Biography Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

photo of Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Time Period1343 - 1400
  • PlaceLondon
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Chaucer was born circa 1343 in London, though the exact date and location of his birth are not known. His father and grandfather were both London vintners and before that, for several generations, the family members were merchants in Ipswich. His name is derived from the French chausseur, meaning shoemaker. In 1324 John Chaucer, Geoffrey's father, was kidnapped by an aunt in the hope of marrying the twelve-year-old boy to her daughter in an attempt to keep property in Ipswich. The aunt was imprisoned and the £250 fine levied suggests that the family was financially secure, upper middle-class, if not in the elite. John married Agnes Copton, who, in 1349, inherited properties including 24 shops in London from her uncle, Hamo de Copton, who is described as the "moneyer" at the Tower of London.

In 1359, in the early stages of the Hundred Years' War, Edward III invaded France and Chaucer travelled with Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, Elizabeth's husband, as part of the English army. In 1360, he was captured during the siege of Rheims, becoming a prisoner of war. Edward contributed £16 as part of a ransom, and Chaucer was released.

After this, Chaucer's life is uncertain, but he seems to have traveled in France, Spain, and Flanders, possibly as a messenger and perhaps even going on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Around 1366, Chaucer married Philippa (de) Roet. She was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen, Philippa of Hainault, and a sister of Katherine Swynford, who later (ca. 1396) became the third wife of Chaucer's friend and patron, John of Gaunt. It is uncertain how many children Chaucer and Philippa had, but three or four are most commonly cited. His son, Thomas Chaucer, had an illustrious career, as chief butler to four kings, envoy to France, and Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas' daughter, Alice, married the Duke of Suffolk. Thomas' great-grandson (Geoffrey's great-great-grandson), John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was the heir to the throne designated by Richard III before he was deposed. Geoffrey's other children probably included Elizabeth Chaucy, a nun at Barking Abbey. Agnes, an attendant at Henry IV's coronation; and another son, Lewis Chaucer.

On 12 July, 1389, Chaucer was appointed the clerk of the king's works, a sort of foreman organizing most of the king's building projects. No major works were begun during his tenure, but he did conduct repairs on Westminster Palace, St. George's Chapel, Windsor, continue building the wharf at the Tower of London, and build the stands for a tournament held in 1390. It may have been a difficult job, but it paid well: two shillings a day, more than three times his salary as a comptroller. In September 1390, records say that he was robbed, and possibly injured, while conducting the business, and it was shortly after, on 17 June, 1391, that he stopped working in this capacity. Almost immediately, on 22 June, he began as deputy forester in the royal forest of North Petherton, Somerset. This was no sinecure, with maintenance an important part of the job, although there were many opportunities to derive profit. He was granted an annual pension of twenty pounds by Richard II in 1394. It is believed that Chaucer stopped work on the Canterbury Tales sometime towards the end of this decade.

Not long after the overthrow of his patron, Richard II, in 1399, Chaucer's name fades from the historical record. The last few records of his life show his pension renewed by the new king, and his taking of a lease on a residence within the close of Westminster Abbey on December 24, 1399. Although Henry IV renewed the grants assigned to Chaucer by Richard, Chaucer's own The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse hints that the grants might not have been paid. The last mention of Chaucer is on 5 June, 1400, when some monies owed to him were paid.

He is believed to have died of unknown causes on 25 October, 1400, but there is no firm evidence for this date, as it comes from the engraving on his tomb, erected more than one hundred years after his death. There is some speculation—most recently in Terry Jones' book Who Murdered Chaucer? : A Medieval Mystery—that he was murdered by enemies of Richard II or even on the orders of his successor Henry IV, but the case is entirely circumstantial. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in London, as was his right owing to his status as a tenant of the Abbey's close. In 1556, his remains were transferred to a more ornate tomb, making Chaucer the first writer interred in the area now known as Poets' Corner.