English poet, born in London between 1340 and 1345; died there, 25 October, 1400.
John Chaucer, a vintner and citizen of London, married Agnes, heiress of one Hamo de Copton, the city moneyer, and owned the house in Upper Thames Street, Dowgate Hill (a site covered now by the arrival platform of Cannon Street Station), where his son Geoffrey was born. That his birth was not in 1328, hitherto the accepted date, is fully proved (Furnivall in The Academy, 8 Dec., 1888, 12 Dec., 1887).
John Chaucer was connected with the Court, and once saw Flanders in the royal train. Geoffrey was educated well, but whether he was entered at either university remains unknown. He figures by name from the year 1357, presumably in the capacity of a page, in the household books of the Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Prince Lionel, third son of King Edward III (Bond in Fornightly Review, VI, 28 Aug., 1873). The lad followed this prince to France, serving through the final and futile Edwardian invasion, which ended in the Peace of Bretigny (1360), and was taken prisoner at "Retters", identified by unwary biographers as Retiers near Rennes, but by Skeat as Rethel near Reims, a place mentioned by Froissart in his account of this very campaign. Thence Chaucer was ransomed by the king, who, when the Lady Elizabeth died, took over her page and later (1367) pensioned him for life. Chaucer was married before 1374; probably the Philippa Chaucer named in the queen's grant of 1366 was then Geoffrey Chaucer's wife (Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer, I, 95-7). It seems clear that he could not have been happy in his marriage (Hales in Dict. Nat. Biog., X, 157). He had two sons and a daughter, if not other children. Gascoigne tells us that his contemporary, Thomas Chaucer was the poet's son. This statement, long discredited, is now fully endorsed by the best authorities (Hales in Athenaeum, 31 March, 1888; Skeat, ibid., 27 Jan.1900). Thomas Chaucer's mother was Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Paon or Payne de Roet Guienne king at arms. Roet had another daughter, Catherine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, who was for Gaunt's mistress and eventually his third wife. Thus Chaucer became the brother-in-law of the great duke, who from 1368 onwards had been his most powerful patron. Thomas Chaucer (b. about 1367; d. 1434), later of Woodstock and Ewelme, became chief butler to four sovereign, as well as Speaker of the House of Commons (in 1414). His sister Elizabeth (b.1365) at sixteen entered Barking Abbey as a novice, John of Gaunt providing fifty pounds as her religious dowry. Lewis Chaucer, the "litel sonne Lowys", for whom the "Astrolale" was written, is supposed to have died in childhood. From about his twenty-sixth year Chaucer was frequently employed on important diplomatic missions; the year 1372-3 marks the turning point of his literary life, for then he was sent to Italy; circumstances make it extremely probable that either in Florence or at Padua he made Petrarch's acquaintance (Lounsbury, Studies, I, 67-68). The young King Richard II granted Chaucer a second life pension. It is startling to find him, in 1380, concerned in a discreditable abduction (Athenaeum, 29 Nov., 1873; from the Close Roll of 3 of Richard II). He was made comptroller of the petty customs of the port of London and complains of the burden of official life in "The House of Fame" (lines 652-60); and it would appear from the prologue the "Legend of Good Women", and through the influence of the new queen, Anne of Bohemia, he was enabled by1385 to sucure a permanent deputy. At this time he gave up housekeeping in Aldgate, and settled in the country, presumably at Greenwich, where he had a garden and arbour. The intrigues of the partisans of the king's uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, involved Chaucer's fortunes in partial ruin. The grants made to Philippa, his wife ceased in 1387, so that we may suppose she was then dead; during the springs of 1388 Chaucer was obliged to sell two of his pensions; in 1390 he was twice in one day robbed of the king's money, but was excused from repaying it.