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Chaucer’s Tudor family: the case of the vanishing monarchs

Chaucer’s Tudor family: the case of the vanishing monarchs

The workes of … Geffrey Chaucer,  newly printed. To … the former impression, … is now added. … the treatise … Iacke Vpland, … and … La priere de nostre dame, …

London :  Printed by Adam Islip,  1602.

Canterbury Cathedral Library W/N-6-25 (STC  5080)

A recent collaborative seminar between the University of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives and the Cathedral Library on Geoffrey Chaucer brought together facsimiles of Chaucer’s manuscripts, held in the University collections, and printed editions of Chaucer’s works held in the Cathedral Library. One of these editions was the 1602 ‘The works of Geoffrey Chaucer’, edited by Thomas Speght (d. 1621), an earlier version of which had appeared in 1598. Interestingly, Speght included a table of ‘hard words’ with their meanings, demonstrating that even 200 years after Chaucer’s death the English language had changed significantly. It is clear that these, and other, 16th century publications of Chaucer were a key factor in ensuring the longevity of the poet’s work. Chaucer is still revered today as a bastion of English literature.

The frontispiece for the 1602 edition (which appears in some 1598 editions, notably STC 5078; Huntingdon Library) was created by John Speed (1552-1629); some editions of this frontispiece bear his initials on the lower right hand side of the image, alongside the illustration of Thomas Chaucer’s tomb. Although Speed is perhaps better known today as a cartographer he considered himself a historian and both his focus upon evidence and meticulous research show commendable integrity. His works include History of Great Britain with an accompanying volume of maps (The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine). He also worked on the Authorised Version of the Bible, and enjoyed the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I.

It has long been considered that this famous portrait of Chaucer originated in Thomas Hoccleve’s (1367-1426) De Regimine Principis, dedicated to Henry V. Speght himself acknowledged the source, and yet recently there has been conjecture that the image may in fact have been derived from a late 16th century manuscript in the British Museum (Additional 5141). However, that Speght wished this image to be associated with Hoccleve may be significant: Hoccleve probably knew and was certainly influenced by Chaucer himself. While it is generally agreed by scholars (and apparently Hoccleve himself) that this poet’s work is inferior to Chaucer’s, Hoccleve was a key figure in the continuation of Chaucer’s own innovations in English poetry.

The emphasis upon the image of Chaucer in this frontispiece may, however, be a strikingly Tudor development. Since the Reformation, unacceptable illustrations of saints had been steadily replaced by figures from the Old Testament, then allegorical and classical figures. In the reign of the staunchly Protestant Edward, there appears to have been an increase in the iconography of regalia and the person of the monarch, aptly demonstrated in the Great Bible, the frontispiece of which shows Henry VIII as the central figure handing down the word of God to his people. In this sense, Chaucer’s portrait similarly becomes a figure for veneration, particularly associated with English pride and nationality.

In this respect, the genealogies surrounding Chaucer’s portrait in Speed’s engraving shed new light onto the importance of the poet’s origins. Speed frequently provided genealogies for the contextualisation of his topic; for example his work on the progeny of Adam and Eve and the genealogy of Jacob produced in the 1610 Bible printed by Andrew Hart in Edinburgh. In addition, he created a somewhat monumental genealogy of the Tribes of Britain in his 1650 The History of Great Britaine. The genealogies in Chaucer’s Works emphasise that, as well as being the founder of a dynasty, Chaucer’s links with the royal family made him part of the majesty of royal devotion and the new Protestant tradition of honouring the monarch.

However, while significant interest and research has been dedicated to Chaucer’s genealogy, the line of royal descent depicted here is also interesting. At the head, Chaucer’s relationship by marriage to John of Gaunt is emphasised, centring his links with the royal house. Both the Beaufort and royal lines are then traced: two king Henrys are noted; Henry IV and his wife, then Henry VII, son of Margaret Beaufort. Yet the two other Henrys, Henry V and VI, are noticeably lacking from this genealogy. Perhaps the case for not including Henry VI can be simply answered: while a king, his ineffectual monarchy presaged the brutal period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. In addition, Speed was anxious to link Chaucer with the contemporary royal house: the Tudors. Available space may also have been an issue in the decision to cull Henry VI and the resultant monarchs from the line. However, the displacement of Henry V, arguably one of the best known English monarchs, is less easy to account for. The space on the page cannot be the defining motive as Henry V’s younger brothers, John of Bedford and Humphrey of Gloucester, are clearly in evidence. Indeed, the siting of Henry IV, without any of his siblings represented, offers a clear solution to the lack of space. So it seems, after all, that the decision not to include Henry V was a deliberate one.

H.O-4-25 Chaucer genealogyHoccleve, the earlier poet whom Speght seemed to want to identify his version with, was closely linked to the royal court of Henry V and his father. Specifically, he enjoyed the patronage of Humphrey of Gloucester: this may offer a reason for Gloucester’s inclusion in the tree. In addition, Hoccleve wrote poems in praise of Bedford, yet he specifically dedicated De Regimine Principis to the young Henry V. Perhaps, towards the end of the 16th century, association with royal patrons was acceptable, but association with the person of the monarchs whose descendants had opposed the rise of York was less prudent.

An earlier edition of Chaucer, the 1561 ‘Workes’, (with links to John Lydgate, another beneficiary of patronage from Henry V and Humphrey of Gloucester) includes a splendid title page depicting a family ‘tree’ of Henry VII, tracing his descent through both York and Lancaster lines, via his father Henry VII and mother Elizabeth of York. Interestingly, the Cathedral Library’s 1598 edition of Speght’s work also includes this image. Here, there is no attempt to dismiss the complex family relationships which combined to make the Tudor dynasty. Here, just like the Great Bible, Henry VIII is placed at the summit of the page, the apogee of Tudor achievement. The difference, of course, between 1561 and 1602 (and perhaps, arguably, 1598) was the growing realisation that the House of Tudor was coming to an end. By 1602, just a year before the death of Queen Elizabeth I, it was clear that there would be no direct heirs to Henry VIII. Perhaps, then, it was unwise to include in print the various offshoots and branches which led to other potential heirs to the throne, and risk a slide into a new civil war which had doubtless left its mark upon the nation and the cultural memory.

In the event, we now know that the transition to the House of Stuart, via James I, Henry VII’s great-great-grandson, in 1603 was relatively bloodless. But perhaps this small anomaly in Speed’s splendid frontispiece to the 1602 edition of Chaucer’s Works is a timely reminder that history is not a closed book, and that we should appreciate that Speed and his contemporaries had no more certainty of what lay ahead than we do of 2015.

Jane Gallagher (Senior Special Collections Assistant, University of Kent)

Further reading:

  • Pablo Alvarez, Collection Highlight: The workes of…Geffrey Chaucer (https://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=236), accessed December 2014
  • Martha W. Driver, ‘Mapping Chaucer: John Speed and the Later Portraits’, The Chaucer Review (v. 36, 2), November 2002
  • Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640, (Cambridge, 1991)
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