n a Master's Orals I asked the candidate to discuss Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and Browning's "My Last Duchess." Behind my question also lay the memory of a dream-like church in the Cotswalds, Ewelme, where Chaucer's grand-daughter, the Countess of Salisbury and the Duchess of Suffolk, lies buried in an exquisite Gothic tomb worthy of a bishop's simony or of Browning's poetry. This essay will argue for 'Gothic' Chaucer, the Chaucer of the 'Sweet New Style'. Let us take these connections and see where they might lead us.

I: The Books of the Duchesses

haucer was born to a London vintner, who lived in a "fair and large" house there with carpets and embroidered bed hangings and silver dishes counted by the dozen and other articles of silver plate engraved with the family's arms.1 It is the type of setting William Morris could describe. Then, as a young page, Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the castles and palaces of John of Gaunt, who, by his marriage with the Duchess Blanche, had become Duke of Lancaster and who had already been Earl of Richmond. When the Duchess Blanche died, Chaucer wrote his first major poem, The Book of the Duchess, in which his elegy becomes, like the anonymous Pearl, paradoxically an epithalamium, where the craft and alchemy of poetry restores the dead to life. The text plays powerful games with clocks, stained glass windows, books, hunts and puns. Chaucer married Philippa, the daughter of Sir Paon de Ruet, whose other daughter was Catherine Swynford. Philippa Chaucer had first served as lady-in-waiting to Edward III's wife, Queen Philippa. Both Catherine and Philippa were most closely attached to the household of John of Gaunt, Catherine being the governess of the Duke's children by first Blanche and later Constance of Castille, and ultimately marrying the Duke herself. One of these children was to become Henry IV of England.2

When John of Gaunt married Chaucer's sister-in-law, Catherine de Ruet, it caused somewhat of a scandal at court. Froissart tells us both of the event - and of the courtiers' response to it:

Around that time the Duke of Lancaster entered into a third marriage with a lady who had been the daughter of a knight of Hainault called Sir Paon de Ruet, in his day one of the knights of good Queen Philippa of England, who had loved the Hainaulters because she was of their nation. This lady, whom the Duke of Lancaster now married, was called Catherine; in her youth she had been placed in the household of the Duke and Duchess Blanche of Lancaster. After Duchess Blanche had passed away and also Madam Constance of Castile, daughter of King Peter of Spain, whom the Duke of Lancaster married as his second wife and by whom he had that daughter who became Queen of Spain; when, then, this second Duchess Constance had died, the Duke of Lancaster had maintained this lady, Catherine de Ruet, who for her part had become married to an English knight. Both during and after the knight's lifetime, Duke John of Lancaster had always loved and maintained this lady Catherine, by whom he had three children, two sons and a daughter. The elder son was named John, otherwise Beaufort of Lancaster, and was a great favorite with his father. The other's name was Henry; his father the Duke sent him to the school at Oxford and made a great jurist of him. This learned man was later Bishop of Lincoln, which is the noblest and richest diocese in the whole of England. Out of love for his children, the Duke of Lancaster married their mother, Madam Catherine de Ruet, which caused much astonishment in France and England, for she was of humble birth compared to the other two ladies, Duchess Blanche and Duchess Constance, whom the Duke had had as his wives before her.

When the news of this marriage to Catherine de Ruet reached the great ladies of England, such as the Duchess of Gloucester, the Countess of Derby, the Countess of Arundel and other ladies with royal blood in their veins, they were surprised and shocked, considering it scandalous, and said: `The Duke of Lancaster has quite disgraced himself by marrying his concubine. And since she has got so far, it will mean that she will rank as the second lady in England when she comes.' They went on to say: `We will leave her to do the honours all by herself. We will not go to any place where she may be. It would really demean us too much if that kind of duchess, who comes of humble stock and was the Duke's concubine for a very long time, inside and outside his marriage, were to take precedence over us. Our hearts would burst with vexation, and rightly so.'

The two who had most to say about this were the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. They considered that the Duke of Lancaster had overstepped all bounds when he took his concubine to wife and said they would never recognize her marriage or call her lady or sister. The Duke of York soon got over it, for he was most often in the company of the King and his brother of Lancaster. The Duke of Gloucester was of different stuff, for he respected no one's opinions, although he was the youngest of all the brothers [the King's uncles]. He was inclined by nature to be proud and overbearing and he was always in dis-agreement at the King's councils, unless they went exactly as he liked.

