Chaucer's Official Life by James Root Hulbert - HTML preview

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The researches of Sir Harris Nicolas, Dr. Furnivall, Mr. Selby and others have provided us with a considerable mass of detailed information regarding the life and career of Geoffrey Chaucer. Since the publication of Nicolas's biography of the poet prefixed to the Aldine edition of Chaucer's works in 1845, the old traditional biography of conjecture and inference, based often on mere probability or the contents of works erroneously ascribed to Chaucer, has disappeared and in its place has been developed an accurate biography based on facts. In the sixty-five years since Nicolas's time, however, a second tradition--connected in some way with fact, to be sure--has slowly grown up. Writers on Chaucer's life have not been content merely to state the facts revealed in the records, but, in their eagerness to get closer to Chaucer, have drawn many questionable inferences from those facts. Uncertain as to the exact significance of the various appointments which Chaucer held, his engagement in diplomatic missions and his annuities, biographers have thought it necessary to find an explanation for what they suppose to be remarkable favors, and have assumed--cautiously in the case of careful scholars but boldly in that of popular writers--that Chaucer owed every enhancement of his fortune to his "great patron" John of Gaunt. In greater or less degree this conception appears in every biography since Nicolas. Professor Minto in his Encyclopedia Britannica article [Footnote: Ed. Scribners 1878, vol. 5, p. 450.] says with regard to the year 1386: "that was an unfortunate year for him; his patron, John of Gaunt, lost his ascendancy at court, and a commission which sat to inquire into the abuses of the preceding administration superseded Chaucer in his two comptrollerships. The return of Lancaster to power in 1389 again brightened his prospects; he was appointed clerk of the King's works," etc.

Similarly, Dr. Ward in his life of Chaucer, after mentioning that Chaucer and John of Gaunt were of approximately the same age, writes: [Footnote: English Men of Letters. Harpers. 1879, p. 66.] "Nothing could, accordingly, be more natural than that a more or less intimate relationship should have formed itself between them. This relation, there is reason to believe, afterwards ripened on Chaucer's part into one of distinct political partisanship." With regard to the loss of the controllerships Dr. Ward writes: [Footnote: p. 104.] "The new administration (i.e. that of Gloucester and his allies) had as usual demanded its victims--and among their number was Chaucer.... The explanation usually given is that he fell as an adherent of John of Gaunt; perhaps a safer way of putting the matter would be to say that John of Gaunt was no longer in England to protect him." A little further on occurs the suggestion that Chaucer may have been removed because of "his previous official connection with Sir Nicholas Brembre, who, besides being hated in the city, had been accused of seeking to compass the deaths of the Duke and of some of his adherents." [Footnote: It is curious that Dr. Waul did not realize that Chaucer could not possibly have belonged to the parties of John of Gaunt and of Brembre.] Later, in connection with a discussion of Chaucer's probable attitude toward Wiclif, Dr. Ward writes: [Footnote: p. 134.] "Moreover, as has been seen, his long connexion with John of Gaunt is a well-established fact; and it has thence been concluded that Chaucer fully shared the opinions and tendencies represented by his patron."

Dr. Ward's treatment is cautious and careful compared to that of Prof. Henry Morley in his "English Writers." For example, the latter writes: [Footnote: Vol. 5, p. 98.] "Lionel lived till 1368, but we shall find that in and after 1358 Chaucer's relations are with John of Gaunt, and the entries in the household of the Countess Elizabeth might imply no more than that Chaucer, page to John of Gaunt, was detached for service of the Countess upon her coming to London." A few pages further on [Footnote: p. 103.]in the same volume occurs a paragraph on the life of John of Gaunt glossed "Chaucer's Patron." With regard to the grants of a pitcher of wine daily, and the two controllerships, Professor Morley writes: [Footnote: p. 107.] "These successive gifts Chaucer owed to John of Gaunt, who, in this last period of his father's reign, took active part in the administration." And again, [Footnote: p. 109.] "John of Gaunt had administered affairs of government. It was he, therefore, who had so freely used the power of the crown to bestow marks of favour upon Chaucer." [Footnote: p. 110.] "It was his patron the Duke, therefore, who, towards the end of 1376, joined Chaucer with Sir John Burley, in some secret service of which the nature is not known." [Footnote: Studies in Chaucer, vol. I, pp. 81-82.]

Finally, after mentioning Chaucer's being "discharged" from his controllerships, Morley writes: [Footnote: p. 243.] "During all this time Chaucer's patron John of Gaunt was away with an army in Portugal."

Such absolute certainty and boldness of statement as Professor Morley's is scarcely found again in reputable writers on Chaucer. Professor Lounsbury in his life of Chaucer implies rather cautiously that Chaucer lost his places in the Customs because of John of Gaunt's absence from the country, and as the result of an investigation of the customs. Mr. Jusserand in his Literary History of England writes: [Footnote: Eng. trans., 1894, p. 312.] "For having remained faithful to his protectors, the King and John of Gaunt, Chaucer, was looked upon with ill favour by the men then in power, of whom Gloucester was the head, lost his places and fell into want." F. J. Snell in his Age of Chaucer has similar statements, almost as bold as those of Professor Morley. [Footnote: p. 131.] "John of Gaunt was the poet's life-long friend and patron." [Footnote: p. 149.] "Chaucer was now an established favourite of John of Gaunt, through whose influence apparently he was accorded this desirable post" (i. e., the first controllership.) Most remarkable of all: [Footnote: p. 230.] "Outwardly, much depended on the ascendancy of John of Lancaster. If the Duke of Lancaster prospered, Chaucer prospered with him. When the Duke of Gloucester was uppermost, the poet's sky was over cast, and he had hard work to keep himself afloat."

