CHAUCER, Thomas (c.1367-1434), of Ewelme, Oxon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b.c.1367, s. and h. of Geoffrey Chaucer*. m. c.1395, Maud (c.1379-27 Apr. 1437),1 yr. da. and coh. of Sir John Burghersh* of Ewelme by Ismania, da. and coh. of Sir Simon Hanham of Glos., 1 da.

Offices Held

Constable of the duchy of Lancaster castle of Knaresborough, Yorks. and master forester there bef. Feb. 1399.

Constable of Wallingford castle, Berks. 16 Oct. 1399-18 June 1434, jt. constable (with William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk) June 1434-d.

Steward of the honours of Wallingford and St. Valery and of the four-and-a-half hundreds of Chiltern 26 Oct. 1399-18 June 1434, jt. steward (with the earl of Suffolk) June 1434-d.

Sheriff, Oxon. and Berks. 24 Nov. 1400-8 Nov. 1401, 5 Nov. 1403-29 Oct. 1404, Hants 6 Nov. 1413-14.

Commr. to combat the spread of sedition, Oxon. May 1402; of inquiry July 1402 (treasons), Oxon., Berks. June 1406 (concealments), Jan. 1414 (lollards), Berks. May 1417 (treasons), Oxon., Berks. May 1419 (concealments), July 1428 (insurrections), W. Midlands July 1434 (concealments); arrest, Herts. May 1404; array, Oxon. May 1405, May 1415, Nov. 1419; to raise royal loans, Oxon., Berks. June 1406, Oxon. Nov. 1419, Oxon., Berks. Apr. 1421, July 1426, May 1428, Mar. 1431, Feb. 1434; oversee the administration of portage, Wallingford Nov. 1407, Dec. 1433; of oyer and terminer, Oxon. Apr. 1410, Som. Oct. 1428, Berks. Feb. 1430, Bucks., Herts. Mar., July 1430, Berks. Aug. 1432; sewers, Som. Apr. 1417; to prepare a rental of crown property, Calais Mar. 1427.

Chief butler 5 Nov. 1402-13 May 1407, 3 Dec. 1407-16 Mar. 1418, c. Nov. 1421-d.

J.p. Oxon. May 1403-Apr. 1418, Jan. 1420-d.

Keeper of the temporalities of the see of Winchester 10 Oct. 1404-14 Mar. 1405.

Farmer of the earl of March’s forests of Neroche, Exmoor and Mendip and keeper of Petherton park, Som. 23 Nov. 1405-d.

Constable of Taunton castle, Som. for Bp. Beaufort of Winchester 20 June 1406-d.

Escheator, Oxon. and Berks. 9 Dec. 1406-30 Nov. 1407.

Speaker 1407, 1410, 1411, 1414 (Nov.), 1421 (May).

Constable of Banbury castle and steward of Banbury, Oxon. for Bp. Repingdon of Lincoln 1412-c.1419.

Keeper of the forests of Woolmer and Alice Holt, Hants 3 Sept. 1413-d.

Envoy to treat with William, duke of Holland c. Mar. 1414, with John, duke of Burgundy, and the duke of Holland 4 June-Oct. 1414, for peace with France 1 Oct. 1417, for recognition of the treaty of Troyes by John, duke of Brittany, and his lieutenant July-Aug. 1420.

Havener, Cornw. and Plymouth 4 Dec. 1415-Mich. 1425.

Member of Henry VI’s council 25 Jan. 1424-aft. Mar. 1427.


Chaucer’s family background and early connexions were in themselves sufficient to secure for him a place at the centre of English political life, although his ability to consolidate and develop this position for the best part of three decades was due almost entirely to a remarkable combination of personal attributes. Described by one scholar as ‘a self-made man of great wealth, acquisitive yet circumspect, politic and affairé, well-versed in all branches of administration and diplomacy, a practised chairman and envoy, influential and respected’,2Chaucer possessed that elusive blend of charisma, authority and shrewdness essential for the successful management of men in late medieval society. These qualities, as much as his impressive collection of offices and his innumerable contacts with members of the Court and baronage, explain why he was able to play such an important role both in and out of the House of Commons, achieving a record of five Speakerships not equalled until the 18th century.

