04 September, 2022

The Abduction of John Chaucer, 1324

The poet Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London around 1342/44 as the son of John Chaucer and Agnes Copton, and the Chaucers were a family of vintners and taverners in London and Ipswich. In 1324 during Edward II's reign, Geoffrey's then underage father John was abducted by his aunt, who tried to force him to marry her daughter, John's own cousin; here's a post about it. We know quite a bit about this event thanks in large part to Chaucer scholars, who over the decades have done brilliant work digging out every last reference to Geoffrey and his family in medieval documents. The King's Bench record of John Chaucer's abduction is printed in English translation in Life-Records of Chaucer, Parts I to IV (1900), pp. ix-x, 141-4, with more information in Calendar of Close Rolls 1330-33, pp. 90-91, 93-4, Letter-Books of London, vol. E, pp. 218-19, 226, 237, 239-40, and The National Archives SC 8/169/8432. This is a petition from Geoffrey Stace, one of John Chaucer's abductors (and in fact his uncle by marriage), which is also printed in the second volume of Rotuli Parliamentorum, p. 14, in the original Anglo-Norman.

This post might get really confusing, especially as some of the people involved had the same names, so here's a list of the important people:

Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet, b. c. 1342/44.
John Chaucer, b. c. 1309/12, Geoffrey's father.
Mary Chaucer, died before 1349, John's mother, Geoffrey's grandmother.
Robert Chaucer aka Robert Malyn or Robert of Ipswich or Robert of Dynyngton, d. c. 1315, Mary's second husband, John's father, Geoffrey's grandfather.
Richard Chaucer, d. 1349, Mary's third husband, John's stepfather, Geoffrey's step-grandfather.
Thomas Heyron, d. 1349, Mary's son from her first marriage, John Chaucer's older half-brother, Geoffrey Chaucer's uncle, Richard Chaucer's other stepson.
Agnes Westhale, formerly Malyn, Robert Chaucer/Malyn's sister and John Chaucer's aunt, resident in Ipswich.
Joan Westhale, Agnes's daughter from her first marriage to Walter Westhale, cousin and putative wife of John Chaucer.
Geoffrey Stace, Agnes Westhale's second husband, Joan Westhale's stepfather, John Chaucer's uncle.
Thomas Stace, a relative of Geoffrey Stace, either his father, brother or a son from a previous marriage.
Sir Geoffrey Scrope, 1285-1340, chief justice of the King's Bench.

Geoffrey Chaucer's paternal grandparents were Robert Chaucer, a vintner or taverner who moved from Ipswich to London and died before 29 October 1315, and Mary, who as a widow married Richard Chaucer. [1] Richard Chaucer was either a relative of Robert Chaucer or perhaps merely someone who confusingly shared his name, and to make it even more confusing, last names were often still very fluid in this era, and Geoffrey's grandfather Robert Chaucer was also sometimes called Robert Malyn, Robert of Ipswich, or Robert of Dynyngton. Richard Chaucer was the third husband of Robert's widow Mary; she had been married to another man named John Heyron (d. early 1300s) before she wed Robert Chaucer, the poet's grandfather, and had a son called Thomas Heyron or Heroun or Hayron or Heyroun, older half-brother of Geoffrey's father John Chaucer. Thomas's will of 7 April 1349 mentions 'John le Chaucer, my brother', and his and John's stepfather Richard Chaucer made his own will just five days later on 12 April 1349, which was Easter Sunday. [2] It seems highly likely that both men were victims of the Black Death, then raging in London, and Thomas had died in the five days between making his own will and being mentioned in his stepfather's: Richard left money for prayers to be said for the souls of his late wife Mary and her late son 'Thomas Heyroun'. John Chaucer, his wife Agnes Copton and their son Geoffrey Chaucer all survived the plague, and imagine how much poorer English literature would be if the child Geoffrey had been, like his uncle and step-grandfather, one of the untold tens of thousands of Londoners who succumbed (see the last chapter of my book London: A Fourteenth-Century City and Its People for more information on some of the many victims).