This Catherine de Ruet remained Duchess of Lancaster the rest of her life. She was the second lady in England and elsewhere after the Queen and she had a perfect knowledge of court etiquette because she had been brought up in it continually since her youth. She loved the Duke of Lancaster and the children she had with him, and she showed it in life and in death.3

The Duchess's sister, Chaucer's wife, Philippa de Ruet, does not seem to have to have gained as much recognition among Chaucer's circle or among later Chaucer scholars, as had Catherine de Ruet. From Chaucer's own joking and clerical references to marriage we tend to envision her as more of an Alice of Bath. And, to examine those references, let us now turn to the figure of Chaucer's Arch-Wife.

II: Alice's Books and Tombs

haucer is that oxymoron, a misogynist feminist. He, like Chrêtien de Troyes and Andreas Capellanus, had to write for women patrons, first for Duchess Blanche, translating for her Deguileville's Pélèrinages' ABC, then for Queen Anne of Bohemia, wife to Richard II. She had been shocked by Troilus and Criseyde: so he wrote Legend of Good Women at her command. But he is also heir to all the misogyny conveyed in his Clerks of Oxenforde's books, whether carried on pilgrimage to Canterbury in black and red covers, or read to the Wife at home in Bath. Could, in that argument in the kitchen in Bath, be reflected Philippa de Ruet's own rage at Chaucer's lack of attention towards her when he is for ever pouring upon books? Certainly the Wife desires that her husbands be sexually attentive, tearing pages from and even burning their books, where they are not so. Elsewhere, I have argued that that scene in the kitchen in Bath comments upon the entirety of the Canterbury Tales as book, encoding within itself its own negative reader response, drawing the analogy to the same action performed by the red-garbed figure to the extreme left in the Florentine pilgrimage painting, the Via Veritatis in the Spanish Chapel, in Santa Maria Novella, painted with funds given in the time of plague.4

What is especially interesting is that Chaucer uses two styles, the high style for the court, a low style for the people. So also had Dante, who had spoken of the need to use the low, rather than the high, style.5 Similarly do we see in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry the use of both styles, giving us the cardboard and Gothic ceremoniousness of the aristocracy, and the detailed and Romanesque reality of the life of the peasants. Both the tenets of Christianity and of Boethius, and the greater box office of the Commons, dictate that the low style should be used in preference to the high. Besides, we see from the arguments of William J. Brandt, in The Shape of Medieval History, and in Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitious Fourteenth Century, that aristocrats, living in their world of stance, lacked rich personalities. They are clothes horses, not seemingly of flesh and blood. Enguerrand de Coucy in placed against the backdrop of a fascinating and rich tapestry, but he is himself one-dimensional. Chaucer, in order to write of his wife, safely downgrades her into the rank of the Commons. But in reality Chaucer's household is aristocratic and by no means middle class.

He even sarcastically jokes with his figure of the Wife not building an aristocrat's sarcophagus for her dead and bourgeois husband when she comes home from her Jerusalem pilgrimage.

He died whan I cam fro Jerusalem,
And lith ygrave under the roode beem,
Al is his tomb noght so curyus
As was the sepulcre of hym Daryus,
Which that Appelles wroghte subtilly;
It nys but wast to burye hym preciously
Let hym fare wel; God yeve his soule reste!
He is now in his grave and in his cheste.6    III.495-502
There are Chaucer scholars who believe Jankyn and Alice murdered her husband.7 Perhaps the tomb is verbally erected from guilt? Perhaps Chaucer believes that his wife would have liked to have murdered him? Certainly, both Chaucers, husband and wife, would have been likely to have known of similar murders taking place around them in the aristocracy. A most famous one in Gower and in Shakespeare is that in 1397 of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Froissart tells us of him:
He had conceived such a hatred for the King that he could find nothing to say in his favour. In spite of the fact that, with his brother, the Duke of Lancaster, he was the greatest man in England and ought to have taken a leading part in the government of the realm, he showed no interest in it. When the King sent for him, he went if it suited him, but more often he stayed away. If he did go, he was the last to arrive and the first to leave. As soon as he had given his opinion, he insisted on its being accepted without question, then took his leave immediately and mounted his horse to ride back to Pleshey, a place in Essex thirty miles from London where he owned a fine castle. It was there that he spent most of his time.
[He plots against King Richard II. The Earl of Salisbury gives him a manuscript of Brunetto Latino's Li Livres dou Tresor. Richard invites him away alone from Pleshy, and he is next taken to London, then Calais. His copy of Li Livres dou Tresor was similarly seized.]
When the Duke of Gloucester had been taken into the castle of Calais and found himself shut in there and deprived of his attendants, he began to feel very afraid. He said to the Lord Marshall: "Why have I been spirited out of England and brought here? You seem to be treating me as a prisoner . . . " "Sir," replied the Earl Marshall, ". . . My lord the King is a little displeased with you at the moment. He wishes you to stay here and put up with our company for a time. You will do that until I receive further instructions, which I hope will be soon. As for your own displeasure, I am very sorry about it and I wish I could relieve it. But I have my oath to the King, which I am bound in honour to obey."