Throughout his life, the overriding influence on Chaucer’s career was his intimate relationship with the house of Lancaster. Speculation on the part of some writers that he may actually have been an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt remains completely unfounded, but reflects the closeness of his dealings with the latter and his family. Not only was his mother a lady-in-waiting to Gaunt’s second duchess, but his aunt, Katherine Swynford, acted for some time as governess to the three children produced by the first duchess, Blanche. It was after the latter’s death (about which Chaucer’s celebrated father wrote his first major work) that Katherine became Gaunt’s mistress and, eventually, having presented him with three sons and a daughter, his wife. The four Beauforts, who were duly legitimated at the time of the marriage, each derived enormous benefit from the coup d’état which brought their half-brother, Henry of Bolingbroke, to the throne in 1399, and, as their cousin, Chaucer naturally profited in his turn from this fortunate sequence of events. He had already proved himself a loyal servant to Gaunt, whom he evidently accompanied to Spain in 1386. The duke’s letters patent of March 1389, awarding him a fee of £10 p.a. from the honour of Leicester, were granted on the journey home at Bayonne, so Chaucer clearly spent some months at least overseas with his patron. That he continued to give satisfaction may be gathered from Gaunt’s subsequent decision to double the annuity and make him master forester of the lordship of Knaresborough and constable of the duchy stronghold there as well. Chaucer was deprived of these two offices by Richard II, whose confiscation of the Lancastrian inheritance on Gaunt’s death, early in 1399, provoked Bolingbroke into action. Although he had been compensated for his losses with the grant of 20 marks annually from the royal borough of Wallingford, and had, moreover, been permitted by King Richard to retain his other fee, Chaucer’s allegiance clearly lay with the usurper. Within three days of the latter’s coronation, he became constable of Wallingford castle (where Richard’s queen and nephew, the duke of Surrey, were successively in his custody); and shortly afterwards he secured the stewardship of the honours of Wallingford and St. Valery, together with that of the Chiltern Hundreds, thus increasing his income from offices by a further £40 a year. Chaucer had already begun systematically establishing a power base for himself in the middle Thames Valley, so this particular grant, which came to him from Henry, prince of Wales, was especially welcome. The prince, too, must have been pleased to recruit a man of Chaucer’s calibre into his circle, and this marked the beginning of a long association between the two.

Chaucer’s choice of Ewelme (just four miles from Wallingford) as the centre of his operations was dictated by the accidents of inheritance. His own patrimony was less than impressive, comprising no more than a single property in Golding Lane, London, and the lease of a house in the precincts of Westminster abbey. But his wife, Maud, was a notable heiress in her own right: her share of the Burghersh estates brought her two manors in Ewelme, as well as lands in Nuffield and the manor of Swyncombe (Oxfordshire), the manors of East and West Worldham (Hampshire) and Hatfield Peverel (Essex), half the manor of Stratford St. Andrew (Suffolk) and holdings in Gresham (Norfolk), Bourne (Cambridgeshire) and Skendleby (Lincolnshire). Not satisfied with these lucrative assets, Chaucer set out to extend his influence as a landowner in the region between the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. As he grew richer through the profits of office and more powerful through his burgeoning political connexions, he acquired five more manors and extensive possessions in Oxfordshire, and, in 1415, the greater part of Sir Richard Adderbury II’s* property, based upon the castle and manor of Donnington in Berkshire. This particular purchase, which was completed under rather strange, if not questionable, circumstances, was intended to provide Chaucer’s daughter, Alice, and her new husband, the King’s friend Sir John Phelip*, with a marriage settlement, and thus did not remain for long in his hands. But since he was extremely well-placed to negotiate the farm of other lands from the Crown, Chaucer was able to feather his own nest by obtaining for himself a number of grants and wardships, often for long periods of time. In 1411, for example, he contracted to lease some of the queen’s manors, including her residence at Woodstock, and the hundred of Wotton in Oxfordshire at an annual rent of £127, this being only one of many occasions when he exploited his position to the full. Despite his great wealth as a rentier, Chaucer never assumed the rank of knight for which he was so obviously qualified, opting instead to pay the customary £5 fine for exemption.

Not surprisingly, in view of his status in the county, Chaucer was soon chosen to represent Oxfordshire in the Lower House. He had, in fact, taken up office as sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire when the Parliament actually met, in January 1401, and thus found himself in breach of the statute which forbade sheriffs to sit in the Commons. He was, however, promptly re-elected to the next assembly, having meanwhile joined the entourage of Henry IV’s daughter, Blanche, on her way to marry Lewis of Bavaria. During the session King Henry bestowed upon him a singular mark of favour in the form of the chief butlership of England, an appointment which carried a modest enough fee of 20 marks a year, but which, in addition, placed widespread reserves of patronage at the occupant’s disposal. With the exception of a short break in 1407 and a somewhat longer gap of three years ending in 1421, Chaucer retained this valuable post until his death, manipulating the influence at his disposal for the benefit of his two principal patrons, Henry, prince of Wales, and his cousin, Henry Beaufort, then bishop of Lincoln. It is interesting to note, furthermore, that a petition was presented before the Parliament of 1402 urging the restoration of the bishop’s brother, John, earl of Somerset, to the rank of marquess. John himself hastily disclaimed any personal responsibility for the appeal, and it looks very much as if the bishop, who had a strong sense of family pride, had prevailed upon Chaucer to take the initiative in the Commons. This the latter was frequently to do in future years, as his skills as a parliamentary manager grew more sophisticated and the bishop’s ambitions assumed a more tangible form.3 How far Chaucer owed his promotion to the Oxfordshire bench, in May 1403, to his kinsman’s recent appointment as chancellor of England is impossible to determine, since he must, in any event, have been in line to receive a commission of the peace. But he probably had Beaufort to thank for the grant of an additional £20 p.a. from the duchy of Lancaster honour of Tutbury a few months later, and for the opportunity given to him soon afterwards to exchange the annuity for the marriage of the young Thomas Stonor*, whose late father had been one of his neighbours in Oxfordshire. Chaucer had, meanwhile, given further proof of his loyalty to the Lancastrian regime by assisting Henry IV to suppress the Welsh rebels during the autumn of 1403, so it seemed natural enough that he should also be permitted to farm the Stonor estates while they remained in royal hands. In return for a down-payment of £200 at the Exchequer, he was allowed to retain his tenancy until Thomas came of age in 1415, thereby making a considerable profit out of his investment. It is, however, clear that he exercised his guardianship responsibly and inspired the affection of his ward, who remained close to him until his death, perhaps taking the place of the son he never had. Stonor served alongside him in three of the six Parliaments to which he was returned, in part at least, on the strength of their connexion.

