Friday, August 5, 2011

October 25, 1400 – Chaucer Freed from Prison and Composes “Croun Retorned” (“Crown Returned”)

Middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer is known as the first to show the potential for literature in his native tongue, but he was also very active in his political life. Born in a family of comfortable wealth with land in Ipswich and dozens of shops in London, Chaucer gained his first foothold into politics as page to Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster. For the rest of his professional life, he would work as a diplomat, civil servant, and member of influential courts.

After being captured and ransomed as a young man during the Caroline War, he traveled extensively, especially in Italy, where he would be introduced to poetry in the Italian vernacular. While English poetry was predominately in French and Latin at the time, Chaucer brought back the idea of a poetry of the people. He created works such as “The Book of the Duchess” and most famously his Canterbury Tales (completed in 1408 with its 116 stories). Edward III granted Chaucer “a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life” on St. George's Day, 1374, believed to be royal endorsement of his artistic advancements.

While writing, Chaucer continued his political career. His children by his wife Phillipa Roet, lady-in-waiting to the queen, did well in society, such as his son Thomas serving as chief butler to kings throughout Europe and Speaker of the House of Commons and daughter Alice marrying the Duke of Suffolk. Chaucer himself climbed upward through the hierarchy of public service, gaining positions as envoy, Comptroller for Customs in London, and clerk of king's works. Toward the end of Chaucer's career, childless Richard II once again came to troubles maintaining his hold on the throne. While campaigning in Ireland, Richard was overthrown by Henry of Bolingbroke, who easily marched his army through England in 1399 while Richard's knights were away. Richard eventually surrendered at Flint Castle to be spared his life for imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Amid the turmoil, Chaucer lost his pay. With creditors in constant pursuit, Chaucer was eager to get renewed grants from the new king, Henry IV, who was distantly his step-nephew by his wife's sister's third marriage. Chaucer wrote his poem “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse” in hopes of making his plight known in a clever manner. In its final stanza, he set about a challenge to Henry in what notes suggest was more daring from the original draft.

“Are ye our newe Brutes Albyoun
Who stand fore from line and battle
Our verray king? This song to yow I sende,
Be ye that mowen alle oure harmes amende
Have minde upon my questiun.”

Henry responded to the poem with a heavy hand, firing Chaucer from his positions and having him arrested on grounds of debt-evasion. While he contained the potential political stink, the action was enough to convince the young Edward of Norwich to permit his fellow earls Salisbury, Huntingdon, and Kent to go forth with their Epiphany Rising and capture Henry at a tournament in Windsor. In the chaos, Henry's supporters deserted the man who proved not to be heir to Brutus. Richard II was returned to the throne while Henry was executed and his son Henry relegated to positions in Cornwall and Ireland. Upon his return to command, Richard praised Chaucer for questioning the usurper and paid the poet's debts as well as promising a handsome pension, provided he continued to write for the good of England, first producing a long poem praising Richard.

Until his death in 1411, Chaucer produced numerous works highly regarded in English literature. Richard worked to hold onto his throne, struggling against an increasingly independent Northumberland and the Liberation in Wales circa 1415. He finally managed somewhat stable peace with France, despite encouragement from Henry and others that victory could be pressed through Calais.

Richard was succeeded by the next in line for the throne in 1424 by Edmund Mortimer, who became Edmund III and led the merging of the Lancaster and Plantagenet houses through his grandmothers. England continued on a path of stability over the rest of the Middle Ages, producing great works of art and literature but proving politically unambitious.

In reality, Chaucer wrote flatteringly to Henry IV,

“O conquerour of Brutes Albyoun
Which that by line and free eleccioun
Been verray king, this song to yow I sende,
And ye that mowen alle oure harmes amende
Have minde upon my supplicacioun.”

Henry promised to return grants to Chaucer, though records are unclear whether they were actually paid. Chaucer is believed to have died October 25, 1400, though even this date was written on a tomb erected a century after his death. Some historians, such as Python Terry Jones, speculate that his sudden death and lack of will or surviving papers could have been a political murder to clear the remains of Richard II's influence. Whatever the truth, Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, and ever since English writers have sought to be buried with him in what has become Poet's Corner.

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