The General Prologue: context links Contents
The Chaucer family
We know quite a lot about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life, partly because he was an important royal official. There are records particularly of his career as a civil servant and as a diplomat in the king’s service. He was born in the early 1340s and died in 1400. His father was a substantial London wine merchant who also held government posts at certain times.
The Chaucer family
Social changes in the fourteenth century
Chaucer’s economic and social situation undoubtedly had great bearing on his writings. He and his family were typical of those who benefited from the improved economic conditions and social opportunities in the second half of the fourteenth century for people with ability, ambition and good luck. He also spent his life in situations in which he encountered a wide spectrum of contemporary English society, from the lowest to the highest. It is not surprising that The Canterbury Tales depicts such a wide range of jobs, social classes, human types and attitudes.
Chaucer’s parents, Agnes and John Chaucer, came from substantial middle-class merchant backgrounds. He was brought up in their house in Thames Street in the City of London. Thames Street is still there but not their house. (Remember that most of the old City of London was swept away by the 1666 Fire of London: buildings were destroyed and whole streets and districts entirely rebuilt.) The City of London, the walled city with its own government, was already England’s commercial heart, ruled by an oligarchy of its leading merchants. At this time, the king’s main court was at Westminster, then a separate place from London.
Young Geoffrey did not follow his father into the wine business but entered courtly service in a household of the royal family. This was probably because John Chaucer already had worked at times for Edward III, in missions abroad and as a supplier of wines.
Chaucer’s grandfather had come to London from Ipswich (where the family had run a tavern), helped by a legacy from his previous employer. The family continued to climb socially:
Chaucer’s wife was probably Philippa de Roet, daughter of another court servant, Paon de Roet, a Fleming in the service of Queen Philippa, herself from Flanders
His wife was a lady in waiting and spent much of her life attached to the household of John of Gaunt’s second duchess, Constance of Castile
The Chaucers’ children included a successful son named Thomas, who became Speaker of the Commons and whose daughter Alice married the Duke of Suffolk.
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