Chaucer was born sometime around 1340 or 1342, to a respected middle class family in the St Martin’s in the Vintry area of London. His grandfather John was involved in the wine trade, as was his father Robert. John had also been Deputy Butler to the King in 1348. Chaucer’s mother was Agnes de Copton who was a niece of an official at the Mint. It is generally believed that Chaucer received his early education at St Paul’s Almonry.
When he was around 17 years of age Chaucer became a page in the household of the Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel of Antwerp, 3rd son of Edward III. He is mentioned in her household accounts for 1357 when he was bought clothing. His duties would have included anything from running errands and making beds to waiting at table. He would have however gained an excellent education in the art of courtly manners as well as a developing a network of influential associates. During his time in the household Chaucer met John of Gaunt, Lionel’s younger brother, who was to become a lifelong patron. (For more on John of Gaunt, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/john-of-gaunt/ )On May 19th 1359 John of Gaunt married his first wife – Blanche of Lancaster. It is generally accepted that she was the inspiration for Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess.
In 1359 Chaucer went to France with Lionel as part of the invading army, in the ongoing conflict that was to become known to us today as the Hundred Years War. A year later Chaucer was to be captured and held for ransom during the siege of Rheims. The then considerable sum of £16 was paid, in part by king Edward, for his release. An indication of the high regard in which he was held. Following his release Chaucer returned Royal service as a diplomat and travelled extensively throughout Europe during the following years.
1366 saw the marriage of Chaucer and Philippa de Roet. She was the daughter of Sir Payne de Roet. Philippa was serving in the household of the Queen, Philippa of Hainault. She was also the sister of Katherine Swynford, the long term mistress and later 3rd wife of John of Gaunt. It is not certain exactly how many children the couple were to have, but there were to be at least four, Thomas, Agnes, Elizabeth and Lewis.
Chaucer continued to enjoy royal patronage rising in position within the royal household. In 1367 he was known to be serving in the household of the king who called him Dilectus Valettus noster – our dearly beloved valet. He continued to be employed in missions abroad on behalf of the king. Throughout this time Chaucer was to be exposed to the literature and ideas to be found throughout Europe. He developed a passion for learning and books, and read in Latin, French, Italian as well as his native tongue.
In 1374 Chaucer was appointed the Comptroller of customs and subsidies on wools, skins and hides for the Port of London and in 1382, Comptroller of petty customs. 1385 saw him appointed as a Justice of the Peace for Kent and in 1386 he was to represent the county in Parliament. However, during 1386 Chaucer was to lose his positions. John of Gaunt by now Duke of Lancaster, had long been the major influence of the young king Richard II. While Lancaster was away on a military expedition to Spain, the Duke of Gloucester was to usurp Lancaster’s place in influencing the king. Gloucester was to place his favourites in places of position at the expense of those loyal to Lancaster. It would seem that this was to be the time when Chaucer was to do the bulk of his work on the Canterbury Tales.
When Lancaster was to return to England in 1389, Chaucer was to be restored to office, being appointed Clerk of the King’s works, where he was responsible for work on walls, ditches, sewers and bridges between Greenwich and Woolwich, as well as St George’s chapel at Windsor castle.
Chaucer was never to finish writing the Canterbury Tales. He died in October 1400 (There is no documentation to support this date – it was the date given on his tomb, which was erected 100 years later). Chaucer was the first person to be buried in what was to become Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.