Geoffrey Chaucer.

The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized online

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King gave him the wardship of the son and heir of
Sir Edmund Staplegate, in Kent, for which he received


a remuneration of 104/., equal to 1872Z. in modern
money; and, in the year following, 71/. 4s. 6c?., or
in modern money 1262/., which had been forfeited to
the crown for non-payment of duties on a quantity of
wool, were granted to our poet. These additions to
his own property made a considerable improvement
in his circumstances ; and that he, as a true poet,
liberally shared the enjoyment of his riches with his
friends, may be inferred from the passage in his ' Tes-
tament of Love/ where he says, " I had comfort to
be in that plight, that both profit were to me and
my friends." During the year 1377 Chaucer was,
besides his regular office, employed in some important
state business on the continent, and letters were granted
to him, which secured him the protection of the King
in passing the seas for that purpose. The object of
this new mission is not quite demonstrable, but it was
probably the same which is recorded in the Chronicle
of Froissard, who says, that Chaucer, with two other
envoys, Sir Guichard d' Angle and Sir Richard Stan,
was sent to France to negotiate about a marriage
between Richard, Prince of Wales, afterwards Richard


II., and the daughter of Charles V., King of France.
But the only thing gained by this embassy was, a
prolongation of a truce which had been violated by
the French.

We have for some time lost sight of John of Gaunt,
the powerful friend and patron of our poet. After the
death of the Black Prince, his elder brother, and heir
to the crown of England, he had been led, by his
unbounded love of dominion, to marry the daughter
of Peter the Cruel, King of Castile, in order thereby
to become king of that country. The chief object,
however, of his ambition was the crown of England;
and, if we may believe the statement of some historians,
it was for the attainment of this object that he adopted
and patronized the doctrines of WicklifFe ; for they
suppose, that he, in this case being sure of the support
of the reformed party, would have been enabled to
crush the clergy, the most powerful party in the king-
dom. Chaucer is supposed by some to have co-operated
with the Duke, to promote the cause of the reformers.
His poems, indeed, abound in censure inflicted upon
the licentious and worldly habits of the clergy, but


no proof can be adduced of his having advocated the
cause of any particular party, or of his having identified
himself with any ; and, while his attacks are simply
directed against the abuses of the clergy of his age,
he, on the other hand, recognises and esteems the
good wherever it manifested itself : in fact, he does
not attack the system of Roman Catholicism, but
merely its abuses and excrescences. And, whatever
may have been the views of the Duke of Lancaster,
no one has ever ventured to charge Chaucer with
having acted from such selfish motives in his attacks
on the clergy, as those of the Duke. The aged King
Edward III., foreseeing or dreading the disasters which
would naturally follow the accession of the Duke of
Lancaster to the throne of England, declared his grand-
son Richard, the son of the Black Prince, heir to the
crown, though he was only a boy, and at the time
of Edward's death, 1377, not above eleven years old.

The accession of the young King did not produce
any alteration in the circumstances of our poet, for
immediately after the death of the old King, Chaucer
received a renewal of the grant of comptroller of the


customs, and the year following a confirmation of his
annual pension of twenty marks, with the addition
of twenty more, as a substitute for the pitcher of
wine which had hitherto been given to him every day
in kind. Four years after the accession of Richard II.,
in May, 1382, the year in which the young King
celebrated his nuptials with Ann of Bohemia, Chaucer,
in addition to his former appointment, obtained the
office of comptroller of the small customs, and the
young Queen, very soon after her marriage, seems
to have patronised our poet, and is even said to have
suggested to him the subject of a new poem, ' The
Legende of Goode Women,' in which he was requested
to make amends for his former invectives against
the fair sex. He endeavoured to gratify the desire
of his royal lady, but at the same time satisfied his
own feelings by occasional touches of humourous irony.
This work bears internal evidence of its unfinished
condition, for only ten women are set forth as examples
of female virtue, while the poet himself states that he
intended to commemorate nineteen.

