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The first thing which forcibly strikes our attention in tracing the Homes and Haunts of the Poets, is the devastation which Time has made amongst them. As if he would indemnify himself for the degree of exemption from his influence in their works, he lays waste their homes and annihilatos the traces of their haunts with an active and a relentless hand. If this is startlingly apparent in the cases of those even who have been our cotemporaries, how much more must it be so in the cases of those who have gone hence centuries ago. We begin with the father of our truly English poetry, the genial old GEOFFREY CHAUCER ; and, spite of the lives which have been written of him, Tyrwhitt tells us that just nothing is really known of him. The whole of his account of what he considers well-authenticated facts regarding him amounts to but twelve pages, including notes and comments. The facts themselves do not fill more than four pages. He is supposed to have been born in 1328, and probably of an old Kentish family. Of his birth-place, further than that it was in London, as he tells us himself in the Testament of Love, fol. 321, nothing is known. The place of his education is by no means clear. It has been said that he was educated first at Cambridge and then at Oxford. He himself leaves it pretty certain that he was at Cambridge, styling himself, in The Court of Love, “ Philogenet of Cambridge, Clerk.” Leland has asserted that he was at Oxford : and Wood, in his Annals, gives a tradition that, “ when Wickliffe was guardian or warden of Canterbury College, he had for his pupil the famous poet called Jeffrey Chaucer, father of Thomas Chaucer, Esq., of Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, who, following the steps of his master, reflected much upon the corruptions of the clergy."
He is then said to have entered himself of the Inner Temple. Speght states that a Mr. Buckley had seen a record in the Inner Temple of “Geffrey Chaucer being fined two shillings for beating a Franciscan Friar in Fleet Street." This, Tyrwhitt says, was a youthful sally, and points out the fact that Chaucer studied in the Inner Temple on leaving college, and before his travels abroad, which is contrary to the account of Leland, who makes him after his travels reside in the Inner Temple. These travels even in France resting solely on the authority of Leland, Tyrwhitt disputes, but of their reality there can be little doubt.
Chaucer, having finished his education, became a courtier. The first authentic memorial, says Tyrwhitt, that we have of him, is the patent in Rymer, 41 E. III, by which the king grants him an annuity of twenty marks, by the title of Valettus noster ; at which time he is also said to have been knighted, on or about the time of his marriage. He was then in the thirty-ninth year of his age. But previously to this we have it on his own evidence that he served under Edward III. in his great campaigns in France ; was made prisoner, and obtained his release at the peace of Bretigni, which took place in 1360, consequently in the 34. E. III, seven years before. Speght mentions a succeeding grant by the title of Valettus hospitii. By those titles it appears that he was a royal page or groom. In this situation he enjoyed various grants from the king. In the 48 E. III. he had, according to Rymer, a grant for life of a pitcher of wine daily ; in the same year a grant, during pleasure, of the office of Comptroller of the Custom of Wools, Wines, etc. in the port of London. The next year the king granted him the Wardship of Sir Edmund Staplegate's heir, for which he received 1041. ; and in the following year, some forfeited wool to the value of 711. 4s. 61. His annuity of twenty marks was confirmed to him on the accession of Richard II, and another annuity of twenty marks was granted him in lieu of the daily pitcher of wine. It is probable, too, that he was confirmed in his office of comptroller, though the instrument has not been produced. In the 13th of Richard II. he appears to have been clerk of the works at Westminster, etc., and in the following year at Windsor. In the 17th of Richard II. the king granted him a new annuity of twenty pounds ; in the 22d, a pipe of wine. On the accession of Henry IV. his two grants, of the annuity of twenty pounds and of the pipe of wine, were confirmed to him, with an additional grant of forty marks.
