John O'Gaunt and Chaucer

John of Gaunt is perhaps best known today for his association with the poet Geoffrey Chaucer who is sometimes known as "the Father of English Poetry". This year (2001) is the 600th anniversary of the death of Chaucer, so you might have heard some incomprehensible bleating on Radio 4 as your cultural wallahs on the wireless set attempt to read his works in the original Middle English of the 14th Century.

John of Gaunt probably met the young Geoff Chaucer when Geoff had the job of a page boy in the court of Lionel, who was John of Gaunt's elder brother (and Edward III's second son after the Black Prince). Chaucer was the son of a vintner and as you might expect, vintners had quite a few connections in high places especially as the wine trade was really on the up, what with all this acquisition of big chunks of France all ready laid out with prime vineyards.

One interesting period when the paths of Geoffrey Chaucer and John of Gaunt might have been closely intertwined was the very time (1366) we are interested in. Chaucer, as an accomplished linguist, could well have been involved in the diplomacy connected with the campaign in Spain as he was granted a safe conduct to go on a diplomatic mission to the king of Navarre in 1366.

Diplomacy was an important aspect of Warfare in those days, for as long as you backed up your negotiations with an impressive show of force, you might be able to win more at the conference table than you ever could on the battlefield. Chaucer evidently knew Latin and Italian and it is not such a great step from there, for someone who has a way with words to master a bit of Spanish too as the three languages are of course very closely related to one another.

King Charles of Navarre had been involved with English soldiery on numerous earlier occasions as he was actually one of those "dogs" I mentioned earlier who were trying to take great bites out and indeed dismember the kingdom of France.

Chaucer's earliest major work was an elegy to John of Gaunt's first wife, Blanche, duchess of Lancaster. It was called "The Book of the Duchess". Not exactly a very original title, but succinct. At the end of the poem John of Gaunt the original "man in black" is called a "king" in reference to his claim to the throne of Castile.

Chaucer wrote a little bit about Pedro the Cruel in "The Monk's Tale". As you might imagine it gives a sympathetic view of Pedro, since Pedro's eldest daughter, Constance was John of Gaunt's second missus.

Another work in which Chaucer mentions Spain "The House of Fame", is also interesting in relation to our topic. In one passage (starts lines 1233) Chaucer describes the sort of pageantry which could be witnessed at these international gatherings. He mentions "pipers of the Dutch tonge" dances of "reyes" which would appear to be a round dance of Spanish origin ("reyes" =s "kings" in Spanish) and trumpeters from Spain. Chaucer himself may have been a witness to the pageantry in celebration of the victory at Najera which featured all these elements.

You will note the fusion of English, Flemish and Spanish elements here. Pageantry in the 14C, and indeed from the time of the Crusades right up to the 17C, was an important element of diplomacy.

NOW the BIG LINK between John of Gaunt and Geoffrey Chaucer is that in 1366, Chaucer was married to Philippa, the sister of Katherine Roet (later Swynford) who was John of Gaunt's mistress for many a year.

There is a creeping suspicion, well I have it anyway, that given John of Gaunt's reputation for fornication, it is a distinct possibility that "the randy prince" liked to tumble about with both sisters at the same time and that Chaucer's supposed son, Thomas was not the product of the poet's loins but was actually the son of John of Gaunt. The main evidence for this supposition is in the coat of arms that Thomas Chaucer was granted. It strangely does not feature any of the symbols of the Geoffrey Chaucer family coat of arms.

Next: John O'Gaunt's failures in Spain