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Who Murdered Geoffrey Chaucer? by Terry Jones (et al)
Methuen, ISBN: 0-413-75910-5
Inevitably, the first question must be: why would anyone want to do away with Geoffrey Chaucer (1340- c.1400), courtier, man-of-letters and sometime Clerk of the King's works?
Well, the poet certainly had enemies. Two, not even given a look-in in this self-styled 'medieval mystery', are the anonymous Franciscan friar whom Chaucer seems to have beaten up in Fleet street (and to have been fined two shillings for so doing). The other, unmentioned here - as well as in my childhood history lessons - was one Cecily Chaupaigne, who had, sometime prior to 1380, accused him of Raptus (which in the legalese of the time might mean either 'rape' or 'abduction'). It should in fairness be noted that she later, for reasons unknown, withdrew the charge. Additionally, Chaucer was mugged (three times!) in September 1390 and relieved of some £20 of his own and Richard Plantegenet's money.
Geoffrey Chaucer doesn't appear to have been expecting to die anytime soon when in the December of 1399 he took
out a 53 year lease on a house in Westminster. Though already an old man by medieval standards, this seems not to have stopped him making a Channel crossing early in 1400. Yet he must have known by then that the strong tide of court politics had started to turn against him. In February 1399 his brother-in-law, the influential John of Gaunt, had died unexpectedly. Later that same year Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke, supplanted Chaucer's patron, Richard II, before having him murdered in Pontefract castle. Even worse, Thomas, Archbishop Arundel (Bolingbroke's reactionary eminence grise) was determined
to stamp out any stain of Lollardy and Chaucer was tainted on several counts: by personal association; through his known criticism of the mendicant orders and the more worldly clergy; and by dint of his ridiculing the contemporary veneration of religious relics. Lastly, and most damning of all, Chaucer wrote in English, not Latin.
Archbishop Arundel gradually emerges as the prime suspect in this whodunnit and, indeed, would have lacked neither
the means, the motivation nor the personal asperity to 'rub out' the 'Father of Eng-lit'. If remembered at all today, it is as draconian censor, fervent pursuer of recusancy and as the man who oversaw the English adoption of the practice of burning heretics at the stake. The new sovereign was no shrinking-violet liberal either. When a Cambridgeman, John Sparrowhawk, was overheard complaining that it hadn't stopped raining since Bolingbroke ascended the throne, the latter had him hanged, drawn and beheaded: the first documented example of judicial execution by reason of the spoken word.
Terry Jones - best known as a Python and co-creator of the Monty Python films - and his team of four academic specialists, struggle manfully to convince the reader of their thesis. The book is popularist in style but meticulously marshalls its archival resources. There is ne'ery a head-banging monk nor a dung-festooned peasant to be glimpsed in the text. However, some cards are overplayed: the dearth of original Chaucerian manuscripts is ascribed to a Lancastrian purge but could equally be explained by the injurous passage of time. We have extant, for instance, just the one first edition of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (in its time more popular than the plays). And this was written close to two hundred years after, say, The Canterbury Tales. Similarly, Chaucer may not have died intestate as the authors suggest - all records of his Will may simply have been lost.
Geoffrey Chaucer was a notable, long-term affiliate of the House of Lancaster. In February 1396 (three years before he became king Henry IV) Bolingbroke gifted the poet an expensive scarlet robe trimmed with fur - hardly the act of an enemy. Soon after his succession, and in prompt response to The complaint of Chaucer to his purse, the new monarch confirmed his supplicant's grant from the previous reign - not that Chaucer lived long to enjoy it. After Geoffrey's - it must be admitted - rather abrupt and mysterious exit from recorded history (his 'traditional' date of death, October 25th, 1400, turns out to be a much later accretion) his son, Thomas, continued to enjoy royal favour. Sinecures such as Royal Chief Butler and, interestingly, ex officio Coroner to the city of London were to come his way. Finally, of course, the poet did get to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
How we moderns do love a consiracy theory. We know that skulduggery is in our nature (we have ample proof of this from our own experiences of office-politics, W.I. A.G.M.s and the like. We hope, usually fruitlessly, to uncover evidence of similar duplicity/venality/perfidy/general naughtiness in those wielding slightly more serious powers. We're destined regularly to be disappointed - conceivably because the powers-that-be have grown skilful at covering their own tracks. Sometimes, as here, all the relevant witnesses are long-dead. And occasionally, just occasionally, because the conspiracy which unfolds so plausibly never happened at all. Jones, whose long-standing interest in the period is clear (he published Chaucer's Knight, which debunked the generally received notions of chivalric gentilesse, as long ago as 1980) makes a well-informed and trenchant advocate. If ultimately he fails to furnish us, the jury, with photographic evidence of Archbishop Arundel holding a smoking gun, he must be left rueing the historical inconvenience which insists that both pistol and Pentax were yet to be invented.
Kevin Saving © 2008