About the second year of Richard II., Chaucer, not-


withstanding his rich income, seems to have been in
some pecuniary difficulties; for among the records in
the Tower we find one stating that the king took
Chaucer and his lands under his protection : the cause
of this is entirely unknown, and has given rise to some
absurd conjectures. But fortune, who had hitherto
favoured our poet in all he undertook, and had heaped
upon him all the advantages which wealth and high
connections can afford, now began for a time to forsake
him; and a period of adversity and sorrows followed,
arising out of the religious disturbances and the con-
flicts between the Wickliffites and the adherents of the
old Church. The Duke of Lancaster, who before had
been the great patron of the party of the reformers,
had indeed relaxed in his zeal when he saw the out-
rageous means by which some fanatic followers of
Wickliffe attempted to promote the cause of reform ;
but he, as well as his friend Chaucer, though without
identifying themselves with the Wickliffites, did not
hesitate to advance their interests whenever they
thought it beneficial to their country. This conduct
exasperated the clergy, and a plot was formed which


not only destroyed the influence of the Duke, but even
endangered his life. The Duke escaped ; but his ad-
versaries, ever watchful, never neglected an opportunity
of injuring him. In one of these contests the life of
Chaucer was endangered, and he only saved himself
by seeking shelter in a foreign land. In the year 1384
two men, Sir Nicholas Brember, and John of North-
ampton, were brought forward as candidates to the
mayorship of the city of London. The former was
supported by the government, the latter, a man of
great integrity, and a declared friend of the Wickliffites,
by the popular party. "When the contest grew hot,
and the people broke out in open rebellion, Chaucer
joined the party of Northampton. But the insurrec-
tion was soon suppressed ; John of Northampton was
taken into custody, and an active search was made
after his confederates. Chaucer, in fear of being like-
wise imprisoned, and of being compelled to betray
those of his friends who had taken a prominent part
in the riot, fled from England.

Chaucer, the greatest ornament of his country at
this time, now wandered about homeless in a foreign


land. Many of his friends, who had likewise com-
mitted themselves in the insurrection, accompanied the
poet, who, as long as his reduced means admitted,
generously supported them, and concealed them, as he
himself says, longer than for his own personal safety
he should have done. It is not clear whether he was
accompanied by his wife in his exile, and we may
therefore reasonably conclude that she was not living,
because, from their well-known attachment to each
other, it is not likely she would have left him at a
time when her tenderness was more than ever neces-
sary to render his life endurable. We have no record
that his sons, Thomas, then about thirteen years of
age, and Lewis, only in his fourth year, accompanied
their father. Chaucer seems at first to have taken up
his abode in Hainault, but after a short stav there,
he retired to the Dutch province of Zealand. His
former friends in England in the meanwhile behaved
to him in the basest manner. They not only made
their peace with the government without any stipula-
tion in favour of the poet, who had sacrificed all that
was dear to him in their cause, but, although they


had undertaken to manage his pecuniary affairs at
home, and to remit him funds for his support, they
suddenly cut off all his supplies, and, hoping that he
would never return, possessed themselves of his pro-
perty. It is, however, probable that he had not
altogether lost his favour with the government, for
during the whole time of his exile the office of comp-
troller was not taken from him, but filled by deputy ;
and it seems to have been the idea that he had no
longer to dread any persecution, which induced him
towards the end of the year 1386, after an absence
of eighteen months, to return to his native country.
That he was in England in the October of this year,
is apparent from the above-mentioned evidence which
he gave in the cause of Sir Richard le Scrope and Sir
John Grosvenor. But soon after his return he was
arrested by orders of the ministers of Richard II., and
imprisoned in the Tower. This confinement, however,
does not seem to have been so much the wish of
the King, as of Thomas of Woodstock, who at that
time had almost all the power of the government in
his own hands. Chaucer was submitted to a severe