The date of birth of John Chaucer, son and heir of Robert Chaucer aka Robert Malyn, is uncertain. The King's Bench record of John's abduction says that he had reached the age of twelve by December 1324 when it took place, and furthermore that 'he is underage, to wit, under fourteen years' in the Hilary term of the King's Bench in Edward II's nineteenth regnal year, i.e. January to March 1326. A letter from Edward III dated 16 December 1330 (see below), however, states that John Chaucer is 'now of full age', and 'of full age' when applied to a male usually meant twenty-one, which would indicate that John was born before 16 December 1309. On the other hand, John's aunt and uncle who abducted him gave as their justification the fact that in Ipswich, the custom was that an heir was deemed 'of full age' at the end of his twelfth year. At any rate, John was still a young child when his father died in or before October 1315 and in his thirties when his son Geoffrey the poet was born sometime in the early 1340s. His mother's first husband John Heyron was still alive in 1302, and Mary married Robert Chaucer/Malyn in or before January 1305. [3] John Chaucer was old enough to take part as a mounted man-at-arms with his half-brother Thomas Heyron in the disastrous Scottish campaign of the summer of 1327, when the young Edward III came close to being captured by Scottish forces, and was one of the men named as taking part in an attack and robbery on the abbot of Bury St Edmunds at the abbot's manor of Chevington, 30 miles from Ipswich, on 17 October 1328. [4] This might imply that John was in his late teens rather than about fifteen or sixteen in 1327/28, but who knows.

After his father Robert's death, John Chaucer was in the custody of his mother Mary and her third husband Richard Chaucer, not simply because she was his mother but in accordance with the medieval custom that, if possible, an underage heir should be given into the care of his nearest blood relative to whom his inheritance could not descend after his death. John had an aunt called Agnes, or Anneis(e) as contemporary records spell her name, the sister of Robert Chaucer/Malyn. Unlike her brother, who moved to London, Agnes remained in their native Ipswich ('Gippewiz' in fourteenth-century spelling), and married firstly Walter ('Wautier') Westhale or Westhall and secondly Geoffrey ('Geffrei') Stace. Agnes and Walter had a daughter called Joan ('Johane') Westhale, first cousin of John ('Johan') Chaucer. Basically, the abduction was to do with a tavern and property in and around Ipswich which was John Chaucer's inheritance, and his aunt's wish to keep it in the family.

Agnes argued that as her nephew John had reached (or passed) the age of twelve, was able to 'reckon and measure' and was therefore sui juris, i.e. was of legal capacity to act on his own behalf, he ought not to be in anyone's wardship. She and her associates - her second husband Geoffrey Stace, a man named Thomas Stace, and a servant called Lawrence Geffreyesman Stace - abducted John during the night of Monday 3 December 1324 ('the Monday next before St Nicholas, 18 Edward II'), from Mary and Richard Chaucer's home. This was located in the London ward of Cordwainer Street, probably on Watling Street. John Chaucer's abduction is described in contemporary records as a 'ravishment', ravis(s)ement in medieval French; the verb ravir meant to seize or take by force, and was used by Lord Berkeley in the summer of 1327 when the former king Edward II was temporarily removed from his custody by the Dunheved gang. Originally it was believed that Agnes and Geoffrey Stace had forcibly married John Chaucer to Agnes's daughter Joan Westhale, John's cousin, though later it was shown that they had not (qils avoient ravi le dit heire mes ne mie mariee). Thomas Stace must have been a relative of Geoffrey Stace, perhaps his father, brother or son, and I found several references to a Thomas Stace from Ipswich who appears on record between 1296 and 1317. Geoffrey Stace was named as the son of Thomas Stace in 1317, so possibly the Thomas Stace who aided the abduction of John Chaucer in 1324 was Geoffrey's father, though Geoffrey might have had a brother or son with the same name. [5]

At some point, John Chaucer was restored to his mother and stepfather, though I don't know when, or whether he was taken to Ipswich in December 1324 by his aunt and uncle, or what became of his cousin and putative wife Joan Westhale. As is so often the case, the records that we have raise more questions than they answer, and the whole intriguing situation remains rather murky. If John Chaucer had married his cousin Joan Westhale, he wouldn't have been able to marry Agnes Copton a few years later unless Joan died in the meantime, and Geoffrey Chaucer would never have been born.  I haven't been able to discover a single thing about Joan Westhale except for this case. Marriage between first cousins was most unusual in the fourteenth century, and would certainly have required a papal dispensation for consanguinity.

