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English poet, born in London between 1340 and 1345; died there, 25 October, 1400.
John Chaucer, a vintner and citizen of London, married Agnes, heiress of one Hamo de Copton, the city moneyer, and owned the house in Upper Thames Street, Dowgate Hill (a site covered now by the arrival platform of Cannon Street Station), where his son Geoffrey was born. That his birth was not in 1328, hitherto the accepted date, is fully proved (Furnivall in The Academy, 8 Dec., 1888, 12 Dec., 1887).
John Chaucer was connected with the Court, and once saw Flanders in the royal train. Geoffrey was educated well, but whether he was entered at either university remains unknown. He figures by name from the year 1357, presumably in the capacity of a page, in the household books of the Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Prince Lionel, third son of King Edward III (Bond in Fornightly Review, VI, 28 Aug., 1873). The lad followed this prince to France, serving through the final and futile Edwardian invasion, which ended in the Peace of Bretigny (1360), and was taken prisoner at "Retters", identified by unwary biographers as Retiers near Rennes, but by Skeat as Rethel near Reims, a place mentioned by Froissart in his account of this very campaign. Thence Chaucer was ransomed by the king, who, when the Lady Elizabeth died, took over her page and later (1367) pensioned him for life. Chaucer was married before 1374; probably the Philippa Chaucer named in the queen's grant of 1366 was then Geoffrey Chaucer's wife (Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer, I, 95-7). It seems clear that he could not have been happy in his marriage (Hales in Dict. Nat. Biog., X, 157). He had two sons and a daughter, if not other children. Gascoigne tells us that his contemporary, Thomas Chaucer was the poet's son. This statement, long discredited, is now fully endorsed by the best authorities (Hales in Athenaeum, 31 March, 1888; Skeat, ibid., 27 Jan.1900). Thomas Chaucer's mother was Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Paon or Payne de Roet Guienne king at arms. Roet had another daughter, Catherine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, who was for Gaunt's mistress and eventually his third wife. Thus Chaucer became the brother-in-law of the great duke, who from 1368 onwards had been his most powerful patron. Thomas Chaucer (b. about 1367; d. 1434), later of Woodstock and Ewelme, became chief butler to four sovereign, as well as Speaker of the House of Commons (in 1414). His sister Elizabeth (b.1365) at sixteen entered Barking Abbey as a novice, John of Gaunt providing fifty pounds as her religious dowry. Lewis Chaucer, the "litel sonne Lowys", for whom the "Astrolale" was written, is supposed to have died in childhood. From about his twenty-sixth year Chaucer was frequently employed on important diplomatic missions; the year 1372-3 marks the turning point of his literary life, for then he was sent to Italy; circumstances make it extremely probable that either in Florence or at Padua he made Petrarch's acquaintance (Lounsbury, Studies, I, 67-68). The young King Richard II granted Chaucer a second life pension. It is startling to find him, in 1380, concerned in a discreditable abduction (Athenaeum, 29 Nov., 1873; from the Close Roll of 3 of Richard II). He was made comptroller of the petty customs of the port of London and complains of the burden of official life in "The House of Fame" (lines 652-60); and it would appear from the prologue the "Legend of Good Women", and through the influence of the new queen, Anne of Bohemia, he was enabled by1385 to sucure a permanent deputy. At this time he gave up housekeeping in Aldgate, and settled in the country, presumably at Greenwich, where he had a garden and arbour. The intrigues of the partisans of the king's uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, involved Chaucer's fortunes in partial ruin. The grants made to Philippa, his wife ceased in 1387, so that we may suppose she was then dead; during the springs of 1388 Chaucer was obliged to sell two of his pensions; in 1390 he was twice in one day robbed of the king's money, but was excused from repaying it. Until King Richard recovered power Chaucer had lean years to undergo. For a while he was Clerk of the Works at Windsor, Westminster and the Tower, but proved thriftless and unsuccessful in business affairs, and gave little satisfaction. Unrivalled opportunities and the fostering care of successive sovereigns could not keep hirn frorn anxiety, if not penury, towards the end. It is noticeable that his latest and most troubled period produced the "Canterbury Tales". Within four days after his accession King Henry IV, the son of Chaucer's first benefactor, increased Chaucer's remaining income by forty marks per annum. The poet then leased a pleasant house in the monastery garden at Westminster, and there, hard by the Lady Chapel of the Abbey (now replaced by the loftier erection of Henry VII ), he died. For a century and a half his only memorial in Westminster Abbey was a Latin epitaph written by Surigonius of Milan, engraved upon a leaden plate, and hung up, probably at Caxton's instigation, on a pillar near the grave. The present canopied grey marble altar-tomb, on the south side, was set up by Nicholas Brigham, in 1556, all trace of its votive portrait of the venerated master disappeared long ago. The "Canterbury Tales" were first printed by Caxton, from a faulty manuscript, in or about 1476-7; later by Pynson, and by Wynkyn de Worde. Other pieces were collected, and, between 1526-1602, often published with the "Tales". Many of these, attributed to Chaucer even by his earliest great modern editor, Tyrwhitt, are now known not to be his. (Skeat, "Chaucer's Minor Poems", Oxford, 1896; or, Idem "Chaucerian Pieces" in the "Complete Works", Oxford, 1897, suppl. vol.) Chaucer's genuine major poems are assigned to this chronological order: The "Romaunt of the Rose", that is, the first 1705 lines the remainder being rejected as not Chaucer's (see Chaucer Society Publications, 2nd Series, No 19, 1884), dates from about 1366, and "The A.B.C.", from the same period; the "Book of the Duchess" from 1369, the "Complaint of Pity" from 1372; "Anelida and False Arcite" from 1372-4; "Troilus and Cressid" from 1379-83, the "Parliament of Fowls" from 1382; the "House of Fame" from 1383-4; the "Legend of Good Women" from about 1385-6; and the "Canterbury Tales" as a whole, from 1386 onwards until after 1390.
It is curious that the first draft of the lovely Tales by the Second Nun, the Man of Law, the Clerk, the Knight, and part of the Monk, should have been produced early; and that the Tales by the Miller, the Reeve, the Shipman, and the Merchant, as well as the Wife of Bath's Prologue, should have been produced after 1387. Chaucer's objectionable work is, therefore, not the work of his youth.
To the intense affection, frequently expressed, of Hoccleve, we owe the firstand best of Chaucer's portraits, familiar through reproduction. It appears in the margin of "The Governail of Princes", or "De Regimine Principum" (Harl. MS. 4866, in British Museum). In it we see Chaucer, limned from memory, in his familiar hood and gown, rosary in hand, plump, full-eyed, fork-bearded. (For detailed accounts see Spielman, "The Portraits of Geoffrey Chaucer", London, l900, first issued in the "Chaucer Memorial