examination, not for the purpose of gaining informa-
tion respecting the part which he himself had acted
during the insurrection, but with the design to extort
from him some confession respecting his former friends
and associates. But Chaucer, evading all attempts
made with this view, continued in his confinement ;
and his circumstances gradually became so reduced,
that in May 1388 he applied for a patent to dispose
of the two pensions of twenty marks each, which were
all that now remained to him of the bounty of the
King, and were now sacrificed to supply the more
immediate wants of himself and his family. The com-
mon account of what now followed is this : — As his
distress was daily increasing, and he saw no chance of
being released, except by making a full disclosure of
all he knew, and by impeaching his former associates,
he at length, after an imprisonment of nearly two
years, made up his mind to do so, and no longer
to suffer merely for the purpose of sparing those who,
ever since the day when calamities broke in upon him,
had abandoned him with the basest ingratitude, and
had even showed a desire to sacrifice his life in order


to enrich themselves. For nearly four years Chaucer
had suffered patiently, while his associates, far from
endeavouring to mitigate his distress, did every thing
to increase it. We would ask those who believe in
the truth of this account, and who consider it as a
blemish in his character, whether it would be rea-
sonable to expect that Chaucer should have continued
to sacrifice his own happiness, and that of his family,
merely for the purpose of protecting those faithless
traitors ? It is indeed not difficult for a moralist
to lay down general rules of conduct, but he too
often forgets to take into account the real character
of human nature, and to consider that a thousand cir-
cumstances may render an action, in itself blameable,
if looked upon in the abstract, not only excusable, but
even justifiable, because it has become a matter of
physical necessity. In the case of Chaucer it might
moreover be asked, whether he actually and materially
injured the parties whom he impeached ? Here history
is silent, and the whole transaction has in fact not
been thought by any of his contemporaneous historians
to deserve notice. All we know of it is derived from


Chaucer himself, who, in his ■ Testament of Love,' ex-
cuses his conduct, and states that it brought upon him
the charge of falsehood, and oppressed him with
severe obloquy and censure. But we have also to
remember another circumstance which has been over-
looked by his biographers. When Chaucer was induced
to disclose the secrets of his party, he must have known
that it could not be the intention of the government
to institute a fresh persecution against those who, as
we have seen above, had made their peace with the
government during his exile in Zealand, and who must
consequently have been known to the government,
but that it was simply the intention of the ministers
to ascertain some latent causes which had led to the
insurrection. The whole affair, however, is surrounded
by doubtfulness, and the assumed investigation of an
occurrence which had long before been peacefully
settled, bears strong marks of improbability.

The ' Testament of Love,' a prose dialogue, to which
we alluded above, was partly written during his im-
prisonment in the Tower, and partly after he had
obtained his liberty, but it was not given out until


1393. It is an imitation of Boethius ' De Consolatione
Philosophise,' with this characteristic difference, that,
in the work of Chaucer, he makes Love act the part
which in Boethius is assigned to Philosophy. It gives
us a moving picture of the poet's sufferings, but at
the same time displays the unconquerable power and
energy of his mind, the harmony and tranquillity of
which no outward circumstances were able to disturb.
During the whole period that Chaucer was suffering
in the manner above described, the Duke of Lancaster
was absent from England, and Thomas of Woodstock,
who had usurped all political authority, was almost
sole lord and master. But in May 1389 the King
cast off the shackles in which he had been held by
this minister, and this act was almost immediately
followed by the appointment of Chaucer as Clerk of
the works at Westminster, with a salary of two shil-
lings per day. The year after he received another
office of a similar nature at Windsor, the duties of
which he was allowed to transfer to a deputy. It
would seem that he was indebted for these new marks
of the royal favour to the patronage of the Queen Ann.


But the poet did not retain these offices for any length
of time, for in September 1391 we find them in the
possession of another person. There is also a tradi-
tion, that about this time he retired to his former
residence at Woodstock, which had been given to him
by Edward III., or his Queen. The motive of this
retirement is only matter of conjecture, but it is not
improbable that the Duke of Lancaster, who about
this period returned from Castile with immense trea-
sures, and who soon regained his influence at court,
should have enabled the poet, now in his sixty-third
year, to resign his offices, and enjoy the remaining
years of his life in undisturbed retirement.

