What most people know about Chaucer is that he was a “great poet” whose work is full of purient stuff if only you can figure out how to read it. What a lot of people don’t know is how closely he was connected with the Royal Family in England at the time (14th Century) and how his descendents stayed entwined in the intrigues of high affairs of state. Following this entwinement is great fun for those who like to contemplate the intricacies of Celtic Knots.

BACKGROUND

Chaucer, though from a middle class merchant background, was of the “household” of several great lords. Being in “the household” was sort of like working for the federal government today. It meant being part of the administration of the realm, not just running around getting the king’s slippers.

The king in question was Edward III, who reigned 50 years ( 1327 to 1377) and had an abundance of children, whose own children and grandchildren spent much of their lives killing each other off in The Wars of the Roses The basics of that war were:

  • Edward’s grandson Richard II, son of Edward’s eldest son the “Black Prince” was King after Edward.

  • Richard II was kicked off the throne by Henry IV, who was the grandson of Edward through a younger son, John of Gaunt. Gaunt was Duke of Lancaster, so Henry IV and his descendents were “Lancastrians.”

  • Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI (a pious and kind but ineffectual king) was kicked off the throne by descendents of yet another younger son of Edward III, Edward Duke of York. These folks were also descended through the female line from Edward III’s second son Lionel. So they figured that they had more right to the throne than any usurper. They were called Yorkists and in turn did their own usurping. The Yorkist Kings were Edward IV and his brother Richard III, he who reputedly murdered “The Princes in the Tower” to get to the throne.
  • Richard III was kicked off the throne by Henry VII, or Henry Tudor, who was himself descended from the wife of Henry V (the one Kenneth Branagh played with such verve) by her second husband.
  • Henry Tudor sired Hen-er-y the Eighth, I am I am and we are off and running into the English Renaissance.
All this kicking-off-the-throne required bloody battles and people switching sides as their self interest required, and makes for a fascinating study in relationships that I won’t get into here.

HOW DOES ONE POOR POET FIT IN?

Chaucer’s wife, Phillipa, was a lady in waiting to Edward III’s queen. She was the sister of Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt. Katherine had been Gaunt’s mistress for a long time before she became wife, and had several children by him who were later legitimized as the Beauforts. These kids' descendents were big players in the Wars of The Roses, both as Yorkists and as Lancastrians. As a matter of fact, Henry VII, the first Tudor king, was the son of a Beaufort woman.

Chaucer himself was, in his day job, a soldier, administrator, diplomat and customs collector in the service of Edward III.

Chaucer had at least one child, Thomas. Thomas became a major landowner and VIP in the social structure of the time. He in turn had a daughter named Alice. With Alice we get right into the thick of the Wars of the Roses.

Alice’s second husband (her first duke died) was the Duke of Suffolk. He was one of the early casualties of the Wars of the Roses. At the time, there had been wars with France for over a century over whether the English King also got to be French King and who owned what land in France. This is Joan of Arc Time—-in fact, Suffolk at one point was captured by Joan herself and had to be ransomed.

Suffolk had a lot of influence over Henry VI (remember, nice but ineffectual?) and was of the “peace party” when it came to the war with France. His advice got blamed for a major English defeat in that war, and he was banished from court. But this wasn’t enough—-as he tried to leave England he got caught and beheaded on board his escape boat by members of the “war party”. Given the way boats rock, this must have been more uncomfortable than usual.

The disagreements between the “war party” and the “peace party” as to what ought to be Done About France were a major motivating factor in the Wars of the Roses.

Now, children who’ve stayed with me thus far, Suffolk was a member of the De La Pole family, so his son was called John De La Pole. (The Encyclopedia Britannica says he died without surviving issue, but the internet’s Royal Genealogy page and several other sources say otherwise). Remember, this kid is also Chaucer’s great-grandson. John married the sister of Edward IV and Richard III. And after Richard’s own little son died, John’s son, another John, became the heir to Richard and to the throne of England.

So Chaucer wasn’t just a great poet. He was also the great-great-grandfather of the heir (for a brief time) to the English throne. Of course, this heirdom didn’t go anywhere because Richard III got lopped off at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry VII’s team. (“My Horse, My Horse, My Kingdom for a Horse.”) I haven’t figured out yet what actually happened to John the Brief Heir, but he had assorted brothers and sisters. The Encyclopedia Britannica also says that Chaucer’s descendents died out in the 15th Century but, if it is actually true that Alice and Suffolk DID have a son, there were descendents abounding all the way down to 1945 (I am not, sadly, among them). These descendents just came through the female line and presumably thus don’t count.

Chaucer’s nieces and nephews (albeit by marriage), the Beauforts, weren’t just major players in the battles of the Wars of the Roses. Katherine Swynford’s daughter Joan had a daughter Cicely who married the grandson of Edward Duke of York and became the mother of Edward IV and Richard III. Chaucer is sometimes called the King of Poets, but in fact he was related to Kings in a much more tangible way.

SOURCES

If you like this sort of thing but have trouble keeping who’s who straight, try approaching it from the historical mystery side: There are two great and well researched series about this time. The first is the Owen Archer series by Candace Robb, which is set in the final years of Edward III’s reign and has Chaucer-the-Diplomat as a sometime character. The second is the Sister Frevisse series by Margaret Frazier. Her sleuthing nun is the daughter of a fictional sister of Thomas Chaucer’s wife, and thus a cousin of Alice Chaucer. Both these series give vivid pictures of the historical figures so dryly set out here.

More Scholarly Sources

Paul Murray Kendall, Warwick the Kingmaker--a great read, more like a novel than history.

Allison Weir, The Wars of the Roses another great read.

Britannica On-Line (britannica.com)—an encyclopedia, what can I say?

Directory of Royal Genealogical Data--http://www.dcs.hull.ac.uk/public/genealogy/royal/ (this is a real slow website)

Columbia Encyclopedia, going head to head with Britannica on the subject of Suffolk’s descendents at http://www.bartleby.com/65/po/Pole.html

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