Encyclopedia of World Biography , December 12, 1998
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· Born: c. 1340 in London, England
· Died: October 25, 1400 in England, London
· Nationality: English
· Occupation: Poet
The English author and courtier Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1345-1400) was one of the greatest poets of the late Middle Ages and has often been called the father of English poetry. His best-known works are The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde.
The exact date and place of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth are not known. The evidence suggests, however, that he was born about 1345, or a year or two earlier, in his father's London house. This was located on Thames Street adjacent to the west bank of the Walbrook. It is probable that young Geoffrey attended school at St. Paul's Cathedral. If he did so, his early training must have been strongly influenced by men whose intellectual tastes were shaped by their association with Richard de Bury, one of the most learned Englishmen of his time and the author of a treatise on the love of books called Philobiblon. But our first record of Chaucer reveals that in 1357 he was a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster, the wife of Prince Lionel. From this time forward we find Chaucer associated in one way or another with the royal family.
During 1359-1360 King Edward III campaigned in France, hoping to better the terms of what would become the Treaty of Bretigny (1360), and even to be crowned king of France at Reims. But the campaign was a failure and, during it, Chaucer, who was in the retinue of Prince Lionel, was taken prisoner. The King ransomed him for the substantial sum of £ 16 on March 1, 1360. Later in the year Chaucer was again in France on a mission for Prince Lionel. In the late 14th century, it was not uncommon for a young man of about 15 to be entrusted with considerable responsibility.
After 1360 we lose sight of Chaucer for several years. There is an old tradition to the effect that he studied at the Inner Temple, where apprentices at law were trained. This kind of education would have been especially appropriate for a young man destined for royal service. However, he may have been engaged with Prince Lionel in Ireland. He tells us in the "Retractions" at the close of The Canterbury Tales that he had made "many a song and many a leccherous lay." It is likely that such songs and lays were the product of his youthful years, and that he acquired an early reputation for songs and jocular tales.
Recently discovered documents indicate that in 1366 Chaucer was traveling in Spain, and it is probable that soon after his return he married a lady of the queen's chamber, Philippa, the daughter of Sir Payne Roet. Philippa later entered the service of Constance of Castile, the second wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Her sister, Katherine Swynford, had been in the service of John's first wife, Blanche. After the death of Blanche, Katherine became John of Gaunt's...