The first work which here seems to have engaged
his leisure, was an elementary treatise on astronomy,
called ' Conclusions of the Astrolabie,' which he wrote
for and addressed to his son Lewis, then ten years of
age. This work bears the date of the 12th of March,
1391, and is composed according to the latitude of
Oxford. But the active mind of our poet did not
stop here, and it is as if after having escaped from the
turmoil of the world, he had only now, though at the


advanced age of sixty-three, been enabled to unfold the
inexhaustible treasures of his genius. For it is during
this period of retirement that he wrote his noblest
poetical work, which is the basis of his reputation as
a great poet, and which, like the Homeric poems, will
be an everlasting source of enjoyment to mankind ; —
we mean the ' Canterbury Tales,' a work surpassing
in freshness, vigour, masterly painting of characters,
and graphic descriptions, all that he had ever written.
In 1394, a few years after he commenced this im-
mortal poem, Chaucer received the grant of an annual
pension of 20/., or about 360/. in modern money.
This seems to have been given to him either through
the influence of the Duke of Lancaster, or of his " good
Queen Ann," for the purpose of enabling the vene-
rable bard to complete his great undertaking in ease
and comfort. In the same year two events occurred
which were of much importance to our poet. His
patroness, Queen Ann, died, and about the same time
Constance, Duchess of Lancaster. This last occur-
rence led, two years afterwards, to the marriage of
the Duke of Lancaster with Catherine Swinford, the


sister of Chaucer's wife, with whom the Duke had
long been connected, and who had borne him three
children. It is probably owing to this new connec-
tion with the royal family that Richard II. renewed
the annual grant of twenty marks which Chaucer had
received from Edward III., and of which he had been
obliged to dispose during his imprisonment. In 1398
we also find that he received the grant of a pipe of
wine, to be given to him every year by the King's
chief butler, an office which some time after was held
by Chaucer's own son Thomas, who had married
Matilda, the daughter of Sir John Burghershe, and
one of the richest heiresses of the time. Not long
after the marriage of the Duke of Lancaster we find
Chaucer in possession of the castle and park of Don-
nington, in Berkshire. By what means he obtained
this estate is differently stated. Godwin says it was
the gift of his friend and brother-in-law, while others
say that there is a record in the Cottonian library,
according to which he bought this then magnificent
estate. Another record, dated May 4th, 1398, renders
the question somewhat less perplexing, inasmuch as
we learn from it that Chaucer obtained from the King


" a protection for a term of two years against all in-
terruption from arrests and prosecutions." This is
scarcely to be accounted for on the supposition that
Donnington castle was presented to him, whereas in
the other case it may not seem improbable that by
purchasing this estate he had drained his purse so as
to be, at least for the first two or three years, actually
in want of such a grant of protection. In the park
of this castle, of which some ruins are still extant,
there was an oak which, down to the time of Queen
Elizabeth, was generally known by the name of
" Chaucer's oak." Tradition says that the poet him-
self had planted it, and that he had written several of
his later poems beneath its shading boughs. Another
tradition mentions three oaks as connected with the
memory of the Father of English Poetry ; one of
them was said to have been named by him " the
King's oak," the second, " the Queen's oak," and the
third, " Chaucer's oak."

