15 Pages

Boyhood and Youth

T HE name Chaucer was in some cases a corruption of chauffecire, l:e. "chafewax," or clerk in the Chancery, whose duty it was to help in the elaborate operation of sealing royal documents. * But Mr. V. B. Redstone seems to have shown conclusively that the poet's ancestors were chaussiers, or makers of long hose, and that they combined this business with other more or less extensive mercantile operations, especially as vintners. The family, like others in the wine trade, may well have come originally from Gascony; but in the 13th and 14th centuries it seems to have thriven mainly in London and East Anglia, and recent research has definitely traced the poet's immediate ancestry to Ipswich.t His grandfather, Robert Malyn, surnamed Ie Chaucer, came from the Suffolk village

of Dennington, and set up a tavern in Ipswich. Robert left a child named John, who was forcibly abducted one night in 1324 by Geoffrey Stace, apparently his uncle. When Stace "stole and took away by force and arms-viz. swords, bows, and arrows-the said John," his object was to settle possible difficulties of succession to a certain estate by forcing the boy to marry Joan de Westhale; and he pleaded in his justification the custom of Ipswich, by which" an heir became of full age at the end of his twelfth year, if he knew how to reckon and measure" ; * but he was very heavily fined for his breach of the peace. We learn from the pleadings in this case that John Chaucer was still unmarried in 1328; that he lived in London with his stepfather, namesake, and fellow-vintner, Richard Chaucer, and that his patrimony was very small. Richard, dying twentyone years later, left his house and his tavern to the Church; but he had very likely given his stepson substantial help during his lifetime. In any case, John must have thriven rapidly, for we find him, in 1338, at the age of twenty-six or thereabouts, among the distinguished company which followed Edward III. on his journey up the Rhine to negociate an alliance with the Emperor Louis IV. The Royal Wardrobe Books give many interesting detail of thisjourney.t Queen PhilIppa accompanied the King half-way across Brabant, and then returned to Antwerp, where she gave birth to Lionel of Clarence, the poet's first master. Among the party were also several of the household of the Earl of Derby, father-in-law to that John of Gaunt with whom Geoffrey Chaucer's fortunes were to be closely bound. The travellers had started from Antwerp on Sunday, August 16; and on the following Sunday a long day's journey

brought them within sight of the colossal choir which, until sixty years ago, was almost all that existed of Cologne Cathedral. Here the King gave liberally to the building fund; and here John Chaucer probably stayed behind, since he and his fellow-citizens had come to promote closer commercial relations between the Rhine cities and London. The King was towed up the Rhine by sixty-two boatmen, sat in the Diet at Coblenz as Vicar Imperial, formed a seven years' alliance with the Emperor, and sent on his five-year-old daughter Joan to Munich, where she waited many months vainly, but probably without impatience, for the young Duke of Austria, who was at present bespoken for her, but who finally turned elsewhere. Meanwhile Edward came back to Bonn, where he had to pay the equivalent of about £330 modern money for damage done in a quarrel between the citizens and those of his suite whom he had left behind-John Chaucer probably included. The Queen met the party again in Brabant, and they returned to Antwerp after a journey of exactly four weeks. We meet with several further allusions to John Chaucer among the London city records. It was very likely he who, in July, 1349, brought a valuable present from the Bishop of Salisbury to Queen Philippa at Devizes, at the time when the ravages of the Black Death in London supply a very probable reason for his absence from town, so that he might well have had his wife and son with him on this occasion. Certainly it was he who, with fourteen other principal vintners of the city, assented in 1342 to an ordinance providing that " no taverner should mix putrid and corrupt wine with wine that is good and pure, or should forbid that, when any company is drinking wine in his tavern, one of them, for himself and the rest of the company, shall enter the cellar where the tuns or pipes are then lying, and see that the measures or vessels into which the wine is poured are quite empty and clean within; and in like manner, from what tun or what pipe the wine is so

drawn." This salutary ordinance was set at nought afterwards, as it had been before; but this and other records bear witness to John Chaucer's standing in his profession.