Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London sometime between 1340 and 1344 to John Chaucer and Agnes Copton. John Chaucer was an affluent wine merchant and deputy to the king's butler. Through his father’s connections, Geoffrey held several positions early in his life, serving as a noblewoman’s page, a courtier, a diplomat, a civil servant, and a collector of scrap metal. His early life and education were not strictly documented although it can be surmised from his works that he could read French, Latin, and Italian.
In 1359, Chaucer joined the English army’s invasion of France during the Hundred Years’ War and was taken prisoner; King Edward III of England paid his ransom in 1360. In 1366, Chaucer married Philipa de Roet, who was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s wife. In 1367, Chaucer was given a life pension by the king, and began traveling abroad on diplomatic missions. During trips to Italy in 1372 and 1378, he discovered the works of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch—each of which greatly influenced Chaucer’s own literary endeavors.
Chaucer’s early work is heavily influenced by love poetry of the French tradition, including the Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370) and Saint Cecilia (c. 1373), later used as the “Second Nun’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer was named Controller of Customs on wools, skins, and hides for the port of London in 1374, and continued in this post for twelve years. Around that time, Chaucer's period of Italian influence began, which includes transitional works such as Anelida and Arcite (c. 1379), Parlement of Foules (c. 1382), and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). Chaucer established residence in Kent, where he was elected a justice of the peace and a member of Parliament in 1386. His wife died the following year.
His period of artistic maturity is considered to begin at this time, marked by the writing of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, which Chaucer continued to work on for many years—most likely until his death in 1400. Considered a cultural touchstone, if not the very wellspring of literature in the English language, Chaucer’s tales gather twenty-nine archetypes of late-medieval English society and present them with insight and humor.
Now considered the “Father of English literature,” Chaucer wrote in the English vernacular while court poetry was still being written in Anglo-Norman or Latin. The decasyllabic couplet Chaucer used for most of the Canterbury Tales later evolved into the heroic couplet, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry in English. Chaucer is also credited with pioneering the regular use of iambic pentameter.
As the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “The Poet” in 1844: “...the rich poets, such as Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Raphael, have obviously no limits to their works, except the limits of their lifetime, and resemble a mirror carried through the street, ready to render an image of every created thing.”
Until less than a year before his death, Chaucer remained Clerk of Works of the Palace of Westminster. He leased a tenement in the garden of the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey. After his death, he was buried at the entrance to the chapel of St. Benedict, in the South Transept. In 1556, a monument was erected in Chaucer’s honor. When the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser died in 1599 and was buried nearby, the tradition of the “Poets’ Corner” in the Abbey began. Since then, more than thirty poets and writers are buried there—including Robert Browning, John Dryden, Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson, and Rudyard Kipling—and more than fifty others are memorialized.
Chaucer died on October 25, 1400.