, and of Lewis Carroll, are striated with dreams. Chaucer is always part of an English, as well as a European, dispensation; that is the source of his strength.

“Of Decembre the tenthe day” Chaucer dreams that he is within a temple made of glass in which have been placed many curious statues and images. The story of the fall of Troy, and in particular the doomed love of Dido for Aeneas, are “peynted on the wal”; it is the most famous love story in medieval Europe, and thus has pride of place in a temple dedicated to Venus. He wanders beyond its doors and finds himself in a wide desert, where he calls upon Christ to save him from phantoms and illusions. When he casts his eyes towards the heavens a more palpable reality presses down upon him in the shape of a giant eagle:

Hyt was of gold, and shon so bryghte
That never sawe men such a syghte,
But yf the heven had ywonne
Al newe of gold another sonne;
So shone the egles fethers bryghte,
And somwhat dounward gan hyt lyghte.

The bird might have flown out of Dante’s Purgatorio where, in the ninth canto, an eagle “con penne d’oro” snatches the poet from a dolorous valley and carries him towards the sphere of fire. Passages such as this encouraged the fifteenth-century poet, John Lydgate, to declare him “Dante in Inglissh.” Immediately after the appearance of the eagle, in fact, Chaucer addresses his audience:

Now herkeneth every maner man
That Englissh understonde kan.

There is no Dante in English. There could never be a Dante in English. Chaucer could no more copy Dante than he could fly in the “pawes” of the famous bird. That is why the eagle is no far-sighted and prescient symbol of contemplation but, in The House of Fame, a garrulous and condescending bore whose voice seems to have been recognisable to Chaucer’s audience. It might have been John Gower, or Ralph Strode, or some member of the court. The truth is that Chaucer could not remain serious for very long; he could not maintain a “high style” when his instinctive comedy keeps on breaking through. The eagle takes up the poet and in the course of their aerial journey he discourses upon the nature of sound, the composition of “the Milky Wey” and the qualities of Chaucer’s own poetry. It is a highly artificial and literary poem which makes fun of literariness and artifice. The nature of the English imagination eschews solemnity and parodies high-mindedness; it also allows Chaucer to parody his own endeavours and to present himself as an innocent and somewhat hamfisted celebrant of love’s virtues:

And peynest the to preyse hys art,
Although thou haddest never part.

When the garrulous eagle eventually releases Chaucer, the poet finds himself beside a vast rock of ice on which are engraved the names of many famous men and women; some have melted away while others remain firmly etched, according to the position of the sun, and together they comprise a little homily on the adventitious nature of fame. Chaucer then encounters a castle of beryl, upon which have been placed the images of poets and musicians and story-tellers. It may be construed in that sense as a castle of art, except for the fact that beside these illustrious images are those of “magiciens” and “jugelours”; art is then conflated with illusion and sorcery as another fickle source of fame. One of the magicians mentioned is “Colle tregetour”—

Y saugh him carien a wynd-melle
Under a walsh-note shale.

This conjuror, who placed a windmill under a walnut shell, was in fact an Englishman known as “Colin” who did indeed perform feats of magic; from the specificity of the reference, it seems likely that Chaucer witnessed one of his extraordinary performances. The reference to him here is part of the poet’s habitual device of suddenly including real people within fictional surroundings; it is part of his wish, or ability, to destroy the illusion of art by appeals to the real world. Colin’s trick of concealing a windmill beneath a nutshell may also be a token of the whole world contained within the brain or the imagination. It then becomes a very powerful image indeed, and helps to deepen the nature of the poem as a meditation upon the nature of poetry itself. It ought also to be emphasised, in this context, that poets are gathered in the castle through the existing fame of their stories rather than through any singular achievement of their own. Chaucer is thoroughly medieval in the sense that he does not consider the worth of the individual poet. From this, too, springs his own habitual irony and self-effacement.

Within the castle itself sits “Our oune gentil lady Fame” who dispenses her favours to sundry petitioners with no sense of fairness or justice. There are those whose good deeds earn them unhappy reputations, while the renown of others is wholly lost. It is all a lottery and a japery. Chaucer understood the business of fame very well, and had stood at close quarters with many famous men; it seems likely, then, that his irony is in part fuelled by his observations of those all around him.

