Chaucer's court career

Senior civil servant

Today the words ‘courts’ and ‘courtiers’ connote highly frivolous, rarified or artificial social worlds. Chaucer’s career was more what we would call that of a leading civil servant. At this period, there was no division between the royal household and the government. The court was a milieu in which the best art, elegance and luxury were found while, simultaneously, it was also the place within which serious administration of the country took place.

  • In his early teens, Chaucer had entered the household of the Countess of Ulster, daughter-in-law of the King, Edward III
  • His responsibilities as Controller of the Customs on wool and Clerk of the King’s Works (responsible for royal buildings, their construction and repair) were important positions.
The Hundred Years War (which was really a series of linked wars between England and France that lasted, with gaps, roughly a hundred years) was in progress:
  • In 1359, Chaucer was taken prisoner in France but a ransom was paid for his release, as was customary for people with status or money at that time. The King contributed to his ransom. 
  • Chaucer worked as a diplomat in negotiations with the French King (his name is mentioned in connection with the Peace of Bretigny in 1360). 
  • Chaucer gained the title of ‘esquire’ to the King. There was a new sense to this word. It was now not used only for a knight’s son, or to reflect Chaucer’s military service, but denoted his rank as a royal government administrator.

Chaucer’s service under Edward III: 1367 - 77

In 1367, Chaucer was given a life pension by the King, presumably for his services. We have no evidence that he was paid for his writings, though it is very possible that he had patrons among the royal family.
In the following years:
  • He went at least twice to Italy on the King’s business
  • He probably also went to Spain
  • A trusted negotiator, he formed part of missions on royal business to Flanders and parts of France.
From 1374 to 1386 he was given the post of Controllership of Customs and Subsidy of Wools, Skins and Hides in the Port of London:
  • This would have been an extremely onerous position and one dealing with massive financial sums. A large part of England’s wealth came from the export of wool, and a large part of that went through London
  • He seems to have appointed a paid deputy to do the work from 1377, but he would have lived comfortably from the income, and would have enjoyed considerable status in this post.

Chaucer’s service under Richard II: 1377 - 99

Richard IIEdward III died in 1377, and his successor, his grandson Richard II, was still a child. For the first years of his reign, his uncles, and particularly John of Gaunt, effectively ruled the country. Chaucer was clearly regarded as an excellent administrator.
  • In 1386, Chaucer gave up the Controllership of Customs, but was appointed Knight of the Shire of Kent (a parliamentary representative for Kent — an MP)
  • The Parliament of 1386 was turbulent, with Richard II’s political opponents gaining the upper hand. Some of the King’s supporters were executed and Chaucer, though not a prominent politician, may have been glad to retreat for a time from active government employment in London. He moved from London to Kent, perhaps to Greenwich
  • In 1385-6, Chaucer was appointed to a peace commission in Kent (rather like a modern Justice of the Peace). He was involved in arranging defences against the threat of a French invasion, in London, along the Thames estuary and the south coast.
In 1389, Richard II started to rule in his own right:
  • Chaucer was appointed as Clerk of the King’s Works
  • In 1391, he was given the job of Deputy Forester at Petherton in Somerset. He would have handled the revenues from the lucrative forest.
As with his work at the customs, Chaucer’s royal appointments show that he was appreciated as a man of immense practical and financial capabilities.

Literary output

The mid and late 1380s were also a period of extraordinary creativity for Chaucer. He was working on:
  • Troilus and Criseyde 
  • The Legend of Good Women
  • His translation of a famous late-classical philosophical work, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy
  • Starting The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s relationships with John of Gaunt and Henry IV

John of GauntChaucer inhabited a variety of social and economic worlds and apparently had multiple political allegiances. He had been a servant of Richard II, yet throughout his adult life also seems to have been close to the king’s uncle, the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Gaunt died in 1397. In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son and the new Duke of Lancaster, deposed Richard II and became King Henry IV.
Chaucer seems to have been as popular with the new regime as with the old. This may illustrate both the degree to which he was valued in court circles and also his ability to relate well to people, even those opposed to each other.
  • Henry IV awarded Chaucer a new pension
  • Chaucer’s wife (who appears to have died in the late 1380s) had been the sister of Katherine Swynford, who became first the long-time mistress of John of Gaunt and later his third duchess
  • Chaucer moved at the end of 1399 to a house in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, then a Benedictine monastery. This located Chaucer next to Westminster, the centre of royal government but probably also marked a desire for a life closer to that of the monks, dedicated to God, as old age beckoned
  • He died in 1400, perhaps in October.


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