Who Murdered Chaucer?
Who Murdered Chaucer? – A Medieval Mystery
By Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor
Geoffrey Chaucer, poet and most importantly one of the earliest literary stars of the English language, was the author of The Canterbury Tales – a celebrated collection of verse pieces which have provided an incredibly rich source of historical information about the types of people inhabiting the Middle Ages. Many of us studied Chaucer at school, and I am afraid, that by dint of either my own shallowness or via unenthusiastic teaching, I was not a big fan at the time– the early English language was quite challenging I seem to remember – he remains however a major influence upon our Western canon. Like much of the history taught at school, a great deal of important information and context was omitted, thus denuding what could have been a powerful lesson about real life. You see, Chaucer seems to have been disappeared, in the same way, that more recently, people in South American countries have been disappeared by forces within their governments.
I don’t know if it is merely that the majority of people who study history and literature are averse to making waves, or that it is something else entirely, but we seem to get a dry, unquestioning version of history being passed down in our educational institutions. I know here in Australia, teaching was always the profession of choice for the less academically gifted and the ones who didn’t really know what they wanted to do at university. Perhaps the title of this essay should really be, Who Murdered History? As one of the primary integral qualities for teaching must be passion, if a teacher’s communication is not imbued with enthusiasm and real care for the topic, then who is going to listen to him or her?
Geoffrey Chaucer was a poet and scholar in the court of the English king, Richard the second, at the close of the fourteenth century. Now if you are at all familiar with medieval history, or Shakespeare, you will know that Richard II has a seriously sullied reputation as the fey, spoilt, generally unloved king, who was usurped by a far more deserving Henry IV. Here however, is a great example of the fact that history is written by the victor, and the disappointing thing in this circumstance is that in this case, it has been unquestionably accepted by historians down the centuries. I personally came across Richard II as an acting student, when I was doing my NIDA audition – I studied Shakespeare’s play of the same name and chose an audition piece, of Richard expressing his outrage and righteous indignation at being deposed. The whole experience made a lasting impression upon me and I found it very interesting to revisit this piece of history. Terry Jones and his co-authors make it abundantly clear, that Richard was not the despot history and Shakespeare made him out to be, citing chronicled evidence to the contrary. More importantly they show that these chronicles, kept by the religious orders within their abbeys (Westminster, Kirkstall), had been doctored and amended once Henry IV had taken the throne.
Richard II had ascended the throne at the age of ten, and so you can imagine the difficulties he had in establishing his authority as he grew into the role, with overweening advisors and power hungry barons all around him. Terry Jones posits, that far from being a weak and corrupt king, Richard was in fact a king who was at the forefront of new royal practises. He suggests that Richard was creating a uniquely English court, and that Chaucer, with his wonderful wielding of the newly flourishing English language(in contrast to Latin and French), was a big part of that. Richard resisted supporting the maintenance of the military campaigns in France, that his father, the Black Prince, and grandfather Edward III and his forebears had campaigned so vigorously at. Indeed he wished for a peaceful reign and copped a great deal of flak from the more warlord like dukes around him. Similarly today in the United States, great chunks of their industrial wealth is based on armaments and technologies of war, and Presidents are lobbied to support these activities to maintain the economy (Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush in Iraq). Likewise, several of the barons around Richard, depended upon constant military actions for their upkeep and any threat to this was viewed with great resistance, especially by Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard’s uncle and the youngest son of Edward III. Often this military action was portrayed, especially to the poor, as courageous and brave behaviour to be admired in a man and a leader; manipulations utilising cultural assumptions that still exist today. So Richard reigned during a precarious time and his behaviour actually challenged the status quo, in ways, which we would now admire in our modern more peaceful world.
Terry Jones and co-authors make clear that Richard II, once he had taken personal control over the realm in 1389, made the pursuit of peace with France a priority. They cite the influence of Giles of Rome, the Italian theologian and philosopher, in Richard’s education, as a setter of kingly aspirations in the direction of peace. They also suggest that Richard may have been a more intellectual king than his predecessors, and one who fostered and encouraged men of letters; like Chaucer and his contemporaries. Jones makes a good argument for Richard’s court being one of new ideas and creativity; and in a cultural ferment with the recently flourishing English language at its centre.