That was all the Duke could get from him and concluding from other signs that he noticed one day, that his life was in danger, he asked a priest who had already sung mass for him to hear his confession. He confessed at some length, kneeling before the altar in a pious frame of mind, devout and contrite. He prayed and asked God's mercy for all the things he had done and repented of all his sins. It was indeed high time for him to purge his conscience, for death was even nearer to him than he thought.

According to my information, just at the hour when the tables were laid for dinner in the castle of Calais and he was about to wash his hands, four men rushed out from a room and, twisting a towel around his neck, pulled so hard on the two ends that he staggered to the floor. There they finished strangling him, closed his eyes and carried him, now dead, to a bed where they undressed his body. They placed him between two sheets, put a pillow under his head and covered him with fur mantles. Leaving the room, they went back into the hall, ready primed with their story, and said this: that the Duke had had an apoplectic fit while he was washing his hands and had been carried to his bed with great difficulty. This version was given out in the castle and the town. Some believed it, but others not.8

John Gower also writes of the event, calling the murdered Duke the "Swan" in his triadic animal allegory.9 During this period King Richard II's payments to Chaucer are in arrears and Chaucer is seriously in debt. When King Henry IV, John of Gaunt's son, accedes to the throne, all Chaucer's annuities are restored to him. Interestingly, Henry IV, while in exile as the Earl of Derby, had made many of the same pilgrimages as those of the Knight in the Canterbury Tales, which are shadowed in a woman's form by those of the Wife, in turn, modeled upon and parodying those of the powerful Saint Birgitta of Sweden.

But let us now turn to the real tombs of Chaucer's family. His own, of course, is in Westminster Abbey in the Poets' Corner. But it is not there because of his poetic creations of such figures as the Wife of Bath. He is buried there because he is brother-in-law to John of Gaunt and therefore related to the King. Chaucer's poetry can be low in style; his rank and that of his family is elite.

III: The Tomb of the Duchess Alice

n the Cotswalds a church was built when Alice Chaucer, granddaughter to Geoffrey Chaucer, married William de la Pole, first Duke of Suffolk. This church and the Manor of Ewelme were inherited by Alice Chaucer from her mother, Matilda Burghersh, who had married the poet's son, Thomas Chaucer. Both Thomas (1367-1434) and Matilda Chaucer (+1436) were buried here, side by side, in a chapel in honor of St. John, roofed by angels, with IHS (Jesus in Greek) covering the walls and with the families' arms upon the floor tiles, the figures of Thomas and Matilda being inscribed in brass, commemorating them. Coats of arms in the stained glass and on the tombs include those of John of Gaunt, whose third wife was Chaucer's wife's sister. Thynne's edition of Chaucer's Works notes:10
Thomas Chaucer, the last heire male of the Chaucers, and owner of Ewhelme and Donnington Castle, the inheritance of the Chaucers, lieth buried in a black marble tombe in a faire Chappell in the parish church of Ewhelme, in the south side of the Quier, with this Epitaph: Hic iacet Thomas Chaucer Armiger, quondam dominus istius villae, et patronus istius Ecclesiae, qui obiit 18, die mensis Novembr. anno Dom. 1434: & Matilda uxor eius, quae obiit 28 die mensis Aprilis anno Dom. 1436.

Thomas and Matilda Chaucer, Tomb Brasses, Ewelme

Their daughter, Alice Chaucer, born in 1404, had been affianced first to Sir John Philip (+1415), then she married Thomas Montague, Earl of Salisbury, who died in battle in France in 1428, and she lastly married William de la Pole, who, earlier had been defeated in battle by Joan of Arc, captured by the French, then ransomed, then, as Duke of Suffolk, had attained great power, ruling England with Margaret of Anjou during the incapacity of Henry VI, and was then treacherously beheaded in 1450.

