One of the most famous writers from the medieval period is Geoffrey Chaucer. He lived between the 1340s and 1400 and most famously wrote The Canterbury Tales. He was also the first writer to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. However, he had a granddaughter named Alice who was born a few years after his death who rose to far greater heights than the poet could have imagined.
Whilst Chaucer was well known in his time for his writing, he was the son of a vintner and was very much a royal servant at court. His wife was Philippa Roet, whose sister Katherine became the mistress, and later wife, of John of Gaunt, a son of King Edward III. This marital connection helped Chaucer’s son Thomas rise higher than his father to hold higher positions at court and later become Speaker of the House of Commons. He served King Henry V in his wars in France and was in high favour. This set Thomas’ only child and heir, Alice Chaucer, in a much better position in the marriage market than she would otherwise have had.
Alice had been born around 1404, and by 1414 she was married to a man named John Phelip, who was around 24 years her senior. The marriage was short-lived, however, for John died on 2nd October 1415. Although it is unclear whether Alice had ever lived with her husband, he still provided generously for her in his will, gifting her a gold cup and a room with all its furniture in his house. She was also left land by him, meaning that at ten or eleven years old she was already provided for.
After Alice was widowed, she had time some to grow up, for she was not married a second time until she was at least 17 years old. Whilst women in the nobility did receive a private education, Alice seems to have been educated quite well for her social class – probably due to a family value on education passed on from Geoffrey Chaucer. Later in life she was to own many books and write many letters, so we know she was at least taught to read and write in English.
Sometime between 1421 and 1424 Alice married for a second time to Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury. A marriage to an Earl was very advantageous for Alice, and shows how quickly her family had managed to rise up the ranks due to their family connection to royalty; Salisbury’s first wife had been the niece of King Richard II. Salisbury was a very important man, not simply due to his status as an Earl, but he had made a name for himself fighting in the Hundred Years War in France, and had served Henry V and his brother the Duke of Bedford during several important English victories. He was in favour with the reigning King and, after his death, the Regent, and so Alice was brought into close contact with the court as his wife.
This connection meant that Alice had the opportunity to travel and attend extravagant events, such as a wedding in Paris towards the end of 1424 which she attended with her husband. The feast was held by the Duke of Burgundy, an important ally of the English, but according to contemporary reports, Alice’s attendance at the wedding caused some problems. It was said that the Duke was so enamoured by the beauty of Alice that he paid her undue attention during the feast, much to the resentment and fury of her husband.
However, Salisbury’s ire was reserved for the Duke alone, and he seemed quite happy with his young wife. He gave her jointure in many of the manors and lands he owned, but the couple never had children and Salisbury died in 1428. The death of a second husband by the time Alice was 24 years old meant she was now a very wealthy widow indeed. Salisbury provided generously for Alice in his will, giving him half of his goods, the revenues of his lands in Normandy, 1000 marks in gold (around £666, a significant sum for the time) as well as a remarkable 3000 marks in jewellery and plate.
Alice enjoyed her freedom for two years, but on the 11th November 1430 a royal license was granted for Alice to marry William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and they were seemingly married the following year. The Earl of Suffolk was another strong match for Alice. He again had fought in France during the Hundred Years War, and had even been taken prisoner by Joan of Arc herself. His time in captivity convinced Suffolk that a path of peace should be pursued with the French, to end the century-long war, a policy he followed to his death. After he was released from captivity he returned to the English court, and began to rise in favour with the young King Henry VI.
When it became time for the king to marry, it was Suffolk’s choice in bride that the king decided to marry: Margaret of Anjou, daughter of the King of Naples. Suffolk, for his part in organising the marriage, was given the honour of escorting Margaret to England, and he even married her by proxy in Tours on Henry’s behalf. As his wife, Alice also accompanied the royal bride to England, and she must have made quite the impression for she became a close friend of the new queen.
Not long after Alice married Suffolk, she was granted a huge honour when she was invited to the feast of St George at Windsor Castle and was given robes of the Order of the Garter to wear. The Order of the Garter had been created the previous century by Edward III, and it was the highest honour in the land that a man could receive to become a knight of the order. However, in this age of chivalry women were not forgotten, and high-status women – often wives, daughters, and sisters of the garter knights – were invited to the festivities. They were not mere ornamentation, however, and select women were given the right to wear the garter themselves, like Alice was. Alice enjoyed many feasts with the Order of the Garter, and her pride in being given this honour is clear from her tomb, where her effigy is shown wearing the garter on her arm.
Alice and her husband were certainly enjoying their high status and the luxury that came with it. An account of their journey bringing Queen Margaret to England recounts that they were “richlie adorned, both with apparel and jewels, having with them manie costlie chariots and gorgeous horslitters”. (Holinshed III 631/1/16) Henry was very happy with his new bride, and rewarded Suffolk greatly, giving him the enormous honour of being made a Duke just a few years later.
However, Henry’s continued favouritism of Suffolk, and Suffolk’s pro-peace policy was making him increasingly unpopular with the rest of the court. In 1450, Suffolk was impeached by Parliament on charges of corruption and treachery, and was only saved by his friend the King. However, even Henry could not afford to fully pardon Suffolk, so he organised for Suffolk to be banished from the kingdom for five years. Suffolk duly sorted out his affairs and set sail for the continent, leaving a touching letter behind for his only son who was just eight years old. The letter is heartfelt, but it also reveals the love and trust that Suffolk held for his wife, Alice. Within it he says: “I charge you, my dear son, always as you be bounden by the commandment of God to do, to love, to worship, your lady and mother; and also that you obey always her commandments, and to believe her counsels and advices in all your works, the which dread not but shall be best and truest to you. And if any other body would steer you to the contrary, to flee the counsel in any wise, for you shall find it naught and evil.” (Quote source)
Sadly for their son, he was never to see Suffolk returned; whilst sailing across the channel, a rogue English ship, Nicholas of the Tower, intercepted his ship, captured him, and executed him, dumping his body which later was found on the beach in Dover. Alice was now widowed for the third time at 46 years old, and she had a young child whom she now had to care for and protect.