‘Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,’
Quod oure Hooste, ‘for thou makest me
So wery of they verray lewednesse
That, also wisly God my soule blesse,
Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche.
Now swich a rym the devel I biteche!
This may wel be rym doggerel,’ quod he.
The Canterbury Tales, VII, II. 919-25
‘No more of this, for God’s dignity,’
Swore our Host, ‘for you make me
So weary of your total unlearnedness
That, just as God will bless my soul,
My ears are aching with your dreadful speech.
Now such a rhyme I’ll teach the devil!
This may well be doggerel rhyme, ‘ said he.
It is interesting to read the early English employed by Chaucer and in particular the spellings of the words – I found it threw new light and understanding about certain words and their origins. The piece above by Chaucer, is in the persona of the character Harry Bailey, and highlights the author’s opinions of the travelling minstrels, who were the traditional courtly entertainers before the advent of the poet/authors. A modern parallel for this evolution in courtly tastes would be the difference between the singer/songwriters of the sixties (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and the vocalists or cover bands of the previous decade , who did popular renditions of standards. So Richard II was a new type of ruler and under him there flowered a new language, new expressions and new ideas.
In the book Who Murdered Chaucer? the authors describe the effect this change had on those with vested interests in how things were, and the Roman Catholic Church was one organisation who had deeply rooted and very valuable vested interests in medieval England. The powerful leaders of the Church were busy protecting their own authority against forces for change, like John Wyclif, an Oxford theologian who translated the Bible into English and was against many of the commercial aspects of the Church. Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, eventually aligned the Church establishment in its reactionary crushing of all dissent and introduced the practise of burning heretics at the stake into England. Terry Jones and co-authors produce evidence, that it was the recently exiled Archbishop Arundel who joined forced with Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, another recently exiled by Richard II, to topple the young king and place Henry on the throne. Together they travelled from Europe back to England illegally, and became irresistible forces of conservatism, appealing to the barons and bishops who had been dismayed and offended by Richard’s new methods and associations. Richard II had been surrounding himself with men of ideas and letters, who were not necessarily from the aristocratic classes, and promoting these men of middle class into positions of power. This is suggested as one reason for the relatively quick and successful usurpation by Henry, as he and Arundel were able to unite the anti-Richard forces together and bring down the king.
Chaucer, and his literary cohorts, had under Richard II been able to express a number of quite radical ideas in their work, ideas about the role of the Church and State. There are many Wyclifian concepts within Chaucer’s work, and in particular in the mouths of certain characters, who inhabit The Canterbury Tales. The Poor Parson truly embodies Christ like behaviours in his holy thoughts and good works, and these sit in direct contrast to the avaristic exemplars of what Jones calls the ‘Church Commercial.’ Chaucer parodies other Church representatives, like Friar Huberd in The General Prologue and the character of the Summoner in The Summoner’s Tale, conveying the well known corruption within the Church, being practised by these ecclesiastical officers. The selling of relics to the general public, pieces of the holy cross which crucified Jesus and a myriad of other bogus bits of rubbish, was rife throughout Christendom. In addition to this, people were encouraged to purchase prayers, and if they did not go on a pilgrimage they were expected to donate the dollar value of the journey to the Church in compensation. The Church collected taxes from everyone in the form of tithes, which could be 10% of their income or more. Basically the Church was a vehicle for the systematic abuse and exploitation of the population. It was run by the disinherited children of the aristocracy, the sons who were not first born, and became their private fiefdoms – many bishops were ordained at the ages of twelve and fifteen. You had the irony of the Church being run by completely irreligious people, who were more akin to our corporate CEO’s today.