Chaucer was not himself a Member of either of the two 1404 Parliaments (although as sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire he made the returns for these counties to both assemblies), and was consequently not in the Commons when attacks were made on the administration of the Household. Possibly because of these criticisms the royal pardon for debt then accorded to him excepted any arrears which he had run up as chief butler. Yet the King had no doubts as to his competence, and while the Coventry Parliament was in session in October he and (Sir) John Pelham* were chosen to act as guardians of the temporalities of the see of Winchester, vacant on the death of Bishop Wykeham. The latter’s successor, Henry Beaufort, had almost certainly recommended Chaucer for the task, and he may also have urged his cousin’s suitability when King Henry came to select a keeper of some of the Mortimer estates during the minority of the earl of March. In return for an annual rent of £40, Chaucer took on the lease of the earl’s parks and forests in the south west, retaining the tenancy at an increased rent after the youth (who possessed a claim to the throne, and thus remained under the watchful eye of the government) came of age in 1415. Beaufort had personal reasons for seeking to bolster Chaucer’s authority in Somerset, and proceeded to entrust him with the important post of constable of his castle of Taunton, a grant which he subsequently had confirmed by the King for extra security. By awarding the constableship to his cousin, Beaufort planned to co-ordinate more effectively the management of his affairs in Oxfordshire and Somerset, two regions where his influence was at its strongest. One of Chaucer’s principal responsibilities was to form a focus for the bishop’s supporters in the House of Commons, using his talents in this respect in the interests of the prince of Wales, with whom Beaufort was now firmly allied in an attempt to gain greater control over the business of government. Chaucer’s temporary removal from the chief butlership and his replacement by Sir John Tiptoft* posed a minor set-back, but his election as Speaker of the 1407 Parliament (in succession to Tiptoft, who had served in 1406) showed that the prince and the bishop were well-regarded in the Commons. Chaucer’s first experience of the office was daunting in the extreme, for he found himself in the middle of a bitter ‘altercacion moeve entre les siegneurs et les Communes’, during which the latter clung tenaciously to their right to consent freely and independently to taxation. After a storm of protest following attempts by the Lords to restrict their freedom of debate over the money supply, they extracted from King Henry a reluctant promise that in future taxes would not be announced until both Houses had agreed to the amount in question, and that the Speaker himself would make the pronouncement. Although in the end he obtained what he had asked for, Henry was also obliged to forego any further demands for money until March 1410, a humiliating concession which might easily have caused him to bear a grudge against Chaucer, the spokesman of the Commons. Yet such were Chaucer’s skills as a manager and ‘trimmer’ that he was not only able to remain in the good graces of both Henry IV and the prince, but even contrived to recover the chief butlership, which was restored to him (albeit only during pleasure rather than for life as had previously been the case) the day after the dissolution. He was, moreover, allowed to take sureties from defaulting wine merchants at Bristol and Kingston-upon-Hull, so although the session had not made any demonstrable difference to Prince Henry’s cause his own private circumstances were clearly much improved.

The prince’s supporters had far more cause for optimism by the time of the next Parliament, which met in January 1410. The appointment to the treasurership of Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham, a close friend of the prince, was followed, four days into the session, by the promotion of Bishop Beaufort’s younger brother, Sir Thomas, to the office of chancellor. With Chaucer again in the Speaker’s chair, the opposition was assured of the backing of the Commons, especially as considerable efforts had been made by him and his friends to engineer the return of a solid body of MPs predisposed in their favour. Chaucer’s use of patronage as a means of influencing elections and his creation of a network of well-wishers in Parliament are examined more fully below: but it is worth noting here that the closing years of Henry IV’s reign saw some of his most sustained efforts in this respect. The King certainly had serious reservations about the Commons’ outspokenness, qualifying his acceptance of Chaucer’s protestation as Speaker with the caution that he expected debates to be conducted ‘not dishonourably but rather ... as to maintain the friendship and harmony of all parties’. Even so, however partisan certain Members of the House may have been and however much they may have welcomed the prince’s de facto assumption of power, their enthusiasm did not extend to the granting of further taxes. After lengthy delays, lasting the best part of two sessions, the Commons grudgingly agreed to some of the government’s demands, although Chaucer, with characteristic dexterity, managed to avoid any personal recriminations. True to form, he also seized the chance to petition for help with regard to the evasion of customs duties on wine by persons pretending to be Londoners, a problem which beset him continually in his office as chief butler. Having utilized his position at Court to become farmer of some of Queen Joan’s estates in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, Chaucer returned to the fray in 1411, again as Speaker of a House of Commons favourable towards the prince. But the political climate had changed for the worse, and as the session progressed the opposition became increasingly isolated. Its demands that King Henry should surrender the throne to the prince of Wales probably reflect an increasing sense of desperation, although such extremism merely provoked a predictable reaction as the principal offices of state changed hands yet again. Chaucer, too, witnessed Henry IV’s displeasure at close quarters, for despite ill health the King appeared in person to deliver a terse rejoinder to the Speaker’s customary claim to freedom of speech. After informing the two Houses that he would tolerate ‘nulle manere de Novellerie en cest parlement’, he warned Chaucer not to overstep the established bounds of his office. Anxiety lest the King might revenge himself upon individual MPs or groups of Members led the Commons as a whole to ask for a formal declaration on his part that he was entirely satisfied as to the loyalty of all those who had attended the assemblies of 1410 and 1411.

