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Who Murdered Chaucer?

Who Murdered Chaucer?

by Terry Jones, Robert F. Yeager, Robert F. Yeager, Terry Doran, Alan Fletcher
In this spectacular work of historical speculation Terry Jones investigates the mystery surrounding the death of Geoffrey Chaucer over 600 years ago. A diplomat and brother-in-law to John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, Chaucer was celebrated as his country's finest living poet, rhetorician and scholar: the preeminent intellectual of his


In this spectacular work of historical speculation Terry Jones investigates the mystery surrounding the death of Geoffrey Chaucer over 600 years ago. A diplomat and brother-in-law to John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, Chaucer was celebrated as his country's finest living poet, rhetorician and scholar: the preeminent intellectual of his time. And yet nothing is known of his death. In 1400 his name simply disappears from the record. We don't know how he died, where or when; there is no official confirmation of his death and no chronicle mentions it; no notice of his funeral or burial. He left no will and there's nothing to tell us what happened to his estate. He didn't even leave any manuscripts. How could this be? What if he was murdered?

Terry Jones' hypothesis is the introduction to a reading of Chaucer's writings as evidence that might be held against him, interwoven with a portrait of one of the most turbulent periods in English history, its politics and its personalities.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Who Murdered Chaucer? lays its cards on the table right off. In the first sentence of the introduction the authors admit that "this book is less of a Whodunnit? than a Wasitdunnatall?" In other words, the murder referred to in the title may very well not have occurred, which makes this hefty, beautifully illustrated volume a very long shaggy-dog story.
— The New York Times
Library Journal
Claiming that this work is more a "wasitdunnatall" than a whodunnit, former Monty Python member Jones and his coauthors (all professors specializing in medieval English literature) offer a well-researched argument that Chaucer may not have died peacefully. While Chaucer thrived during the reign of Richard II, who was a patron of the arts and tolerant of religious dissent, the authors suggest that under Henry IV, who usurped the throne from Richard, Chaucer became a marked man. Thomas Arundel, the tyrannical Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry IV, is considered the main suspect in Chaucer's possible murder. The authors use works by Chaucer and his contemporaries to substantiate many intriguing hypotheses. Although this work succeeds in planting a seed of doubt about the circumstances surrounding Chaucer's demise, the evidence produced is not overwhelmingly convincing. Recommended with reservations for academic and larger public libraries.-Erica Swenson Danowitz, American Univ. Lib., Washington, DC Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

Who Murdered Chaucer?

By Terry Jones Robert Yeager Terry Dolan Alan Fletcher Juliette Dor


Copyright © 2003 Terry Jones, Terry Dolan, Juliette Dor Alan Fletcher and Robert E. Yeager
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-312-33587-3

Chapter One

The court that Chaucer lived in

* * *


In 1401-2, a young Frenchman who had been a squire in the retinue of Richard II, and therefore well placed to observe matters of the court, recorded his opinion about Richard's downfall in 1399: 'In truth,' wrote Jean Creton, 'the only reason why he was deposed and betrayed, was because he loyally loved his father-in-law the king of France with a love as true and sincere as any man alive. That was the root of the problem, and the cause of the envy - although they charged him with having evilly caused the deaths of the dukes his uncles, and of being neither prudent nor wise enough to govern the realm.'

What Richard actually thought about his French father-in-law is anybody's guess, but what is certain is that he had married the 7-year-old Isabel for the clear purpose of consolidating the peace between their two countries. It was a peace for which Richard had been working most of his reign.

In fact, the pursuit of peace is one of the most remarkable and yet least celebrated characteristics of Richard's rule. It may also have been, as thesquire Jean Creton hinted, his undoing.

Richard's father, the Black Prince, had been a famous warrior, who from the day of his birth had 'cherished no thought but loyalty, nobleness, valour, and goodness, and was endued with prowess'. He was 'the most valiant prince in all the world ... since the time of Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, or Arthur'. The words are those of the Black Prince's chief eulogist: an anonymous herald in the retinue of Sir John Chandos, but they pretty much echoed the popular view of the prince. It was a daunting reputation for his son to live up to. It seems that Richard didn't try. Like so many sons with a famous father, he chose - or was drawn to - an alternative lifestyle, and, as king, he tried to establish a different ethos at court.

The court of the Black Prince at Bordeaux had been permanently geared for war. So had the court of Richard's grandfather, Edward III. Both had been characterized by military games and chivalric culture. 'Prowess' (or military skill) seems to have been a determining factor in the status of their courtiers, and jousts were essential to the training of knights for war.

Richard II, on the other hand, seems to have had no relish for war per se. He certainly encouraged the arts of chivalry and took an interest in tournaments and pageantry. Indeed, on the continent he was hailed as a representative of chivalry not only by Jean Creton, but as well by the chronicler of St Denys and that most impressive of medieval blue-stockings, Christine de Pisan, who even went so far as to call him 'a true Lancelot':

A chevalier wearing a crown In a place near the sea ... Willingly he was praised For being valiant, a true Lancelot ...