Archbishop Thomas Arundel, was like a Rupert Murdoch of the Church Commercial, conspiring to prevent the radical forces of change from interrupting the control exerted by the Church and the flow of revenue coming to it. Chaucer could be seen as a literary lion, who expounded with humour and style the lie of the land, and told those who would listen, what was really going on. During Richard’s reign this was permissible and Terry Jones would say perhaps even encouraged, but upon Henry IV taking over, it was now an entirely different universe. The rules had changed and it was unfortunate for Chaucer that he had a written body of work out there, which could act as evidence of his heretical beliefs. Like many usurpers Henry IV was insecure, especially just after murdering an anointed king in Richard II, and he looked to secure his newly stolen throne by a policy of containment and suppression. Apart from the evidence of his sending out a directive to all chroniclers, that he wished to witness what they had written, an unspoken message that said you better write nice things about me and my new rulership of the realm or else, there was also a spate of mob executions of most of Richard’s friends and allies. Henry IV, with the help of the master strategist Arundel, was able to eradicate much of his opposition without directly bloodying his hands. The last known record of Chaucer, was that he had in the year 1400, just taken out a 53 year lease on a house in the garden of Lady Chapel, in Westminster Abbey. Westminster was a sanctuary of the Church, which meant that theoretically it was a place you could go and not be touched by forces of the State, but in practise it did not stop determined agents riding in and dispatching whoever they were really after. Westminster became known as a place where people who were still loyal to Richard II gathered, and indeed the Abbey itself, was implicated in a plot to overthrow the new king and this was discovered by Henry IV not long after the usurpation; and there were deadly ramifications for some of those involved. So it was a time of secrets and suspicions, a bit like East Berlin during the cold war, and those writers and liberals who had flourished in Richard’s court were under the microscope of Archbishop Arundel and Henry IV.
John Gower, a Chaucer contemporary, managed to rewrite sections of his Confessio Amantis, swapping praise of Richard II to Henry of Lancaster, and this rewriting of history to support Henry IV’s new regime was so successful that it was used by later historians to justify the Lancastrian view of English history. This was one example among many of the exorcising of Richard II from histories warm embrace and his consignment into no-speak and ignominy. Thus we have had six centuries of misinformation and unfounded slander upon Richard II and his reign. This book and its detailed referencing of available records and evidence, really showed me how easily history can be re-edited by those who control the information and records. If we do not ask the question and are not prepared to dig a bit deeper then we will never know the truth.
There is no clear and incontrovertible evidence that Chaucer was murdered by agents on behalf of Arundel or Henry IV, but there is a long list of unexplainable facts.
- Why did Chaucer the literary star of his day just disappear?
- Why did he leave no Will, when he was a meticulous public servant?
- Why was no monument built to him?
- Why do none of his own copies of his work survive today?
- Why is his death eulogised as a tragedy by other poets?
It seems as if Geoffrey Chaucer, England’s most esteemed poet and public servant, just dropped off the face of the Earth. It is the very lack of recorded information about his death, which points to something decidedly suspicious having occurred and the likelihood that he may have died in Archbishop Arundel’s prison; like many other perceived heretics of the time. Arundel used the uncertainty of the times to eradicate enemies of the Church at home and managed through the threat of burning heretics at the stake to get many dissenting voices within the Church to recant and retract their statements. William Sawtre was the first man burnt at the stake in this new England, this religious police state. Sir Lewis Clifford, one of Chaucer’s oldest friends and one of the Church’s most outspoken critics , was persuaded to recant under the new regime and to bow before the unholy spectre of an agonising death amid the flames. Chaucer’s fellow poet John Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury, was ripped to pieces by the mob at Cirencester in the wake of an abortive revolt in 1400. This was a very scary time to be alive, if you held to an alternative view about Henry IV’s right to be on the throne and the nature of Church and State.
Nobody knows exactly when Chaucer died, whether it was the year 1400 or 1402, various biographers down the ages have drawn on misinformation and then compounded that by using that as mistaken sources for factual information. Like a few journalists today, I suppose these biographers thought why spoil a good story just because there are no concrete facts about the ending. Most commonly Chaucer is depicted as gently dying of old age, in a state of contentment at his own home, of course there is no evidence for this and a whole lot of holes in the story – what happened to his substantial library (books were very rare and valuable in 1400) and his own copies of his body of work? Why didn’t an old man, well versed in the law as a respected public servant in the employ of a king, leave a Will? Very strange indeed and highly unlikely. Who murdered Chaucer? The most likely candidates, Archbishop Arundel and Henry IV, have swept clean histories trail and left little trace, but the book concludes, that the glaring omissions of any recorded evidence regarding Chaucer’s final days and demise are highly suspicious, and considering that they quietly despatched Richard II with similarly no official announcement- it is, in detective speak, their MO modus operandi.