But there is another aspect of fame. It seems likely that The House of Fame was written after his return from Italy in 1378. The manifest influence of Dante can be cited in this respect but, more importantly, the cultures of Milan and Pavia were saturated with the notion of poetic “fame.” It was one of the lodestones of Italian civilisation, pro-pounded by Dante and celebrated by Petrarch. It is as if Chaucer were in fact satirising Italian predilections and propensities from a somewhat more sober or disillusioned perspective. When a member of the rout gathered around Lady Fame asks Chaucer if he, too, is there to acquire fame he replies firmly and forthrightly in the negative:

For no such cause, by my hed!
Sufficeth me, as I were ded,
That no wight have my name in honde.
I wot myself best how y stonde.

I have no wish to be blown about by the winds of fame; I know my situation best, and will never lose sight of it. In many ways The House of Fame is Chaucer’s most autobiographical poem in which he asserts his own stubbornly individualistic creed in the face of Italian or French aesthetic imperatives.

Yet of course it is at the same time concerned with the nature and status of poetry itself. If the dream vision was in fact a journey into his own imagination, as has been suggested, then the eagle is taking Chaucer into the furthest reaches of his own consciousness where the questions of poetry and fame are continually debated. In the palace of fame itself he sees pillars of various metals upon which are set the great writers of the past, each one bearing up the fame of his civilisation. Josephus holds up the fame of the Jews, Statius that of the Thebans, and Homer that of the Greeks. Is there any sense in which Chaucer believed himself capable of holding up the fame of the English? Yet in the same poem he apologises for the paucity of his style:

Here art poetical be shewed,
But for the rym ys lyght and lewed …

Out of this paradox, or inconsistency, springs laughter as well as contemplation. The comedy itself comes from embarrassment and self-deprecation, from the deliberate parody of the “high style” together with the deflation of pomposity and wordiness. “I do no diligence,” he writes in this poem, “to shewe craft, but o sentence.” I am not concerned with literary devices but with substantial matter. It is the voice of the pragmatic and empirical temper, which has echoed through centuries of English prose as well as poetry.

It is sufficiently English, therefore, to take Chaucer as one of its first representatives. Much has been said concerning Chaucer as the “father of English poetry,” so much in fact that it has become something of a literary and cultural platitude; but Chaucer has become representative of so much else that, for writers such as G. K. Chesterton, he turns into the figure of England or the face of Albion. He is the genial and smiling emblem of Englishness—the man of practical affairs who turns his hand to poetry, the modest disclaimer of his own merits, the invisible man who leaves only the breath of good humour behind. Such a man, of course, is also known as William Shakespeare. It is the national icon.

The poem ends with a vision of the “House of Daedalus,” a great house of twigs which whirls continually about and from which issue all the false and true reports of the world. It is a box of Chinese whispers or, rather, a turning wicker cage “of werres, of pes [peace], of mariages.” It is his own world of court and business gone awry, a mad vision of worldly affairs, in which the narrator himself seems lost and bewildered. There are many critics who have found in this poem evidence of Chaucer’s own unhappiness or incapacity, at that time of his life when he was not sure in which direction his poetic vocation stood. He was a diplomat and official whose duties must have in some sense conflicted with, or curtailed, the practice of his art. He had returned from Italy with the manuscripts of Boccaccio, but he could have seen no way of emulating such prodigal and self-assured achievement.

His own success in the public world was fickle and unstable. He explicitly mentions “Decembre the tenthe day” at the beginning of The House of Fame, as if it represented a specific occasion. Only a few lines later he refers to “pilgrymage myles two” to “Leonard”; only two miles from his chambers in Aldgate lay the convent of St. Leonard at Stratford-le-Bow, from which Chaucer’s Prioress would later emerge for her Canterbury pilgrimage. We may be equally specific about the date. On 10 December 1379, three representatives of the Vatican were recompensed and rewarded for their journey to England. They had come to expedite negotiations for the marriage of Richard II to the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Anne of Bohemia. The marriage with Caterina Visconti, over which Chaucer had spent many months of arduous business, had been abandoned for reasons of statecraft.

The vagaries of diplomatic life enter in indirect, as well as direct, ways. It has been concluded that the topography of The House of Fame, with its palace and its rock of ice and its giant house of twigs, is like some inverted dream version of the Ile de la Cité in Paris, with its Great Hall of pillars, its long gallery of glass and sculptures, its echoing bourse of merchants with their wooden stalls. From the roof of the long gallery there, hung the leg-bone and claw of a vulture. This was the area where, in 1377, Chaucer had gone to negotiate yet another of Richard’s marital propositions. Everything comes together in this comic poem of fickle fate, inconclusiveness and disappointment. Yet, like the walnut shell, it also contains a greater world. In the house of twigs are found “shipmen and pilgrimes” as well as “pardoners”; the Shipman and the Pardoner make up two of the pilgrims whose subsequent journey rendered Chaucer immortal.