Alice's son, John, the second Duke of Suffolk, at her death in 1475, placed in the church at Ewelme a most exquisite tomb to honor his mother. Sculpted out of alabaster it shows Alice in nun's garb,11 a ducal crown upon her head, the Garter upon her left fore-arm,12 her hands folded in prayer, while beneath her, again sculpted in alabaster, lies her cadaver in death, partly wrapped in its shroud, as a momento mori. Between the two figures a chest holds the actual remains of the Duchess. Painted on its underside are scenes that escaped the Reformation's iconoclasm, of the Annunciation to the Virgin by the Angel Gabriel, Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist.

Alice Chaucer, wimpled as a nun, with ducal coronet

Her cadavre sculpted in alabaster

The first edition of Chaucer's Works, edited by William Thynne and dedicated to King Henry VIII, also describes the Duchess's tomb:

This Alice wife of Duke William surviving her husband, was after buried in the parish church of Ewhelme, on the South side of the high altar, in a riche tombe of Alabaster, with an image in the habite of a Vowesse, and Duchesse crowned, lying on the same tombe: And another image under the tomb, so neare as it may be, like unto her at the time of her death, with this Epitaph: Orate pro anima serenissima principissae Aliciae Suffolkiae, huius Ecclesiae patrone, et primae fundatricis huius Eleemosinariae, quae obiit 10 die mensis Maii, anno Domini 1475.

The church is not built in Cotswald style but instead in the East Anglian style of the Duke's native Suffolk. It has flint walls, and, in St. John's Chapel, an exquisite angel ceiling, like that at Bury St. Edmunds. The font cover is an immensely tall (ten and a half feet), delicately sculptured Gothic pinnacle, so perfectly balanced that it can be raised and lowered with one finger, which was given to the church by John, Duke of Suffolk, at his mother's death.

Ewelme Baptismal Font

Connected with the church, built by the Suffolks' charity, are also a school and an almshouse, its rooms for thirteen pensioners built around a peaceable quadrangle down steps from the church, the school and the almshouse both still in use to this day, the school, founded in 1437, being the oldest church school in England using its original building. The Thynne edition describes Ewelme's church and charities:

This William and his wife translated and encreased the Manor place of Ewehelme, and builded there a parish Church, and an hospital called Godshouse, for two priests and thirteene poore men to be sustained for ever. One of the priests to be master of the Almes-house and Almespeople, them to instruct: the other Priest a Schoolmaster, freely to teach the children of the Tenants of the said Lordship their Grammar: and either of them to have .x. pounds by the yeere. One of the poore men to be called Minister to present the faults of the other to the Master, and to ring their common Bell to service, and to have sixteenepence the weeke, and the rest fourteene pence.
John, Duke of Suffolk, was to marry Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister to Edward IV and Richard III, the Yorkist kings. John and Elizabeth's three sons died supporting the Yorkist cause against the new Tudor monarchs, as did Elizabeth's father, Richard of York. Her daughter by the earlier marriage, Alice Montague, married Richard Nevill, their son Richard marrying Ann Beauchamp and becoming Earl of Warwick.13

IV: The Duchess's Chantry

The Duchess Alice was born four years after Chaucer's death. Nevertheless, it is perhaps significant that her father, Thomas Chaucer, appears to have had her be named after his father's fictional creation, his Alice of Bath. (We recall that James Joyce's grandson was named Stephen.) Yet two more different people can scarcely be imagined. Chaucer's Alice is bourgeois and lusty, not unlike the monastic wood-carved figures on misericords which reflect the grotesques of manuscript marginalia; Alice Chaucer is aristocratic and, after the deaths of three husbands, a widow vowed to chastity, a consecrated votary. To find Alice Chaucer's true counterpart we must return to the Book of the Duchess's Duchess, Blanche, first wife to John, Duke of Gaunt, Chaucer's patron, and to Queen Anne of Bohemia, first wife to King Richard II, both of whom were mourned and loved by all.