Thus it appears that Chaucer did not miss the profitable part of court patronage. He also reaped some of its honourablo employments. Edward III, in the 46th year of his reign, appointed him,
with two others, his envoy to Genoa, with the title of Scutifer noster, Our Squire. This great and able king, it is evident, regarded Chaucer as a good man of business; and that he proved himself so, is pretty well denoted by the chief grants of his life immediately following his return. On the heels of these grants, came also another emb18ey, in company with Sir Thomas Priest, to Flanders, in 1377, and after that to France, with Sir Guichard d’Angle and Richard Stan, according to Froissart, to treat of a marriage between the Prince of Wales, afterwards Richard II, and Isabella, daughter of the French king. Other historians assert that the original object of his mission was to complain of some infringement of the truce concluded with France, and which was so well pushed by Chaucer and his colleagues, that it led to some overtures respecting the marriage. However that may be, it is evident that our poet's part in the transaction met with the royal approbation; for the old king dying, one of the first acts of the prince, on his accession, was to confirm his father's grants to him, with an additional one, as we have observed. Richard, moreover, in the very first year of his reign, sent him on a second embassy to Flanders, and, in the following year, on another to Lombardy. Eight years later he was elected a knight of the shire for Kent to Parliament.
But Chaucer had also his share of life's reverses. In 1386, he was dismissed from his offices. In the eleventh year of Richard II, that is, only two years later, he had the king's licence to surrender his two grants of twenty marks each, in favour of John Scalby. It is not really known why he surrendered those grants, but it is supposed that it was owing to his connexion with the Lollard cause, and especially to his alliance with John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and John of Northampton. He was not only attached to the duke on account of their common interest in the reformed opinions, but he was married to a sister of Catherine Swynford, the duke's inistress, and afterwards wife. Chaucer, it seems, had exerted himself zealously to secure the re-election of John of Northampton as mayor of London. There is much mystery attached to the cause of the riot which took place ; but as this Comberton, or John of Northampton, was a zealous Wickliffite, the supposition that the disturbAlice arose from the violent opposition of the clergy to him, is very probable. Comberton was finally committed to prison, and Chaucer Merl, first to Hainault, then to France, and lastly to Zealand. “Whilst in Zealand,” says Mr. Chalmers, “he maintained some of his countrythen, who had Aed thither on the same account, by sharing the money he had brought with him,—an act of liberality which soon Arhausted his stock. In the meantime the partizans of his cause, whora he had left at home, contrived to make their peace, not only without endeavouring to procure a pardon for him, but without airling him in his exile, where he became greatly distressed for want of pecuniary supplies. Such ingratitude, we may suppose, gave him more uneasiness than the consequences of it; but it did not lessen his courage, as he soon ventured to return to England. On this he was discovered, and committed to the Tower, where, after being treated with great rigour, he was promised his pardon if he would
disclose all he knew, and put it in the power of government to restore the peace of the city. His former resolution appears now to have failed him ; or, perhaps, indignation at the ungrateful conduct of his associates induced him to think disclosure a matter of indifference. It is certain that he complied with the terms offered ; but we are not told what was the amount of his confession, or what the consequences were to others, or who they were that he informed against. We know only that he obtained his liberty, and that an oppressive share of blame and obloquy followed. To alleviate his regret for this treatment, and partly to vindicate his own conduct, he now wrote The Testament of Love ; and although this piece, from want of dates, and obscurity of style, is not sufficient to form a very satisfactory biographical document, it at least furnishes the preceding account of his exile and return.”
This account is attended with its difficulties. Chalmers states this exile to have occurred about the 3d or 4th of Richard II ; Tyrwhitt in the eleventh of that reign. One thing is certain ; that if it occurred in the eleventh, the whole period of his exile and troubles lasted only two years, for in the 13th of Richard II. he was in great favour at court, and made clerk of the new works at Westminster, and in other castles and palaces which the king was carrying on. Again, the two years during which he claimed protection from the king, are stated by Chalmers to be from the 2d of Richard, and by Tyrwhitt, quoting Rymer, are dated from the twenty-first of that reign. It appears, however, pretty certain that he was reduced to great pecuniary distress, and obliged to screen himself from the persecutions of his creditors under the royal grant of protection. There can be little doubt that Rymer is the correct authority, and that it occurred in the 21st of Richard. About the time of the termination of this grant of protection, he would see his protector also reduced to the need of protection himself; which he did not find, but was deposed, and succeeded by Henry IV, who confirmed to our poet the grants of the unfortunate monarch Richard.
