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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on Geoffrey Chaucer. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Chaucer in the Octagon

Bust of Chaucer by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the Middle Ages between 1340 and 1345, probably in London, although the precise date and location remain unknown. His father and grandfather were prosperous wine merchants dating back several generations, based in Ipswich. His family name is derived from the French chausseur, meaning shoemaker. We do not know about the early life of Chaucer, his schooling or upbringing. What little we have learnt comes from business documentation on which his name appears

As a boy he took up a position as a page to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, and wife of Edward III’s third son. We know this as documents have shown that a short cloak, a pair of shoes and black and red breeches were bought for him by this household from a London tailor in 1357.

Two years later while in France, during the Brittany expedition of 1359, he was captured and taken prisoner, and then ransomed by King Edward III for the princely sum of £16. He became a well known civil servant and held various posts in the King’s service, on diplomatic missions to France, Genoa, and Florence. During this period, while travelling he read a great deal and he was exposed to the great writers of the day, Dante, Boccaccio, and Froissart.

By 12 September 1366 he married a lady-in-waiting in the Queen's household, Philippa Roet, whose father was Sir Payne Roet, one of the Queen’s knights from Hainault. Chaucer and Philippa had three or four children. Philippa's sister, Katherine Swynford, later became the third wife of John of Gaunt, the king's fourth son and Chaucer's patron. In 1369 John of Gaunt’s wife, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster died, and Chaucer composed an elegy of 1,334 lines in octosyllabic couplets in her honour called: The Book of the Duchess.

In April 1374, he was granted a pitcher of wine daily, and on 10 May he obtained the lease of the dwelling house above the city gate of Aldgate, both along with a new appointment, as Comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools on June 8, 1374, at £10 a year, with annual gratuity of £6. Five days later he received an annuity of £10 for life from his patron John of Gaunt. Chaucer continued to write, and he composed Anelida and Arcite and The House of Fame. He wrote many of his major works during this period. His Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde all date from this time. It is believed that he started The Canterbury Tales in the 1380s.

Chaucer was appointed Justice of the Peace for Kent in October 1385 and in August 1386 Knight of the shire to attend the ‘Wonderful Parliament' held in October. He appears to have been present at most of the 71 days it sat, for which he was paid £24 9s. By now he had lost his Comptrollerships probably because of the shift of power from the friends of the King to the so-called lord’s appellant who was responsible for the death of his friends and associates. He survived the political upheavals for the next two years by keeping a low profile. In 1389, he was made Clerk of the King's works, overseeing royal building projects responsible for maintaining the Tower and Westminster Palace. He held several other royal posts, serving both Edward III and his successor Richard II.

There is no further reference after 1386 to Philippa, Chaucer's wife, and she is presumed to have died in 1387. In that year, he began his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, in which a diverse group of people recount stories to pass the time on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales were written towards the end of Chaucer's life and took twelve years. It had a major impact on English literature. He was the first poet to write in an English which is something like the language people write and speak today. The Canterbury tales describes a gentle prioress who was one of the pilgrims going on the journey from London to Canterbury.

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

Chaucer disappears from the historical record in 1400, however, there is considerable conjecture surrounding this date. It is also unclear how he died, and some have speculated that he may have been murdered. The official date of Chaucer's death is given as 25 October 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets Corner.

Time and tide wait for no man

One must not procrastinate or delay. This proverbial phrase, alluding to the fact that human events or concerns cannot stop the passage of time or the movement of the tides, first appeared around 1395 in Chaucer's Prologue to the Clerk's Tale.

Every friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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