Chaucer built a chantry of words in his Canterbury Tales, asking that we, who read that text, pray for his soul. His grandaughter built a chantry where thirteen almsmen, to this day, pray for her soul, her son in turn having that request be sculpted as well upon her tomb.14 We are more likely to find copies of the Canterbury Tales, and heedlessly disparage its consummation, than we are to find the unique and sleepy Cotswalds village church; but, if and when we do stumble upon the latter, that chantry request will be heeded.


1Chaucer Life-Records, edited, Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966), p. 11.
2 Information on Philippa Chaucer for the years 1366-86 is to be found in Chaucer Life-Records, pp. 67-93.
3 Froissart, Chronicle, trans. Geoffrey Brereton (Harmonsdworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 418-420.
4 Julia Bolton Holloway, The Figure of the Pilgrim: A Study of Dante, Langland and Chaucer (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 250-253, Plate XVIIIa; Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth-Century (New York, 1951).
5 De vulgari eloquentia I.1; Letter to Can Grande.
6 While Dryden translated the Wife's Tale, it was left to Pope to do her Prologue, in which he changed Darius' tomb to Mausolus' at Rhodes: "A tomb, indeed, with fewer Sculptures grac'd, Than that Mausolus' Pious Widow plac'd, Or Where inshrine'd to Great Darius was" (lines 247-249): Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 69.
7 Beryl Rowland, "On the Timely Death of the Wife of Bath's Fourth Husband," Archiv, 209 (1973), 273-82; Dolores Palomo, "The Fate of the Wife of Bath's Bad Husbands," Chaucer Review, 9 (1975), 303-319.
8 Pp. 430-431. See also John Gower. Woodstock's son is Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who established the fine Humanist library at Oxford. When Woodstock died, Brunetto Latino's Li Livres dou Tresor, against tyranny, was in his possession; it had been given to him by William Montague, Earl of Salisbury. Manuscript today is in Duke Humfrey, Bodleian Library. Christine de Pizan's son would be page to Earl of Salisbury.
9 The Major Latin Works of John Gower: The Voice of One Crying and the Tripartite Chronicle, edited and translated, Eric W. Stocton (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962), p. 303. It is also possible that the same poison was administered to him as was used in the Nun's Priest's Tale, which brings about symptoms and death of and by suffocation.
10 The Workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers workes which were neuer in print before, etc. London: Thomas Godfray, 1532, ff. xiii-ccclxxxiii. [Ed. William Thynne, Preface, Sir Brian Tuke.]
11 The dress of medieval consecrated widows and nuns were one and the same, nuns being Christ's widows, vowed to chastity and in mourning for him. The ceremony for the Consecration of Widows is described in Edward L. Cutts, Scenes and Characters from the Middle Ages (London: Virtue, 1902), pp. 21-22.120-194.
12 Alice was given permission to wear the insignia of the Garter, "at the ensuing Feast of S. George, 1432." Queen Victoria sent to Ewelme to find out how ladies ought to wear the Garter and followed the example upon Alice Chaucer's tomb.
13 Guide to St. Mary's Church, Ewelme, and the Almshouse and the School (Abingdon, Oxford, n.d.); Peter Renshaw, A Guide to the Memorials and Brasses of Ewelme Church (n.p.: 1987); Chaucer's Works, ed. Thynne; Bodleian Library, Oxford, catalogue entry: "Deposit. Deeds. Ewelme, Conspectus of MSS Deposited Deeds Ewelme with Bodleian shelfmarks."
14 For a bourgeois version of such a chantry, such as the Wife of Bath might have tried to build, see Anthony Luttrell, "Englishwomen as Pilgrims to Jerusalem: Isolda Parewastell, 1365," in Equally in God's Image: Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Julia Bolton Holloway, Joan Bechtold, Constance S. Wright (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), pp. 184-197.

Go to:

Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri
I Bankers and Their Books: Italian Manuscripts in French Exile
II Brown Ink, Red Blood: Brunetto Latino and the Sicilian Vespers
III The Vita Nuova's Pilgrimage Paradigms
IV Stealing Hercules' Club: Inferno XXV's Metamorphoses  

Geoffrey Chaucer
V Black and Red Letter Chaucer
VI Fact and Fiction: Women in Love
VII Convents, Courts and Colleges
VIII The Tomb of the Duchess Alice

Terence, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer
IX God's Plenty: Terence in Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare Newest

Epilogue: Attica State Prison, Boethius the Exile, Dante the Pilgrim

This is a Chapter from the Book, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, created, 1993; 'Sweet New Style' e-book Website created, Pentecost 2003-10


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