Chaucer had clearly sailed close to the wind, and the news of Henry’s death, which took place in March 1413, while another Parliament was in session, must have come as something of a relief to him. We do not know who sat for Oxfordshire in the Commons on this occasion, but Chaucer was almost certainly returned, perhaps along with his close friend and business associate, Lewis John*, since the two men and their colleague, the London vintner, John Snypston, were able to secure the promise of £800 in settlement of a slightly larger sum owing to them for the supply of wine to the Household. Chaucer’s proven ability to retain the King’s personal favour while so demonstrably defying his wishes in his official capacity as Speaker suggests that Henry shared his eldest son’s high opinion of his character and abilities, although once the prince mounted the throne whatever residual doubts Chaucer may have harboured as to his long-term political future disappeared. He was, naturally enough, confirmed in all his fees and offices, being further rewarded with the keepership of the royal forests of Woolmer and Alice Holt in Hampshire. It is, indeed, worth noting that the royal letters patent setting out the terms of the award were sealed at his own manor of Worldham, which suggests that Bishop Beaufort, who had resumed the chancellorship and thus had custody of the great seal, was then paying him a private visit. Chaucer continued to exercise his influence over local parliamentary elections, this time using his authority at both Taunton and Wallingford to ensure that Lewis John would be present in Henry V’s first Parliament. John had also been associated with the new King for many years (traditionally as one of his most indefatigable drinking companions), so Chaucer readily undertook to stand surety for him on his appointment as master of the royal mints.

Having known and trusted Chaucer for many years, Henry was prepared to assign him a far more significant role in the business of government and, most notably, in the complex round of diplomatic discussions whereby he hoped to win support for his claim to the throne of France. In March 1414 Chaucer left England on his first embassy overseas, to discuss ‘certain secret matters moving the King’ with William, duke of Holland, and pave the way for more formal discussions (in which he also took part) during the months to come. Of crucial importance to the success of Henry’s enterprise was the support of John, duke of Burgundy, whose antagonism towards the Armagnac government of France was a key factor in determining Henry’s course of action. Bishop Beaufort was personally committed to the negotiation of an alliance between England and Burgundy, and it may well have been he who urged Chaucer’s continued presence as the negotiations progressed successfully throughout the summer. The poet, John Lydgate, a self-styled disciple of Chaucer’s father, wrote two delightful verses at this time, in which Thomas’s wife and the ‘folkys that mowrne moost for his absence’ lament his protracted absence abroad. The poems provide an interesting insight into the character of a man who was clearly as convivial as he was popular:

Ye gentilmen dwelling envyroun,
His absence eke ye aught to compleyne,
For farwell nowe as in conclusyoun,
Youre pleye your Joye yif I shal not feyne,
Farewel huntyng and hawkyng bothe thweyne,
And farewel nowe cheef cause of your desport,
For he is absent farewel youre recomfort,
Late him not nowe: out of Remembraunce,
But eur amonge hathe him in memorye.4

Back in England in time for the second Parliament of 1414, Chaucer was once again elected Speaker, with the obvious approval of the King. His readiness to assume the office for the fourth time (and, indeed, to use his position as sheriff of Hampshire to get Lewis John back into the House of Commons) may well have been connected with his anxiety over the payment of the £800 which had been promised to him and his associates in the previous year. He himself was owed the lion’s share of £523, and lost no time in getting the Commons to promote his petition for prompt reimbursement. Notwithstanding the influential position which he now occupied at Court, Chaucer was hampered by the government’s insistence upon a thorough audit of all the customs accounts relating to his claim, and it is unlikely, given the extreme slowness shown by them in discharging Henry IV’s other debts, that he ever recovered his money. He had, instead, to make do with a general confirmation of all the fees and offices awarded to him by John of Gaunt and his successors, which was duly entered upon the Parliament roll. In other respects, however, Chaucer had every reason to congratulate himself on the outcome of the session: although they were anxious to explore all the available diplomatic possibilities before declaring war, the Commons were happy to endorse Henry’s claim to the throne of France, voting an unusually generous grant of taxation as an earnest of their support. Besides helping the earl of March to mortgage his estates so that he could take part in Henry’s first invasion of Normandy, Chaucer contracted to lead a force of his own in the field. But his retinue of 47 men embarked without a leader, for he was taken ill, and obliged to stay at home. He may well have had a lucky escape, unlike his son-in-law, Sir John Phelip, who died at Harfleur, leaving a widow of just 11 years old.

