Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, May 20, 2024

Alice Chaucer, Politician and Patron (and Granddaughter of the Poet)

Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk (died 20 May 1475)

As an academic, I was trained as a medievalist, and for decades, I taught not only medieval but early-modern literature courses at a liberal-arts university. I continued to teach Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, Wyatt, Surrey, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Marlowe, among many other canonical writers and texts, long after my own research and writing interests had transitioned to women's history and women writers. This site, The Monstrous Regiment of Women, is a post-retirement project that allows me to continue to read and write about women, women's history, and women writers. 

Tomb effigy of Alice Chaucer,
duchess of Suffolk
(parish church of St Mary,
Ewelme, Oxfordshire)

Now here's an admission. I taught an upper-division course in Chaucer for decades, as well as teaching selections from The Canterbury Tales in lower-division literature survey courses. I knew Chaucer had married Philippa de Roet, whose sister, Katherine, later known as Katherine Swynford (her first husband was Sir Hugh Swynford), would become the mistress, then wife, of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III. Many students over the years found this personal connection--one between the poet and the royal patron whom he served--to be an intriguing one. 

But beyond knowing that Geoffrey Chaucer had married Philippa de Roet, I never thought much about Chaucer's wife, much less his children, except for the claim that his Treatise on the Astrolabe may have been written for his son, Thomas--despite the fact that the piece is addressed to "Lyte Lowys my sone." This reference has resulted in a great deal of speculation. Some critics have argued that "Louis" really means "Thomas," others that the poem may have been addressed to a godson or another child to whom Chaucer was close, while still others have concluded that Chaucer had a second son, named Louis. It's best just to say that the treatise "may or may not" refer to Chaucer's own son.

In fact, it isn't clear exactly how many children Chaucer and Philippa had, though it's generally said that they had four (or three). Certainly they had a son named Thomas, who made an advantageous marriage and had a notable political career. Chaucer and Philippa may have had two daughters, and if they did, these daughters may be Elizabeth (a woman named Elizabeth Chaucy became a nun at Barking Abbey, and Agnes (a woman named Agnes Chaucer played a role in the coronation of Henry IV).

So, as I said, how many children Chaucer and his wife had is not clear--but what is clear is that Alice Chaucer is Geoffrey Chaucer's granddaughter, the child of Thomas Chaucer. About her, historian John Kirby Edges would write, "Few women ever had a more gradual and successful rise in the world than Alice Chaucer. Born the daughter of a gentleman of no illustrious descent, she became in name a lady by her contract of marriage with a knight; next a countess by her first marriage, and during her [subsequent] marriage she reached the higher dignities of marchioness and duchess." 

Brass rubbing of
Matilda Burghersh,
mother of Alice Chaucer
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
Born about the year 1404, just a few years after her grandfather's death (Geoffrey Chaucer died on 25 October 1400), Alice was the daughter of Thomas Chaucer and Matilda Burghersh, an heiress to a significant estate. Ewelme Manor (Oxfordshire), where Alice Chaucer would spend a great deal of her life, came into the Chaucer family's possession at the death of Sir John Berghersh, Matilda'a father. 

Alice Chaucer's now-famous grandfather, Geoffrey, was the son of a wine merchant who became a courtier, diplomat, and bureacrat, in addition to becoming one of the great poets of the English language. He began his astonishing rise as a page in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, married to Lionel of Antwerp (like John of Gaunt, a son of Edward III). 

Her father, Thomas Chaucer, was able to have a distinguished political career--he served in various capacities under Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, and was was elected to parliament fifteen times, serving as Speaker of the House of Commons five times. 

While such careers were not possible for a woman, Alice Chaucer nevertheless found advancement through marriage, a career option that was available to women.

When she was about eleven (by October 1414), Alice was married to Sir John Phelip, a man about twenty-five years older than she was. Although his Suffolk family was "of no very great local importance," they had experienced a "spectacular rise" while serving John of Gaunt and Henry IV. Sir John died on 2 October 1415, about a year after his marriage to Alice. As his widow, Alice Chaucer gained control of significant property, including Donnington Castle, which had been acquired by her father and was part of her dowry.

Alice's second marriage was a much more prestigious one--by 30 November 1424, when she is known to be attending a marriage in France with her husband, Alice had become the wife of Thomas Montagu, fourth earl of Salisbury. Salisbury was one of the great English commanders during the Hundred Years War. On the occasion of a celebration of marriage, the duke of Burgundy seems to have been captivated by Alice Chaucer and went so far as to try to seduce her--despite the fact that the wedding being celebrated was his own. Alice did not succumb, though her second marriage was not to last long. Salisbury was wounded at the siege of Orléans, and he died on 3 November 1428.

Two years later, in 1430, the twice-widowed Alice married William de la Pole. Like Thomas Montagu, he was an important English commander--he had also been at the siege of Orléans--and he served Henry VI in several capacities. (He also helped to negotiate the marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.) John de la Pole was made earl, then marquess, and, in 1448, duke of Suffolk. As for Alice Chaucer, she became one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting. 

In May 1432, Alice Chaucer was granted the "distinguished privilege" at the feast of St. George of "wear[ing] the Order of the Garter." Like the knights of the Order, the "Ladies had not only the habit of the Order, but they, like the Knights, had also the ensign of the Garter delivered to them. . . . These Garters might be worn by Ladies about their left arm."

