The Lives and Times of the Chaucers… Part Two   Leave a comment

The Earls and Dukes of Suffolk and the later Chaucers

003 (2)The Earldom of Suffolk was first created in 1336 for Robert de Ufford, a great landowner in the east of the county and, of course, a close attendant of the king, but the Ufford line failed after only two generations and, in 1385, the title was revived for Michael de la Pole. Despite their name, the de la Poles were not soldier-landowners of Norman stock; they were merchants from Hull, originally named Poole, who had added the French prefix in order to become landowners. They rose to prominence by lending money to Edward III. Michael’s father had bought land in Suffolk and married his son into the great local family of Wingfield. Michael won the confidence of the ten-year old Richard II and used his position to extend and consolidate his Suffolk estates. At Wingfield he built an impressive, new, fortified manor house (see above). Still standing, it is the oldest castle in England to have been continuously occupied to this day. However, in 1387 he was hounded out of office by jealous rivals and had to flee to France disguised as a peasant. His son waited eight years to succeed to the title and then held it only for five weeks, before perishing during Henry V’s Agincourt campaign of 1415. The de la Poles were part of the small army which seized Harfleur, but the elder Earl died of dysentery a few days later. His son, the third Earl, then became one of the few English aristocrats to be killed at the Battle of Agincourt. His cadaver was returned for burial at Wingfield.

The lands and dignities of Suffolk now passed to the third Earl’s nineteen-year-old brother, William. As fourth Earl, he played a leading part in the power struggle which broke out at the accession of the infant Henry VI.

William became constable of Wallingford Castle in 1434. In 1437 the Duke constructed the God’s House at Ewelme, a reminder of the de la Pole’s Catholic devotions. William married Thomas Chaucer’s only daughter Alice, by whom she had a son John in 1442 (who became 2nd Duke of Suffolk in 1463). Alice could be both ruthless and acquisitive in pursuit of her son’s inheritance. She was a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Anjou in 1445, and a patron of the arts.

William worked his way into a position of almost supreme power,  bringing about a marriage between the King and Margaret of Anjou, whom many believed to be his mistress, and dominating the pious, weak-minded Henry. His only strong opponent was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He removed that obstacle in 1447 by summoning a parliament to meet at Bury St Edmunds, a town which the Earl could easily pack with his own supporters. When Gloucester arrived he was arrested and confined to his lodgings. The following morning the Duke was found dead. Lands, offices and tithes were now de la Pole’s for the taking, and he became the first Duke of Suffolk in the following year.

William was steward of the household to Henry VI, and from 1447 to 1450 was the dominant force in the council and chief minister to the king; as such he was particularly associated with the unpopular royal policies whose failures culminated in the anti-court protest and political violence of Cade’s Revolt in 1450. Drunk with power, de la Pole had pursued his own policies, accrued further wealth, harassed his enemies and was quite open in his contempt for public opinion, which was running strongly against him. He was accused of usurping royal power, committing adultery with the Queen, murdering Gloucester, despoiling men of their possessions, giving away lands in France and plotting to put his own son on the throne.

By 1450 Suffolk’s opponents were strong enough to force him to stand trial and William was impeached by the Commons in parliament, but Henry VI intervened to exile his favourite rather than have him tried by the Lords. Instead, he was banished for five years. Dissatisfied with this, his enemies had him followed to Calais. On his way across the Channel his vessel was intercepted by The Nicholas of the Tower whose crew subjected him to a mock trial, after which the Duke’s head was hacked off by an inexpert sailor with a rusty sword and his body was thrown overboard, a scene made even more gruesome by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II, in which the bard also makes fun of the name of the great family. William’s remains were recovered from a beach at Dover, and Alice had her husband buried at the Carthusian Priory in Hull, founded in 1377 by his grandfather, Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk.