Such are the few prominent facts of Chaucer's public life. Where, during his abode in London, he took up his residence, we have no knowledge. During the troubles of the court, and during his own, he is said to have retreated to his favourite Woodstock. This house he had engaged originally, because the court was then much at Woodstock, and he was obliged to be in constant attendance on the king. It became his favourite abode. It was a square stone house near the park gate, and long retained the name of Chaucer's House, Many of the rural descriptions in his works have been traced to this favourite scene of his walks and studies. Every trace of it has been long swept away. The other residence which has acquired fame from connexion with Chaucer, is Donnington Castle, in Berkshire." Tyrwhitt doubts whether it ever really belonged to him. If it did. he says, it could not have been till after the 16th of Richard II, for at that time it was in the possession of Sir Richard Abberbury. He observes that we have no proof of such purchase, and he doubts whether the situation of his affairs admitted of such a purchase. It! was five years, however, after this time when these affairs compellea him to seek the king's protection. There are traditions of his having settled all his lands on his son Thomas, for whom he had procured a rich wife. Again, it is denied that Thomas Chaucer was his son, or that it is known that he had any son but Lewis, said to be born twenty years after his marriage. So dubious is every step in this history. Yet tradition asserts Thomas Chaucer to have been his eldest son. It is known that Donnington Castle was for many years in the hands of this Thomas Chaucer, who was speaker of the Commons in the second year of Henry V, and who in Henry IV.'s time was high in favour at court, for Joanna of Navarre, the queen of Henry IV, conferred on him, in the twelfth year of that reign, the manors of Wotton and Stantesfield for life. His only daughter, Alice, was a great heiress, and married as her third husband, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who was attainted and beheaded in 1450.
May it not have been the fact, that the purchase of Donnington Park, and the settlement of it on his son, must, together with a diminished income from the change of some of his affairs, have been the source of the poet's embarrassments? It is certain that at one time his emoluments were great ; he speaks of himself as " once glorified in worldly wellfulnesse, and having suche goods in welthe us makin men riche.” He was in a fair way to make a fortune, and plant a family of rank and substance. He was married to the sister of the favourite mistress and subsequent wife of the powerful and liberal John of Gaunt: had the favour of the king, Edward III, and his wife that of the noble queen Philippa, one of whose maids of honour she had been. Everything promised prosperity; the promise was confirmed on the accession of Richard II; but soon, as we have said, the scene changed. He was involved in the troubles of the times; compelled to sacrifice his offices, and obliged to fly to foreign countries. He then complained, in his Testament of Love, 5 of being berafte out of dignitie of office, in which he made a gatheringe of worldly godes."
Notwithstanding all this cloud of uncertainty, the belief will always prevail that Donnington was the residence of Chaucer. Evelyn tells us, that there was an oak in the park which tradition asserted to have been planted by Chaucer, and which was still called ('haucer's Oak. As his house at Woodstock is gone, so his castle bere is a mere ruin. It is generally supposed to be at Woodstock that he wrote his Canterbury Tales, where he also is said to have writted his Treatise on the Astrolabé, for the use of his son Lewis ; çet is, as asserted, he was upwards of sixty when he commenced the Canterbury Tales, he may have been in possession also of Donnington, during part of the time that he was writing his great poem. But everything concerning these particulars is wrapt in the mists of five bundred years. The only branch of his family that he mentions by Dame is his son Louis. The very name of his wife is uncertain, but belirted to have been Philippa Rouet, the eldest daughter of Sir Payne Rouet, king of arms of Guienne, but a native of Hainault. "Historians," says Tyrwhitt, “ though they own themselves totally