On the third of February, 1399, the Duke of Lan-
caster died, and with him sank into the grave the
chief support of our poet. This melancholy event was
soon followed by the deposition of Richard II., and


the elevation of Henry IV., the son of John of Gaunt.
These events seem to have broken the spirit of the
aged poet ; for although Henry IV., a few months
after his accession, confirmed all the grants that had
been made to Chaucer by his predecessor, with an
addition of an annuity of forty marks, and appointed
his son Thomas as chief butler, still the heart of the
poet had received a shock, and, towards the close of
the year, he resolved to leave the places so full of
happy and sad associations, and to close his days in
the city where he was born. With this intention, and
at the same time to arrange some of his affairs, he
went to London. We have a record, still extant in the
office of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, from
which we see, that, on the 24th of November, 1399,
Chaucer took a lease for fifty-three years from the
abbot, prior, and convent of Westminster, of a house
situate in the garden of their chapel. The site of this
house is supposed to have been the place which is
now occupied by the Chapel of Henry VII. But
Chaucer had not long inhabited this spot, in which
he hoped to pass the remainder of his old age in the
peaceful occupations of literature, before he reached


his destiny. He died on the 25th of November, 1400,
in the seventy-second year of his age. His physical
strength was broken, but his mind retained its pecu-
liar energy to the last, and even on his death-bed he
is said to have written the manly and pathetic ballad
entitled, ' Goode Counsaile of Chaucer.'

For the well-known portrait of Chaucer we are
indebted to an old MS. of the Canterbury Tales,
belonging to the fifteenth century, which is at present
in the possession of the Marquis of Stafford. This
MS., at the commencement of the tale of Melibceus,
represents the poet riding on horseback, in a vest or
gipon of dark velvet, with a bonnet of the same colour,
with gilt anclace, or dagger, black boots, and with
the trappings of his horse partially gilt. In the part
of the tale of Melibceus in which the poet pourtrays
himself, he hints that he was rather corpulent, and
was in the habit of looking down on the ground.
He also gives a similar portrait of himself in the Pro-
logue to the ' Rime of Sire Thopas.' But, notwith-
standing this tendency to be corpulent, his appearance
conveys the impression of great delicacy. He seems
to have been short of stature. His countenance, calm


and composed as it was, appears to have been expressive
of a high degree of naive humour.

The character and temperament of Chaucer are
clearly and beautifully set forth in his own works.
He was cheerful, kind, open and serene to the last
moments of his life, and gained the affections of all
with whom he came in contact ; his social habits were
formed by the various circumstances and spheres in
which he had lived and moved. He was naturally
social, and even convivial, and, like many other poets,
he paid little regard to his financial means ; hence
we find him involved in difficulties at times, when,
considering his ample income, we should have least
expected it. But, notwithstanding this carelessness
about his own affairs, Chaucer was, in the highest
degree, strict and punctual in the performance of all
his official duties.

Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the aisle
which is now called the " Poets' Corner." The original
inscription on his grave, which does not seem to have
been adorned by any particular monument, ran thus : —



A monument was afterwards erected by Caxton,
which, however, in 1556 made room for another,
erected by Nicholas Brigham, of Oxford, an intense
admirer of our poet. This monument is still seen in
the place where it was erected, and bears the now
almost obliterated inscription :









Great Poet ! neither the obliteration of the monu-
mental tribute to thy honour, nor the ages that have
rolled over thy quiet ashes, can ever erase one letter
from the bead-roll of thy fame, or cover with the desert
sand of time the records of thy spirit which thou thy-
self hast left us.





Venus thus sjyeaks to Gower.

" Grete well Chaucer, when ye meet.
As my disciple and my Podte,
For in the noweres of his youth
(By various ways he could, in sooth,)
With ditties, and with songe's glade,
The which he for my sake ymade,
The land ful-filled is, over all.
Whereof, to him in speciall,
Ahove all others I am most holde.

" Therefore, now in his dayes olde
Thou shalt to him tell this message,
That he, upon his later age,
To set an end to all his werke,
As he which is mine owen clerke,
Do make his Tetfionoit ofLon .
As thou hast done thy shrift above !

Printed in 1554. Fol. cxc

* A few words are translated or transposed, and the spelling is a little
modernized, in the Eulogies by Chaucer's contemporaries. — Ed.



(Alluding to the Canterbury Tales.)

Flower of Poets, throughout all Britain !

Which, truth to tell, had most of excellence

In rhetorick and eke in eloquence ;

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 6 of 18)