But Suffolk's career would end disastrously. His years in service to Henry VI earned him many enemies. In 1450, he was accused of treason, imprisoned in the Tower, and then sent into exile. Before he got too far on his voyage from England--just off the coast of Dover, in fact--his ship was overtaken, and he was beheaded. 

Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk, had given birth to only one child during her three marriages. John de la Pole was born on 27 September 1442. By the terms of her husband's will, Alice was named the sole executrix of his estates: "above all the earth my singular trust is most in her." During the years immediately following Suffolk's death, Alice too was the focus of a great deal of anger. Much of it was the result of her husband's disastrous actions.

Most significantly, she was implicated in her husband's decision to marry their son, John de la Pole, to Margaret Beaufort. Fears that Suffolk intended to secure the throne of England for his own son by means of this marriage ("presuming and pretending" Margaret Beaufort "to be next inheritable to the crown") had led to the charges of treason brought against Suffolk. Alice found herself charged with treason in 1453, but she was acquitted.

In the same year, her son's marriage to Margaret Beaufort was annulled. In 1458, after years of a close relationship to Henry VI, Alice Chaucer decided to ally herself with Richard, duke of York. A marriage was arranged between John de la Pole and Elizabeth of York, the sixth child and third daughter of the duke and his wife, Cecily Neville. Through this marriage, Alice would become grandmother to eleven grandchildren. 

Throughout the years that followed her husband's death, Alice Chaucer remained a potent force. In her work on women in medieval England, Mavis E. Mate notes, "she continued to dominate politics in East Anglia," where the de la Pole family resided. Beyond her continued political maneuvering, Alice Chaucer was an important patron of the arts and literature. She commissioned tapestries, and she may have commissioned a poem by John Lydgate. Mate acknowledges that Lydgate "ostensibly produced works" for her husbands, but suggests that "in each case the real motivating force behind the commission may have been Alice Chaucer herself." Whether or not she herself commissioned any of Lydgate's work, she was a lover of books and amassed a large library. Notably, she is known to have owned a copy of Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies.

She was also known for her acts of piety. She made donations of books and money to Oxford University, she made contributions to various religious institutions, and she gave alms to the poor. In this last role, she supported God's House at Ewelme, an almshouse that she had founded with her husband, a charity that survives today.

In 1472, not long before her own death, Alice Chaucer was once more in contact with Margaret of Anjou, when the widow of Henry VI was transferred to her "care." After the death of Henry VI and Margaret's defeat at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the former queen was taken captive by William Stanley and imprisoned in Wallingford Castle and then the Tower of London. She was transferred into the custody of Alice Chaucer and presumably remained with her until the duchess of Suffolk died. (Margaret of Anjou was finally ransomed by Louis XI of France in 1475.)

Alice Chaucer's strenuous efforts to protect--and expand--her son's inheritance helped insurance his future, even while they did nothing for her own reputation. Historian Lauren Johnson claims that Alice Chaucer and her husband were "well matched": "both ambitious, cunning and charming, but willing to be ruthless if necessary." 

And what a future it was--I've already noted John de la Pole's large family. Three of his sons made claims to the throne of England: the eldest, John de la Pole, first earl of Lincoln, was made heir to the crown by his uncle, Richard III, but he died in 1487, at the battle of Stoke, two years after Henry VII claimed the throne; Edmund de la Pole also claimed the English throne and was executed by Henry VIII in 1513; Richard de la Pole, the seventh and youngest son of Alice Chaucer, continued the claim but lived on the continent until his death in 1425 at the battle of Pavia. Another son, William, made no claim to the throne but was imprisoned in the Tower for allegedly plotting with his brothers--he remained there for thirty-seven years, dying in 1539.

Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk,
tomb, St. Mary's Church, Ewelme,
showing Order of the Garter
Fortunately for Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk, she did not live to see her grandsons' deaths. She died on 20 May 1475 and is buried in St. Mary's Church, Ewelme (Oxfordshire). Her tomb effigy shows her wearing the Order of the Garter on her wrist. 

Information about the remarkable Alice Chaucer is often found by scrounging in the biographies of men--Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry VI, her own husbands. Until now, there has been no biography of her, but one will soon be available: Michèle Schindler's What Is Better Than A Good Woman: Alice Chaucer, Commoner and Yorkist Matriarch will be published in July of this year.

I've linked to Marjorie Anderson's 1945 article, "Alice Chaucer and Her Husbands," above. 

There are also two excellent (but difficult to access) articles about Alice Chaucer as a book collector: Karen Jamback's “The Library of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk: A Fifteenth-Century Owner of a ‘Boke of le Citee de Dames’,” The Profane Arts of the Middle Ages 7, no. 2 (1998): 106-35; and Carol M. Meale, “Reading Women’s Culture in Fifteenth-Century England: The Case of Alice Chaucer,” in Mediaevalitas: Reading the Middle Ages, ed. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. 1996), 81-101. 

You may also want to check out Rachel M. Delman's "Gendered Viewing, Childbirth and Female Authority in the Residence of Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk, at Ewelme, Oxfordshire" (click here). This essay not only provides an unusual account of Alice Chaucer's preparations for the birth of a grandchild, it also includes a great deal of information about the books she owned. (And since it's online, it's more accessible than the two articles I've noted above.)

As for me, I came upon the name of Alice Chaucer in Lauren Johnson's The Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI, from which I have quoted, above.