One thing we do know is that Mary and Richard Chaucer asked for damages of £300 and were awarded £250, a massive sum in an age when £5 was a normal yearly income. Geoffrey Stace sent a petition to the king in the late 1320s or 1330, complaining that the lands of John Chaucer's inheritance were only worth £1 per year and that therefore £250 was an ureasonably excessive amount. Incidentally, the Second Statute of Westminster in 1285 set the punishment for abducting a child (whether male or female) whose marriage belonged to someone else at two years' imprisonment, as long as the person restored the child still unmarried, or paid what the marriage was worth. Otherwise, the punishment was either life imprisonment or abjuration of the realm, i.e. permanent exile from England. [6] It was taken very seriously. John's stepfather and guardian Richard Chaucer, and John's older half-brother Thomas Heyron, apparently exacted revenge on Geoffrey Stace and Agnes after the abduction. They travelled from London to Ipswich, a distance of about 70 miles, and stole goods worth £40 from Agnes Westhale/Stace's house, or so the indignant Agnes claimed in 1325. [7] John Chaucer was around twelve or fifteen in 1324/25, and his Heyron half-brother, given that his father died sometime around 1303/04, must have been in his early twenties or older. There is much evidence that the two half-brothers were very close and often acted together.

On 16 December 1330, eighteen-year-old Edward III - who had recently taken control of his own kingdom from his mother Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer - sent a letter to Sir Geoffrey Scrope, one of the chief justices of the King's Bench and ancestor of the Scropes of Masham (Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham, executed by Henry V in 1415 after the Southampton Plot and mentioned by Shakespeare in his play about Henry, was Sir Geoffrey Scrope's great-grandson). The letter, stating that John Chaucer was now 'of full age', is printed in the Calendar of Close Rolls 1330-33, pp. 90-91, and was almost certainly a response to Geoffrey Stace's petition. Geoffrey Stace had been detained in the Marshalsea prison in London because of his 'trespass against the king's peace', as well as being held liable for the massive sum of £250, and Edward ordered his release. The Letter-Books of London (vol. E, pp. 218-19, 226, 237, 239-40) show that several inquisitions were held in the city in 1328, one of which was to determine whether Geoffrey Stace, his relative Thomas Stace and his servant Lawrence had committed perjury, and the whole thing dragged on for several years, as often happened in medieval court cases (and the delay in this one was worsened by the dramatic events of 1326/27 when Edward II was forced to abdicate in favour of his son). The 16th of December 1330 was six years and thirteen days after John Chaucer's abduction had taken place.

A few years after his abduction by his aunt and uncle, John Chaucer married Agnes Copton, and they became the parents of Geoffrey Chaucer. I wonder if it's a coincidence that Geoffrey bore the same name as his father's uncle Geoffrey Stace, or if the latter was his great-nephew's godfather and John Chaucer was doing his best to bury the hatchet. Geoffrey Stace was still alive in February 1344, and Geoffrey Chaucer had probably been born by then. [8]

Below, part of a petition sent by Geoffrey Stace, to which Edward III responded in December 1330, and in the second pic, part of the petition printed in Rotuli Parliamentorum.


1) Calendar of Close Rolls 1313-18, p. 318.
2) Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, vol. 1, pp. 544, 590. Thomas Heyron's will of 1349 does not mention any children, so he appears to have been the last of the line.
3) Vincent B. Redstone and Lilian J. Redstone, 'The Heyrons of London: A Study in the Social Origins of Geoffrey Chaucer', Speculum, 12 (1937), p. 185.
4)  'The Heyrons of London', pp. 186-9; Calendar of Select Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, vol. 1, 1323-1364, p. 73 note 14. At this stage of his life, John was often identified as 'John Chaucer, brother of Thomas Heyron'.
5) CCR 1313-18, pp. 271, 289, 483; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1317-21, p. 689; Catalogue of Ancient Deeds, vol. 2, nos. A3586, A3638
6) Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, pp. 88-9.
7) 'Heyrons of London', pp. 185-6.
8) CCR 1343-46, pp. 107, 347.

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