Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer is most famous for writing the ‘Canterbury Tales’ in medieval England, which are a series of stories about different people travelling to Canterbury Cathedral at the end of a pilgrimage. Chaucer is considered one of the greatest English writers ever.

He is thought to have been born between 1340 and 1345 to Agnes de Copton and John Chaucer. They lived in Thames Street close to the Tower of London. John Chaucer was quite a well-off middle-class man and a vinter.

John Chaucer was most likely literate and his son Geoffrey is believed to have been taught to read and write before attending school. His pre-school teacher would have likely been a clerk of his father’s. Geoffrey is thought to have been a pupil of St Paul’s Almonry Grammar School which was closest to his home and his classes would primarily have been taught in Latin. The French language was likely to have been spoken at home, so the child was certainly fortunate to have had a decent education by the measure of his times.

Geoffrey Chaucer painting, 17th century Painting
Geoffrey Chaucer painting, 17th century

Chaucer was made to work as a page in 1357 for the Duchess of Ulster’s household - Prince Lionel’s wife and he was Edward III’s third son. Chaucer is thought to have stayed in this role for up to 11 years, in the same year as Lionel’s death. He eventually became a squire in 1362 and though it is uncertain exactly when he began writing poetry, ‘The Book of the Duchess’ was written a few years later in 1369, reflecting his time as a page for the Duchess.

Chaucer fought in the Hundred Year’s War in 1359 and was made prisoner near Rheims before the year was out. Twelve months later he was ransomed for £16 and released from captivity - Edward III apparently paid some of the ransom so he clearly thought a lot of him.

Chaucer married a lady in waiting to the Queen, Philippa de Roet, in 1366. Interestingly, none of Chaucer's poetry was written for his wife.  For this reason together with the fact that Chaucer never wrote kindly about marriage, it is though that his own marriage was arranged. 

Chaucer went on royal business in 1373 to Italy, potentially for trading. Italy was known to have impacted him greatly.

He went back to London the next year and was appointed Controller of Customs on wools, skins and hides in the Port of London - a position he held until 1386. He still had enough time for writing alongside it and wrote ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ which is believed to be his first ‘true English’ novel.

Chaucer was a well known writer by this time and was made a Justice of the Peace in the same year along with being elected to Parliament as Knight of the Shire of Kent. Although in 1386 his patron, John of Gaunt, was sent to Spain where the Duke of Gloucester then replaced him at court and put his own men in the positions held by Chaucer - meaning Chaucer lost his entire offices. However, this now presented him with the time and opportunity to write his most famous works, ‘The Canterbury Tales’.

John of Gaunt went back to England in 1389 and Chaucer was given back his old positions. He had the duty of overseeing residences of the king including the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and others, but it seems he was probably not fit for the task seeing as he was replaced in his position as Clerk of Works in 1391.

Chaucer had a comfortable life in his final years. He was widowed and his poems express the sadness of ageing, his loss of poetic talent and overall disillusionment. He died in his home at Westminster Abbey on 25 October 1400.

See also: The Black Prince

MLA Citation/Reference

"Geoffrey Chaucer". 2015. Web.

Key facts

Name: Geoffrey Chaucer
Birth Date: 1343, London
Death: October 25 1400, London
Key role: Medieval poet and author
Notable works: The Canterbury Tales