Contemporary biographers suggest Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1340-1343 as a result of testimony he delivered at a recorded legal proceeding (a dispute between two families as to which family had the right to display a certain coat of arms) in 1386 in which he claimed to be “forty years old and more.” He was once a soldier who fought in the Hundred Years War, particularly King Edward III’s siege of the French city of Rheims.
(Pictured above: A drawing of Chaucer from the famous Ellesmere Manuscript, a text of The Canterbury Tales dating back to the early 15th century. It was clearly commissioned by a very wealthy patron, and the text passed through the hands of English gentry before it came to the Ellesmere family. The Ellesmere text is currently owned by the Huntington Library in Los Angeles.)
Chaucer was born to a family that arose from peasantry and eventually entered the halls of nobility. His great-grandfather was Andrew de Dynyngton, taverner who migrated from a small village to the larger town of Ipswich in East Anglia, before finally settling in London. His son, Robert, was apprenticed to a man named John le Chaucer (“Chaucer” like “Taverner was an occupational name). A “chaucier” in French was a maker of shoes. At any rate, John le Chaucer was killed in a brawl and he named Robert as a beneficiary in his will. Robert took his name as a sign of respect. In turn, Robert’s son, John, was a successful vintner and wine importer. He served the king’s wine cellar. John and his young family survived the Great Plague of 1348-1349 which killed over a quarter of England’s population. Many of his relatives died in the plague and thus bequeathed their estates to John who now became a wealthy man. They moved to Thames Street in London and lived not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Geoffrey Chaucer grew up in the milieu of the royal house, first serving as a page before serving the king, first as a soldier and then as a bureaucrat and a diplomat earning a salary for life when he served King Edward III as well as John of Gaunt. He married a woman named Philippa.
Chaucer became a supporter of the religious reformer, John Wycliffe. As a result of his stable employment prospects, Chaucer wrote his first major poem The Book of the Duchess in 1374 dedicated to John of Gaunt’s late wife. He also translated the popular Romance of the Rose. However, it wasn’t until his employment turned away from external military and diplomatic relations and to internal auditing that Chaucer found the time and security to write freely. He was given a flat to live in, where he wrote The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and Troilus and Criseyde. Like his earlier The Book of the Duchess, the former two read like the French dream-like poetry which owes a debt of gratitude to Dante, as well.
Troilus and Criseyde is Chaucer’s longest recorded poem. It is based on Giovanni Bocaccio’s Filostrato. The story follows the tragic love affair between Prince Troilus of Troy and the courtly lady, Criseyde, who eventually leaves him. Chaucer also translated a copy of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.
Apparently, Chaucer may have forcibly abducted/raped a young woman (the medieval term was raptus which meant either case). He was charged with the crime but never convicted, and it appears that he paid approximately half his yearly salary to the woman in question through related outlets. Chaucer called several prominent businessmen and bureaucrats to his defense in the case, a testament to how well connected Chaucer was.
After the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, in which tradesmen and farmers stormed the city with demands for equality from the king while looting and attacking certain noblemen, Chaucer left the city for the country as part of an effort to maintain a lower profile.
In 1387, his wife Philippa died while Chaucer was working on The Legend of Good Women, a collection of short stories about good women allegedly completed to placate Queen Anne and make amends for his treatment of Criseyde in her betrayal of Troilus in his earlier work. He also embarked on The Canterbury Tales, which owes a debt of gratitude to Bocaccio’s Decameron, however much of the tales are entirely new works of Chaucer’s that do not rely as heavily on French and Italian styles that had so enthralled Chaucer previously. He continually worked and re-worked the tales over the next thirteen years of his life, while also pausing to write both prose and poetry (including at least one scientific treatise).
(The title page to The Canterbury Tales circa 1400)
He later returned to working for King Richard II’s government managing procurements and funding for building projects and salaries for workers. However, twice in the same week he was beaten and robbed while carrying his payroll. Thus he resigned his position after only two years. Then Chaucer appears to have retired to Greenwich, living off his pensions and annuities. Toward the end of his life, Chaucer’s literary works were becoming a source of national pride. One of his last writings was “A Complaint to his Purse” -a humorous praise of Henry who deposed King Richard, and the work also requested a reinstatement of Chaucer’s pension which was granted.
(A 19th century engraving of Geoffrey Chaucer by an unknown artist)
During the last year of Chaucer’s life he lived at Westminster Abbey in a room overlooking the garden (not an unusual thing for the church and monasteries to handle the enfeebled and elderly in need of ‘rest houses’). He died in 1400 around the age of sixty. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. Prior to Chaucer, a burial at Westminster Abbey was reserved only for royalty (dating back to Edward the Confessor in 1066).