After William was killed, his properties including the castle and Honour of Wallingford and St Valery passed to Alice. She lent the Crown 3500 Marks and the king spared the fate of attainder of title. She survived many challenges to her position, including a state trial in 1451. Whilst Alice had benefited from Lancastrian connections, she switched to supporting the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. In 1455 she was custodian of the Duke of Exeter at Wallingford Castle. After her husband’s death, Alice had become even more ruthless and took back many of her friend’s Margaret Paston’s manors in Norfolk, with dubious title deeds. The Pastons now grew to loathe the Yorkist family, notorious for their corruption. William’s heir, John, was the greatest landowner in Suffolk and Norfolk and kept an army of retainers to enforce his will. The Paston family were among those who fell foul of the second Duke on more than one occasion. In 1465 de la Pole sent men to destroy the Pastons’ house at Hellesdon. Margaret Paston reported the incident to her husband:

There cometh much people daily to wonder thereupon, both of Norwich and of other places, and they speak shamefully thereof. The duke had better than a thousand pounds that it had never been done; and ye have the more good will of the people that it is so foully done.

024The second Duke of Suffolk could afford to upset farmers, merchants and peasants. He was married to Elizabeth, the sister of King Edward IV (right). His mother, Alice, remained castellan at Wallingford until at least 1471 and possibly until her death in 1475. In 1472 she became custodian of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron. A wealthy landowner, Alice de la Pole held land in 22 counties, and was a patron to poet John Lydgate, no doubt playing a role in having his poetry printed by William Caxton, along with her grandfather’s works.

005 (2)At a time when unscrupulous men like the Dukes of Suffolk held sway and when feuding, rustling and brigandage were common, householders had to take greater care in protecting their families and property. Given the turmoil of the Wars of The Roses, it is therefore not surprising that, by their end in 1487, with the defeat and death of the second Duke of Suffolk’s son, also John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln, at Stoke Field, there were over five hundred moated houses throughout Suffolk alone. At the upper end were stone fortresses like Framlingham and Wingfield, but a great many were timber-framed farmhouses of quite modest proportions, like Gifford Hall, Wickhambrook (left). The majority were probably built on traditional defensive positions occupied almost continuously since Saxon times. As well as providing security they had a good, well-drained base, important for building in clayland areas. Solid and functional to begin with, they are now picturesque gems and probably the most typically Suffolk items in the county’s architectural treasury. These include Parham Moat Hall and Little Wenham Hall, England’s oldest brick-built house.

The Wool Trade


027The dynastic struggle which engaged the energies of the nobility had little to do with the real history of Suffolk, and indeed that of much of southern England. However, warfare did provide the catalyst for the rapid industrialisation of these parts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Edward III’s reign, the government realised that the flourishing trade in wool with the continent could be used to raise money to fund its wars with France as well as an economic weapon in them. It levied swinging taxes on markets and customs duties on ports. The results were dramatic: English merchants quickly turned to more profitable trade and foreign merchants sought more valuable markets. Wool exports, standing at 45,000 sacks in 1350, were halved in thirty years and continued to decline.

010In some wool-producing areas the result was catastrophic, but in Suffolk it was the opposite. The decline in the trade in cheap wool brought about a decline in the Flemish textile industry and the migration of weavers from their depressed homeland. Many of them made use of their contacts in Suffolk and settled there, where the drop in wool exports and cloth imports was already invigorating the local cloth industry. The county not only had sufficient sheep to produce the quantities of wool required, but it also had the skilled labour and the trading network. It also acquired the technical expertise of the Flemish master craftsmen and weavers. Within a generation Suffolk, Essex and parts of Wessex had taken over as Europe’s principal exporters of fine cloth.

Suffolk became a boom area, with insignificant market towns and villages, like Lavenham, being put on the map. Ipswich and Sudbury became busy, populous towns. Over the county as a whole average wealth increased fourfold in the century after 1350. In the centres of the new industry the growth of personal prosperity was much more marked. Lavenham’s assessment for taxation in this period increased eighteen-fold. The annual export of cloths increased throughout the fifteenth century. However, industrial growth was not steady and there were setbacks.

The intermittent upheavals of the Wars of the Roses created difficulties. The Earl of Oxford and the Duke of Norfolk were leading figures in the conflict and this meant that the East Anglian tenants of these great landowners were regularly pressed into fighting for either Lancaster or York. But the real history of the region during this period was being woven on the looms of Lavenham, Clare and Sudbury.