Whatever his illness, Chaucer was deemed well enough by December 1415 to assume office as havener of Plymouth and Cornwall. His duties must largely have been discharged by a deputy, because as chief butler most of his time and energy were given over to provisioning the royal army. The financial problems, too, were considerable, and by the summer of 1416 he was owed over £2,842 for wine consumed by the expeditionary force. Either a recurrent bout of ill health or, more probably, continued preoccupation with these mounting debts may explain why little is heard of Chaucer before King Henry’s next major offensive one year later. On this occasion he evidently sailed with the army, in July 1417, his chief value to the King being not as a soldier (although he did lead a personal contingent of 39 men) but as an ambassador, in which capacity he was employed to negotiate a truce later in the year. Fairly long spells in France, interspersed with visits to England on which he was often engaged on royal business, made it necessary for Chaucer to relinquish the chief butlership for a while. He was probably glad to be temporarily free of such an onerous financial burden, especially as the King continued to hold him in the highest regard and his removal could in no way be regarded as a fall from grace. On the contrary, such was the degree of trust which he inspired that he was actually employed by Henry to keep a careful eye upon none other than his cousin, Bishop Beaufort. The latter had recently accepted from the new Pope, Martin V, the reward of a cardinal’s hat and the post of papal legate in England, Ireland and Wales; and although Henry had every reason for gratitude towards his uncle he could not countenance such a direct rebuff to his authority. Beaufort’s fait accompli, effected without any prior consultation at home, posed a threat to the liberties of the English Church, and, by extension, to those of the State as well. So it was in order to scotch the ecclesiastical ambitions of this ‘budding Wolsey’ and provide the papacy with a salutary reminder of his own independence that, in March 1419, Henry ordered the bishop to resign his papal appointments. Since he still harboured doubts as to Beaufort’s loyalty, he approached Chaucer to provide reports about his kinsman’s behaviour and intentions, which he duly did with great tact and discretion. Not surprisingly, the bishop was at once resentful of the way he had been treated and afraid lest Henry might take further measures against him by invoking the Statute of Provisors, and he in turn seems to have confided in Chaucer, hoping in this way to smooth over relations with the King. Although unshakeably loyal towards his sovereign, Chaucer did not lack sympathy for Beaufort: with his customary skill he managed to retain the confidence of both, easing communications between them and helping to allay the King’s worst suspicions.

After a brief sojourn in France, where he was involved in negotiations for the recognition of the treaty of Troyes, Chaucer was able at last to devote some time to more personal matters. In December 1420, for example, he purchased the marriage of the daughter of one of his erstwhile parliamentary colleagues, Sir Richard Arches, who had died while the girl was still a minor. King Henry’s return to England early in the following year meant that Chaucer was again called upon to deploy his managerial skills to the full, because the Crown was short of money and Parliament, convinced that the conquest of France should now be able to finance itself, was showing some resistance to the idea of further taxation. Henry must have been greatly relieved by the Commons’ decision to nominate Chaucer as Speaker of the first 1421 Parliament, for besides bringing an impressive amount of experience to the office he was also particularly well qualified to deal with parliamentary business concerning the ratification of the treaty of Troyes, which was high on the agenda. What mattered to the Commons, though, was the close relationship which Chaucer was known to enjoy with both the King and Bishop Beaufort, who were now publicly reconciled as a result of Beaufort’s magnanimous offer of a loan worth £17,666 towards the war-effort. In point of fact, the bishop was quite simply buying himself back into Henry’s favour, and the price, as might be expected, was extremely high. The Commons, quite probably at Chaucer’s behest, intervened to ensure that proper sureties were made available to underwrite the loan, while also recording their appreciation of the bishop’s generosity, not least because it had saved them from having to dig further into their own pockets. Since the time of his first appearance in the Lower House, Chaucer had assiduously fostered his cousin’s interests there, and we have every reason to believe that his hand lay behind this and other expressions of thanks made to the bishop and his kinsmen by MPs over the years.