The last quotations which I shall give on this point are from Skeat's life of Chaucer prefixed to the single volume edition of the poet's works in the Oxford series: [Footnote: p. XIII.] "As the duke of Gloucester was ill disposed towards his brother John, it is probable that we can thus account for the fact that, in December of this year, Chaucer was dismissed from both his offices, of Comptroller of Wool and Comptroller of Petty Customs, others being appointed in his place. This sudden and great loss reduced the poet from comparative wealth to poverty; he was compelled to raise money upon his pensions, which were assigned to John Scalby on May 1, 1388." On the same page: "1389. On May 3, Richard II suddenly took the government into his own hands. John of Gaunt returned to England soon afterwards, and effected an outward reconciliation between the King and the Duke of Gloucester. The Lancastrian party was now once more in power, and Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the King's Works," etc.

Closely connected with the question of Chaucer's relations with John of Gaunt, and indeed fundamental to it--as the constant reference in the foregoing extracts to the grants which Chaucer held would indicate--is the problem of the significance of Chaucer's annuities, offices, and diplomatic missions. Extracts from two writers on Chaucer's life will show how this problem has been treated. Professor Hales in his D. N. B. article [Footnote: 1 Vol. 10, p. 157.] says of the first pension from the King: "This pension, it will be noticed, is given for good service done ... The pension is separate from his pay as a 'valettus' and must refer to some different service." Similarly Professor Lounsbury in his Studies in Chaucer writes: [Footnote: 2 Vol. 1, p. 61.] "It is from the statement in this document about services already rendered that the inference is drawn that during these years he had been in close connection with the court." In regard to the grant of the wardship of Edward Staplegate, he says: [Footnote: 3 idem, p. 65.] "This was a common method of rewarding favourites of the crown. In the roll which contains this grant it is said to be conferred upon our beloved esquire." By way of comment on the grant of a pitcher of wine daily, he writes: [Footnote: 4 idem, p. 63.] "Though never graced with the title of poet laureate, Chaucer obtained at this same period what came to be one of the most distinguishing perquisites which attached itself to that office in later times." With regard to the offices: [Footnote: 5 idem, p. 66.] "Chaucer was constantly employed in civil offices at home and in diplomatic missions abroad. In both cases it is very certain that the positions he filled were never in the nature of sinecures." As to the diplomatic missions [Footnote: 6 idem, p. 70.] "their number and their variety, treating as they do of questions of peace and war, show the versatility of his talents as well as his wide knowledge of affairs. Nor can I avoid feeling that his appointment upon so many missions, some of them of a highly delicate and important nature, is presumptive evidence that he was not a young man at the time and must therefore have been born earlier than 1340.... these appointments are proofs that can hardly be gainsaid of the value put upon his abilities and services. Then, as now, there must have been plenty of persons of ample leisure and lofty connections who [Footnote: I Vol. 10, p. 157.] [Footnote: 8 Vol. 1, p. 61.] [Footnote: idem, p. 65.] [Footnote: idem, p. 63.] [Footnote: idem, p. 66.] [Footnote: idem, p. 7 0.] were both ready and anxious to be pressed into the service of the state. That these should have been passed by, and a man chosen instead not furnished with high birth and already furnished with other duties, is a fact which indicates, if it does not show convincingly, the confidence reposed in his capacity and judgment." With regard to the controllership, Professor Lounsbury writes: [Footnote: Studies in Chaucer, p. 72.] "The oath which Chaucer took at his appointment was the usual oath. ... He was made controller of the port because he had earned the appointment by his services in various fields, of activity, and because he was recognized as a man of business, fully qualified to discharge its duties." [Footnote: idem, p.74.] "In 1385 he was granted a much greater favor" (than the right to have a deputy for the petty customs). "On the 17th of February of that year he obtained the privilege of nominating a permanent deputy. ... It is possible that in the end it wrought him injury, so far as the retention of the post was concerned".

A merely casual reading of such statements as those I have given above must make it clear that they attempt to interpret the facts which we have about Chaucer, without taking into consideration their setting and connections--conditions in the courts of Edward III and Richard II, and the history of the period. [Footnote: Note for example the statement on page 3 above that "the Duke of Gloucester was ill disposed towards his brother John."] Surely it is time for an attempt to gain a basis of fact upon which we may judge the real significance of Chaucer's grants and his missions and from which we may determine as far as possible his relations with John of Gaunt. In the following pages then, I shall attempt first to discover the relative importance of Chaucer's place in the court, and the significance of his varied employments, and secondly to find out the certain connections between Chaucer and John of Gaunt. The means which I shall employ is that of a study of the lives of Chaucer's associates--his fellow esquires, and justices of the peace, and his friends--and a comparison of their careers with that of Chaucer to determine whether or not the grants he received indicate special favor or patronage, and whether it is necessary to assume the patronage of John of Gaunt in particular to explain any step in his career.