Alice never did marry again, and it is in her widowhood that her personality and tastes shine through. Suffolk’s death, whilst tragic, again left her with immense wealth. Henry VI, devastated by his friend’s murder, determined to care for his widow, and immediately granted Alice – whom he called “our dearest cousin” – the custody of the entirety of Suffolk’s property to hold until her son became of age. Alice was not safe yet, however. Despite her husband’s murder, enemies at court and the commons of the land were suspicious of Alice’s own influence over the king and queen, and during a rebellion just after Suffolk’s death Alice too was indicted for treason by the rebels. The charge of treason never made it to the courts, but the Parliament of 1451 did petition the king to remove her from his presence along with other hated favourites. It is notable that Alice was the only woman named in the group, showing the influence she was believed to hold.
Alice managed to weather the storm, and focused on raising her child and giving him security in life. She continued to work at court in the household of the king and queen, and was present at the churching of Queen Margaret after the birth of her only child, and heir to the throne. She was not just a bystander to political events, however, for she also lent the king 3,500 marks (nearly £2000) to pay an army to travel to France.
It is in her widowhood that records of Alice’s education and interests survive. She gave lots of money to religious institutions, showing her piety, but perhaps most interesting is the survival of a 1466 inventory of her household goods. This shows a list of tapestries, bedding, clothing and chapel fittings, but particularly notable is that it also listed 21 books, a quite significant number for the time. The printing press had not yet been created, and so every book had to be painstakingly written by hand and, for the nobility, beautifully decorated. It could take a year to produce a book, so to hold so many certainly shows her wealth and status, but also that she must have had a real interest in reading.
By the time of her widowhood, Alice had seen much of the world, and she was a shrewd woman who was not to be taken advantage of without the protection of a man. The Paston family of Norfolk were prolific letter-writers, and their surviving correspondence is an invaluable resource for the fifteenth century. In one of her letters, Margaret Paston warns her son that he should take friends and counsellors with him if he was ever to encounter Alice, for she was crafty and intelligent.
It was Alice’s intelligence and shrewd political eye that allowed her to survive another period of turmoil: the Wars of the Roses. Although King Henry and Queen Margaret had shown great favour to Alice and her husband, and they had profited both financially and through honours and promotions, the kingdom was not quite so pleased with Henry’s rule. Henry began to suffer from periods of mental illness where he was incapable of ruling, and the kingdom was not happy with his greedy favourites ruling the kingdom on his behalf to their own profit. War broke out between those loyal to the King, and those loyal to the Duke of York who had his own claim to the throne.
Alice’s step-daughter from her second marriage had married Richard Nevill, whose sister was the wife of the Duke of York, tying Alice’s family from her second marriage to the Yorkist claim. Alice seems to have begun to consider the advantages of throwing her lot in with the Yorkist claim, and in 1455 Alice married her only son, John, to Elizabeth, the second daughter of the Duke of York. Alice had now switched sides.
Alice’s change in loyalty worked out for her, for Edward, the Duke of York’s son, was crowned Edward IV of England in 1461. Although the Wars of the Roses continued for several more decades, and Edward was deposed for a brief period of time, generally the Yorkists now ran the country, and Alice’s son was now brother-in-law to the King of England. The great-grandson of poet Geoffrey Chaucer had risen to the greatest heights. Alice almost certainly attended the new king’s coronation, and her son was restored to his father’s title of Duke of Suffolk.
For the remaining decade of Alice’s life, she seems to have continued to advise her son, look after her lands, and give money to the church and the poor. She continued to move in high circles, attending a banquet held by the Archbishop of York in 1466. She was even trusted enough by King Edward IV to become keeper of her former friend, Queen Margaret, after she was captured by the Yorkists.
Alice Chaucer died in 1475 in late May or early June, and was buried in the parish church of Ewelme. The effigy erected over her tomb, and commissioned by Alice, is incredibly fine. An example of a medieval cadaver tomb, popular at the time as a reminder of human mortality, it has Alice in life and grandeur on the top, wearing finery and her garter. Underneath, she is shown as a decaying corpse. Made from alabaster, the inscription praises her for her charity, whilst the 16 heraldic shields carved into the tomb promotes her high status.
Alice Chaucer was a fascinating woman who managed to successfully play the dangerous politics of the fifteenth century. A child bride, she became one of the wealthiest women in the kingdom from her successive marriages. She championed the cause of her only child and succeeded in having him married to royalty. She patronised writers and poets, surrounded herself with finery, but gave generously to the church and the poor. She was granted the honour of being made a Lady of the Garter, and her tomb was used centuries later by Queen Victoria to learn how a lady should wear the Garter insignia when Victoria was to wear the Garter herself at her coronation. She was a successful woman who knew her own mind, didn’t let others take advantage of her, and deserves to be as well-known as her grandfather.
Previous Blog Post: Ancient Wonders: The Colossus of Rhodes
Previous in Historical Figures: Ada Lovelace, The First Computer Programmer
Check out my history book recommendations on Bookshop UK.
The Library of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk: A Fifteenth-Century Owner of a “Boke of le Citee de Dames” – Karen K Jambeck
Alice Chaucer and Her Husbands – Marjorie Anderson, PMLA Vol. 60, No. 1 (Mar., 1945), pp. 24-47