The sudden death of Henry V in France was a sad blow to Chaucer, for besides losing a much-loved and generous patron he faced the immediate problem of recovering large amounts of money from the King’s executors. That his two cousins, the bishop and Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, had been chosen to execute Henry V’s will and act as personal guardians of the young Henry VI must have offered him some hope of eventual compensation, as well as giving him a vested interest in the struggle for control of the government which began once Parliament met in November 1422. Humphrey, duke of Gloucester’s bid for the regency was opposed by the Lords in general and Bishop Beaufort in particular; and, as a result of their resolve to limit his authority, his appointment as Protector of the realm was restricted to periods when his elder brother, the duke of Bedford, was abroad. Chaucer naturally threw all his weight behind Beaufort, and although he was not elected Speaker he clearly commanded a great deal of authority in the Commons, where he was joined by a substantial group of friends, clients and relatives. He was easily able to win the support of his colleagues for a petition requesting official approval of his restoration to the post of chief butler, for life, in accordance with the terms of his original letters of appointment, and it was by authority of Parliament that these letters were now ratified. To all intents and purposes his position remained unchanged: all his other offices were confirmed to him as a matter of course; and he was, moreover, permitted to farm the manor of Drayton in Hampshire during the minority of a royal ward (which lasted for the rest of his life). His promotion to the ranks of the Council, in January 1424, was probably made to strengthen Beaufort’s hand as relations between him and Duke Humphrey steadily deteriorated, although his personal eligibility for office is beyond question. He put in a rather sporadic attendance at council meetings, the most valuable area of his expertise evidently being foreign policy, about which he had learned a great deal at first hand. In December 1424, for instance, he and Sir John Tiptoft were dispatched to France for urgent discussions with the duke of Bedford, clearly concerning the threat posed to the Anglo-Burgundian alliance by Gloucester’s ill-considered venture into the field of European diplomacy. The duke’s marriage to Jacqueline of Hainault and his determination to recover her inheritance in the face of opposition from the Burgundians had caused widespread dismay among his fellow peers, and Chaucer’s brief was to act as spokesman for the advocates of the alliance, which Bishop Beaufort had worked so hard to forge and maintain.

Preoccupation with affairs of state did not prevent Chaucer from seizing every possible opportunity for personal profit, and his position as a royal councillor clearly gave him an even greater advantage when such occasions offered. It cannot have been too difficult for him to secure, in 1424, the lease of that part of the Burghersh estates which had descended to his wife’s nephew, John Arundell, a minor in the custody of the Crown, nor was there any shortage of eminent suitors for the hand of his only daughter, Alice, who stood eventually to inherit all his own possessions. By the end of the year she had married Thomas Montagu, 4th earl of Salisbury, one of the most celebrated of the English commanders in France, and had herself begun to play a small, but not uneventful, part on the international stage. According to one account of the wedding of Jean de la Tremouille, staged in Paris in November 1424, the duke of Burgundy was so captivated by her beauty that he attempted to seduce her, although there can be little doubt that Salisbury himself was attracted more by her prospects as an heiress than her physical attributes. For many years he had been vainly trying to recover the estates which had been forfeited after the failure of a conspiracy mounted in 1400 by his father against Henry IV. It is, indeed, quite possible that Chaucer used his position as Speaker of the first 1421 Parliament to assist his future son-in-law in presenting one such petition to the King, but on this occasion his efforts met with only limited success. Fortunately, however, the earl’s military achievements in France enabled him to recoup his losses at home, and by the time that he drew up his will, in 1427, he had accumulated (on paper at least) an impressive fortune out of the profits of war. This dramatic improvement in his finances was probably a deciding factor so far as the marriage was concerned, since unlike other wealthy gentlemen with social ambitions, Chaucer could afford to be selective in the matter of dynastic politics. He may, on the other hand, have been influenced by the family ties which already bound his cousins, the Beauforts, to the earl, for the latter’s daughter, Alice (the child of a previous marriage), was by then married to the eldest son of Joan Beaufort and Ralph, earl of Westmorland. Bishop Beaufort’s hand may clearly be discerned in the ever-widening network of alliances which bound his prolific and ambitious kinsfolk to other baronial houses; and there is no reason to believe that Chaucer stood aloof from these profitable schemes. His magnificent tomb at Ewelme, built some four years after his death, would have given him no little cause for pride, displaying as it did the arms of such great noble families as the Mowbrays, Staffords, Courtenays, Nevilles and Percys, to which he was connected through the Beauforts, as well as those of the Mohuns, Despensers and Plantagenets, with which his wife claimed kinship.5