Of course, these may have been no more than conventional pieties; references to royal jousting in Richard's reign are far fewer than in his grandfather's, and it may be that he saw chivalry as a political tool, and not as an end in itself. Richard's interest in chivalric activities may well have been simply another aspect of his cultivation of the craft of kingship. Knights undoubtedly had to be encouraged in their knightly pursuits; to have done otherwise would have been folly for the prudent ruler. Chivalry was the fashion - it had become the standard mode of communication for the modern European court. 'Courts in every part of the continent became more formal, and more formally organized. Ambitious rulers presented themselves as patrons of letters and exemplars of chivalry and courtesy.'

Besides, the pageantry and glamour of the tournament provided a ready-made opportunity for staging displays of power which could only help assert the central role of the crown.

But, when the chips were down, Richard's was a civilian court, and tournaments were seen as an alternative to war not a prelude. As far as we know, Richard never jousted personally, and he appears to have had a genuine distaste for the spilling of Christian blood. From the moment Richard took over personal control of the government in 1389, the pursuit of peace with France became a priority.

On a theoretical level, this shouldn't have come as a shock. Peace was seen by many influential thinkers of the day as an ideal of kingship and the desire for peace as the mark of a just ruler.

For example, the Italian theologian and philosopher Giles of Rome (1245-1316) taught that a true king desires peace and is not tempted to conquest. We know that Richard's education included the works of Giles - and Giles was not alone in his opinion. He was supported by Dante, and the writings of other Italian political theorists such as Marsilius of Padua, who was Rector of the University of Paris from 1312 to 1313. Chaucer, too, notes that it is the mark of a tyrant to delight in war and that it is always preferable to pursue policies of peace.

The peace policy most probably expressed Richard's own inclination. It could, however, also have been the brainchild of his advisers, like Sir Simon Burley, or of John of Gaunt, who 'had the insight, rare among Englishmen of the time, to favor a realistic settlement with France'. In any case, peace with France remained the objective of royal policy until the end of Richard's reign.

This was a quite extraordinary achievement, and it should not be surprising if it made Richard enemies.


England had been at war with its neighbour almost continuously since 1337, and for many the habit was hard to break. As one historian writes: 'Gaunt and others close to Richard may well have shared his pacifist concerns but the country as a whole may have found it hard to abandon attitudes and expectations which had developed over two generations.' The chronicler Froissart tells us that the king's policy of peace towards France did not make him popular at home.

There were at least three members of the nobility who did not share Richard's 'pacifist concerns': his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. These three were the constant thorn in Richard's side throughout his minority and indeed throughout most of his rule. In 1398, writing to the Emperor Manuel Palaeologus, Richard complained of 'their rebellion and wantonness' and of the public humiliation he had been forced to endure at their hands for so long:

You know, what I believe is notorious enough throughout all quarters of the world, how some of our subject magnates and nobles, while we were yet of tender age and afterwards also, have made many attempts on the prerogative and royal right of our regal state, and have wickedly directed their malevolence even against our person.

Gloucester had many pressing reasons why he wished to remain at war with France, and none of them were to do with the good of the country as a whole. As the seventh and youngest son of Edward III, he suffered from that terrible, though familiar, debility - a lack of means. There he was: of royal blood and yet without the property or income to support himself in the manner in which he wished to become accustomed. When his father died in 1377, Thomas, as Earl of Buckingham, was left no territorial endowment. The only lands he possessed were those of his wife. At his nephew's coronation, he had been raised to the estate of earl and granted an annuity of £1,000 per year, but this annuity was to prove a trifle elusive. 'To a degree exceptional for a royal duke, Gloucester was dependent for his income on exchequer goodwill; and when the exchequer was hard pressed for cash ... so too was the Duke.'

In fact, the war with France was Gloucester's chief and brightest hope, not only for increasing his wealth but also for increasing his influence generally. As a military leader he could offer the gentry opportunities for fame, glory and profit in battle - but only while there was a war to be fought. Without war, his 'affinity' (or circle of influence) could not expand.

His two confederates, the Earls of Warwick and Arundel, were also hawks opposed to the doves of Richard's court. As soon as these three seized power, in 1387, they threw out peace as a policy-objective, and reinstated the war. Arundel mobilized an expedition and public money was once again poured into the devastation of France.

There were also other magnates who would have felt the pinch of peace. Peace with France brought in its wake a truce with Scotland, and this meant a reduction in the £3,000 a year that the Percy family received for keeping watch over the East March. It is no wonder that the head of that family - the Earl of Northumberland - spoke out in support of the Lords Appellant (the name conveniently given by historians to the revolting barons of 1387) when they arrived in London.

Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick's opposition to Richard - or, rather, their antagonism to Richard - was thus based upon a strong difference of policy. But there was also something more to it - something more personal. As with the hawks versus doves arguments of today, the differences of policy went hand-in-hand with a hearty distaste for each other's lifestyles.

Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick were pretty rough customers - they were the 'embittered older generation of the nobility'. Gloucester was highly literate but he was also a 'rough, ruthless, and self-confident man' who 'had been a prominent enemy of the court from the first, and had brutally threatened his nephew, the king, in 1386 with the fate of Edward II ... Richard, Earl of Arundel, was if anything coarser and more ruthless. His life is punctuated with violent quarrels.' Judging by his behaviour, as reported in the chronicles, Arundel had an aggressive streak a mile wide. He was also someone who knew how to nurse a hatred. Warwick seems to have been a rather tetchy, vigorous man, and perhaps not overbright.

They were men who revelled in military society, and they must have been pretty contemptuous of the new-style court of the 1380s. As Richard grew to maturity he showed increasing signs of refinement and sensitivity and his court 'assumes a rather precious, even effete, character'. It is the court of Venus rather than of Bellona, comments the hawkish chronicler Thomas Walsingham, with evident disgust.

The magnates were also ambitious and ruthless, 1387 was nothing less than an armed rebellion. The triumvirate of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick, joined for the occasion by Henry of Derby (the future usurper) and others, imposed their will on Richard and promoted their own relatives and friends. According to one chronicle, it was only the fact that Gloucester and Henry of Derby squabbled amongst themselves about who was to take over as king that saved Richard from being deposed in 1387.

Of course the rebellious barons' complaints against the government of the realm, as recorded by the chroniclers, concentrate on the presence of evil counsellors surrounding the king, but this is scarcely surprising. To attack the king himself would have been treason. To attack the king's advisers was a convenient fiction - a way of side-stepping the main charge of treason whilst maintaining the pretence of loyalty to the crown: 'We're doing this for your own good, sire!'

And they showed no mercy.

In the aptly named Merciless Parliament of 1388, Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick ruthlessly eliminated Richard's associates. Perhaps most shameful - and hardest to understand - was the execution of the king's old tutor, Sir Simon Burley. Passions certainly ran high on the subject. The Westminster Chronicler describes how Gloucester nearly came to blows with his brother, the Duke of York, on the floor of parliament. York rose in full parliament offering to defend Sir Simon Burley in personal combat if need be, whereupon Gloucester retorted that he would prove Burley had been false in his allegiance 'with his own sword-arm and without multiplying arguments. At this the Duke of York turned white with anger and told his brother to his face that he was a liar, only to receive a prompt retort in kind from the Duke of Gloucester; and after this exchange they would have hurled themselves upon each other had not the king with characteristic mildness and good-will, been quick to calm them down.'

Even when the king himself and the queen went down on their bended knees to beg for mercy for the old man, Gloucester showed his ultimate remorselessness and refused to listen. Burley was beheaded despite all protest - perhaps an indication that he was seen as either the architect of the peace process or else as a disseminator of dangerous ideas.

It's scarcely surprising that Richard didn't get on with these bellicose barons. Their aims and tastes were poles apart. Richard simply 'was not "one of the lads" in a way that Edward I or Edward III had been, nor as Henry IV and Henry V were to be later ...' He was trying to change the English court from a war culture to a peace culture. This was, according to the Westminster chronicler, one of the chief reasons for the barons' rebellion:

In common with his council the king ... thought it better to secure a short breathing-space from the tumult of strife in that quarter than to be harassed by the unending troubles of war. Although it came to nothing, it was nevertheless this project (with other matters ...) that formed a reason for the lords' rising.

To offer men like Gloucester and Arundel tournaments with blunted weapons instead of real-life chevauchées into France was like asking Attila the Hun to settle down to a nice game of draughts and a cup of tea. Even the royal military expeditions that Richard did undertake had peace as their aim rather than the celebration of war.


Richard (or whoever was directing court policy at this time) was determined to have peace, but his (or their) reasons were not necessarily idealistic or pacifist. Peace made economic sense.

The coffers of England had been emptied by the continual war against the French. What is more, the returns from that war had been diminishing. In the early days, Edward III had hit the jackpot with great victories like Crécy, Calais and Poitiers. But as the years went by the exorbitant expense and the lack of anything to show for it had taken some of the gilt off the whole enterprise.

Possibly the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 helped to concentrate people's minds on the fact that since 1377 a staggering £250,000 had disappeared into the military coffers with precious little to show for it. A lot of it had gone to finance the exploits of Gloucester and John of Gaunt in the name of chivalry.


Excerpted from Who Murdered Chaucer? by Terry Jones Robert Yeager Terry Dolan Alan Fletcher Juliette Dor Copyright © 2003 by Terry Jones, Terry Dolan, Juliette Dor Alan Fletcher and Robert E. Yeager . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Terry Jones is the author of several acclaimed works on the Middle Ages including Chaucer's Knight, Crusades, and Medieval Lives, the basis for his popular PBS series. A former member of Monty Python, he lives in London.

Terry Dolan is Professor of English at University College, Dublin, and a lexicographer and broadcaster.

Juliette Dor is Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Liege.

Alan Fletcher is a lecturer in Medieval English Literature at University College, Dublin.

Robert F. Yeager teaches Old and Middle English literature at the University of West Florida.

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