Beaufort’s desire to strengthen his position in this way is all the more understandable in view of the overt hostility which now characterized his relations with Gloucester. Matters had reached such a pass by 1426 that the duke of Bedford, who had returned from France specifically to settle the quarrel, decided to summon Parliament at Leicester, a Lancastrian stronghold far away from the militantly partisan London mob. Even so, the threat of violence still hung over the assembly (known as the ‘Parlement of battes’ because of the wooden staves carried by members of the rival factions), and it was with the greatest difficulty that Bedford persuaded his younger brother to accept the arbitration of a panel of senior royal councillors. The Commons played an important part in bringing the two adversaries together, for even before the election of Sir Richard Vernon* as Speaker a deputation, headed by the lawyer, Roger Hunt*, had prevailed upon the chief protagonists to come to terms. Chaucer’s precise role in these negotiations is not known, although the fact that he was once again returned to the Lower House after an absence of four years suggests an eagerness to defend the bishop’s interests. The presence in the Commons of several leading members of his and Beaufort’s circle certainly bears out such an assumption, especially as such old friends as Lewis John, John Golafre* and Richard Wyot* had also offered themselves for election after a similar break in their parliamentary careers. The ensuing award, delivered in March 1426, proved humiliating to Beaufort, who was obliged publicly to protest his loyalty to the King, while also begging Gloucester for his continued good lordship. Duke Humphrey had, no doubt, made it a precondition of his readiness to accept mediation that Beaufort should resign the chancellorship, which he did immediately afterwards, thus enabling Bedford to effect a series of new appointments in the interests of a modus vivendi. On the other hand, Beaufort was at last permitted to accept the cardinal’s hat which had for so long been denied him, and in the following May Pope Martin promoted him to the Sacred College. Appropriately enough, Chaucer was present when, in March 1427, his cousin received the new dignity at Calais, although he prudently avoided having anything to do with the ‘crusade’ which, as papal legate in Bohemia, Germany and Hungary, Beaufort planned to lead against the Hussites. Having completed a rental of crown property in Calais, Chaucer returned home, where there was plenty to occupy his attention. He had already secured for himself (during the first session of the 1426 Parliament) the marriage of one of the two daughters and coheirs of the late Sir John Drayton*; and at some unknown date he paid £400 to the latter’s widow for his manor of Nuneham in Oxfordshire. The death of another local landowner, (Sir) William Birmingham*, enabled him to negotiate the lease of estates in Shutford as well.

Chaucer was about 60 years old when, late in 1427, he relinquished his seat on the royal council. There was, however, no question of his then retiring from the political arena, especially as his son-in-law, the earl of Salisbury, badly needed help in recovering the money owed to him by the government for military service overseas. His predicament was particularly serious in view of the fact that English reversals in France threatened to reduce, or even terminate altogether, his regular source of income; and he addressed two petitions to the 1427 Parliament asking for guaranteed repayment under appropriate securities. The success of his appeal probably owed a good deal to Chaucer, who was again present in the Commons, although he did not survive to collect the money. In theory, at least, Salisbury’s death in action, one year later, left his widow an extremely wealthy woman, since he had bequeathed to her jewels and plate worth 7,000 marks, half the rest of his moveables and a landed income of about £85 p.a. from property in France. What proportion of these goods and revenues actually remained after he had paid off his troops remains a matter for speculation, but Alice was soon able to attract an even more influential husband. Her third marriage was, far more than the second, a product of the dynastic and diplomatic ambitions of Cardinal Beaufort. The latter had gradually begun to recover some of his lost authority in England, thanks in part to the support given to him by the 1429 Parliament, in which Chaucer, as usual, worked on his behalf. Not only had it been decided that Gloucester’s protectorate would end with the young King’s coronation, in November of that year, but there was also a strong feeling that Beaufort should play a greater part in deliberations of the royal council. The Commons, for their part, had warmly thanked the cardinal for a particularly munificent loan of £24,000, intended to finance Henry VI’s first visit to France. It was hoped that the accompanying expeditionary force would assist the hard-pressed English army in Normandy, but many leading public figures, including Beaufort, were already beginning to favour the idea of a negotiated peace instead. The futility of maintaining a costly and inherently untenable military presence in France was certainly recognized by the English commander-in-chief, William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, who had himself been ransomed for £20,000 in 1430, and was reluctantly presiding over the gradual collapse of the war-effort. A significant stage in their alliance was reached in the autumn of 1430, when Alice Chaucer was betrothed to Suffolk, thus actually creating ties of kinship between the two exponents of peace. Although the Parliament of 1431, which was Chaucer’s 14th and last, did vote money to continue the war, both Houses pressed for a diplomatic initiative as well, encouraged by the presence in the Lower House of an influential group of the cardinal’s friends.

The ensuing struggle for political control between Beaufort and his old adversary, the duke of Gloucester, an uncompromising opponent of peace, resulted in a period of acute political crisis, during which Beaufort came dangerously near to impeachment. Given that he continued to serve on royal commissions until a few months before his death, Chaucer’s complete lack of involvement in these dramatic events seems most surprising, not least because he could have been so useful to the cardinal both in and out of Parliament. But he was now growing old, and over three decades of unremitting activity at the centre of government had clearly taken their toll. Even so, the habits of a lifetime died hard, and his obssession with consolidating his territorial interests continued until the end. In November 1431 he had obtained the wardship and marriage of Eleanor, the grand daughter and heir of his old friend, Sir William Moleyns*, whose Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire estates were leased to him at the Exchequer upon payment of 500 marks. As late as July 1434 he was negotiating for the farm of another of her manors, having capitalized upon the fact that his own daughter was her godmother. Yet his health must by then have been declining, and he had already arranged for his various offices in Berkshire to be held jointly by him in survivorship with his son-in-law. He died at Ewelme on 18 Nov. following, and was buried in the chancel of the parish church. Throughout his life, Chaucer had displayed a conventional approach to religion: from 1405 onwards he and his wife employed a personal confessor, and in 1429 the pair of them joined the confraternity of Christ Church priory, Canterbury. Chaucer was also a member of the guild of the Holy Cross at Abingdon (through his purchase of the Adderbury estates), but he showed none of the enthusiasm for costly works of piety displayed by his cousin, the cardinal, and his son-in-law, the earl of Suffolk, who subsequently made Ewelme the centre of an ambitious scheme of public charity.

Chaucer is now, rightly, remembered as a man of affairs, whose unusual talent as a political manager, deployed largely for the benefit of his two great patrons, Henry V and Cardinal Beaufort, made him one of the leading figures in early 15th century England. Although there can be no doubt that he was the architect of his own success, he was, none the less, particularly fortunate to gain access through his wife to an important and influential reservoir of patronage, which not only added to his own status but also gave him a far wider range of connexions in the House of Commons. Maud Burghersh was a great-niece and erstwhile ward of Joan, Lady Mohun of Dunster, a prominent figure at the court of Richard II, and a kinswoman of several well-known members of the gentry in the south-west. None of these men can properly be described as Chaucer’s ‘clients’, but they were constantly in a position to give him support in the Commons. Maud’s sister, Margaret, married first Sir John Grenville (who sat with Chaucer in 1402) and then John Arundell II of Bideford (a colleague of his in November 1414 and 1422). Arundell’s father, John I, was a veteran of 12 Parliaments, four of which were also attended by Chaucer. It was through his wife’s maternal aunt, Joan Hanham, that the latter established a connexion with the even more redoubtable Sir Thomas Brooke, who served with him as a shire knight on at least four occasions, and with Brooke’s son, who did likewise in three Parliaments. Sir Thomas’s stepson, Richard Cheddar, also sat three times with Chaucer; and it is worth noting that all of them were Members of Henry V’s first Parliament. The Burghershes and their numerous kinsfolk were not merely useful to Chaucer in the Lower House: one of his wife’s relatives was Philippa, the widow of Edward, duke of York (d.1415), who entrusted him with the task of executing her will and also left him 100 marks in cash.

The core of Chaucer’s following in the Commons was, however, composed of a small coterie of friends, augmented by a rather larger group of clients and placemen, several of whom were returned for the boroughs of Taunton and Wallingford, where his influence was particularly strong. The more intimate members of Chaucer’s circle included Robert James*, his brother-in-law, John Golafre, their friend and trustee, Thomas Rothwell*, the above-mentioned Sir William Moleyns (who was related to Chaucer’s wife), Thomas Haseley*, Richard Restwold I* and his son, Richard II*, Edmund Sparsholt* and Richard Wyot, all of whom had interests of one kind or another in the Thames valley. Business as well as friendship brought Chaucer into close contact with Lewis John and the London vintner, Thomas Walsingham; and the pair of them had him to thank for getting them returned to Parliament. As Chaucer was no doubt well aware, John, a Welshman, was legally barred from standing at all, but this did not prevent him from using his position as sheriff of Hampshire to have John elected as a shire knight, in November 1414, and then employing his powers as Speaker to advance a petition for denization. Another beneficiary of Chaucer’s patronage was his former ward, Thomas Stonor, who had barely come of age before being returned as a shire knight. John Warfield, the steward and receiver of the Stonor estates (an appointment clearly made on Chaucer’s recommendation), was likewise assured of a seat at Wallingford, which he represented nine times in all. Even allowing for what must have been a charismatic personality, Chaucer could not simply rely on the promise of friendship and occasional favours when recruiting support at a wider level; and it was here that his tenure of the chief butlership and the constableships of Taunton and Wallingford proved so invaluable. Thus, among the men associated with him in the Commons were William Borde*, John But* and Richard Boyton*, each of whom acted as deputy butlers in the south-west, John Coterell*, receiver of Wallingford, John Clipsham*, constable of Farnham, and Thomas Bacot* and Thomas Edward*, administrative staff of Bishop Beaufort’s at Taunton. Chaucer’s efforts to return men who could be relied upon to support the bishop in Parliament did not always go unopposed. In February 1410, for example, Beaufort complained about a riot in Taunton, during which many prominent townsmen had taken to the streets, perhaps as a protest against the way the elections to the January Parliament had been held. Bacot (who was then returned along with Edward) was not a popular choice as representative of the borough, and was badly wounded in a brawl with another MP shortly after returning home. But on the whole Beaufort had every reason to congratulate Chaucer on his achievement in ensuring that almost every Parliament summoned between 1402 and 1431 contained at least a handful of men whose active support could be relied upon.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


For a more detailed account of Chaucer’s career, see J.S. Roskell, ‘Thomas Chaucer of Ewelme’, in Parl. and Pol. in Late Med. Eng. iii. 151-91; and for a discussion of his role as Speaker, Roskell, Speakers, pp. 32, 72, 89-90, 149-53, 159-60, 171-4.

  • 1. C139/83/53.
  • 2. K.B. McFarlane, ‘Bishop Beaufort and the Red Hat’, EHR, lx. 102. This article contains further material about Chaucer, notably with regard to his dealings with the bishop.
  • 3. G.L. Harriss, Cardinal Beaufort, 20.
  • 4. N. and Q. (ser. 4), ix. 381-3.
  • 5. Oxoniensis, v. 78-93.