Church-builders, Martyrs, Pilgrims and Puritans

023The evidence for much of this wealth is still to be seen in the merchants’ half-timbered town houses and guildhalls and, above all, in Suffolk’s magnificent wool churches. The lynchpins of the cloth trade were the entrepreneurs, the clothiers, men like Thomas Spryng of Lavenham whose tomb is in the church to which he contributed so heavily, so that it became the finest church in the county. Carved on its south porch, and repeated many times throughout the building, are the boar and molet, the heraldic devices of the de Vere family. They remind us that the rebuilding of this magnificent church was begun as a thanksgiving for the victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was Henry’s captain-general and largely responsible for the successful outcome of the battle. When the earl returned shortly afterwards to his manor of Lavenham he suggested to the great clothiers and other leading worthies that a splendid new church would be an adequate expression of gratitude for the new dynasty and era of peace it was ushering in. The shrewd merchant community may well have been sceptical about this. For half a century Yorkist and Lancastrian forces had chased each other in and out of power. There was little reason to suppose that the latest victor would not, in his turn, be removed from his throne. Two years later, a rebellion led by Richard’s nephew, another John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, almost succeeded in doing just that.

053Besides Lavenham, there are also many less well-known, but very fine examples of churches begun in the fifteenth century, the building of which was financed by rich merchants. St Mary’s Woolpit was built on the site of a Saxon church given to St Edmund’s Abbey by Ulfcytel, Earl of East Anglia. The first Norman abbot had the timber church pulled down and a new church built. By the thirteenth century, Woolpit had many well-to-do farmers and prosperous merchants who were organised into two guilds. They collected and distributed alms, caring for the poor and needy, and supervised the upkeep of the church fabric. Early in the fourteenth century the guilds, the patron and the rector agreed that Woolpit needed a new church. Preserving little but the foundations of the Norman building, they rebuilt in the prevailing Decorated style using Barnack stone from Leicestershire and Suffolk oak for the roofs and doors. They added side aisles, partly to accommodate two chantry chapels. In the Mary Chapel, the statue of the virgin became a famous object of devotion, attracting pilgrims from a wide area. The decoration of the new church was completed with a profusion of stained glass, and a variety of wall paintings covering almost every free surface.

001In the fifteenth century, the parishioners, perhaps spurred on by the Perpendicular splendours of nearby Rattlesden, subscribed to extensive alterations in the latest style. They installed a magnificently intricate rood screen and loft, surmounted by a carved canopy, which is still in place. This meant raising the height of the nave which now gained a clerestory and a new roof. The superb double hammer beams with their angels were well illuminated by new windows and originally glowed with poly-chromatic splendour. The north aisle was rebuilt at the same time and, to add the finishing touches to the new church, a beautiful south porch was added with statues of Henry VI and his queen above the doorway.





DSC09849The parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Woodbridge was begun in about 1400 when Woodbridge was an extremely prosperous port. It rises high on a hill overlooking the town, close to the old market place, with its group of medieval houses. The church suffered desecrations at the time of the Reformation and in the Civil Wars, but the beauty of the original fine craftsmanship can still be viewed. It has an impressive tower which is lavishly patterned in flushwork flint and stone and stands 108 feet high. It was completed in about 1453 when perpendicular architecture was at its zenith.The parapet is considered to be one of the finest in Suffolk. The eight bells inside the tower were originally hung on a massive timber frame with louvred windows, which deflected the sound down over the town.

The magnificent porch was begun in 1455 with a bequest by Richard Gooding and donations by other rich townspeople. Inside, there are fine traceried panels and emblems from the period. In the baptistery there are fourteen preserved panels of the fifteenth century rood screen, which originally comprised as many as thirty-four panels, stretching the entire width of the church.

DSC09854The growth of trade, especially in woolen cloth, the building of stone castles, moated manor houses and magnificent churches, have all shaped the townscapes of much of central and southern England. The growth of important centres of pilgrimage also contributed to the concentration of population in towns and, as had been proved in the case of Bury St Edmunds in the first part of the thirteenth century, it was now impossible for feudal law and custom to apply in urban communities proudly seeking their independence from powerful magnates, be they temporal or spiritual, and no matter how good or bad they seemed.

021002It was not one of the ancient shrines that brought pilgrims from all over Christendom to England, but the drama of the quarrel between Henry II and his former friend and Chancellor, Thomas á Becket, which culminated in Becket’s murder in his own cathedral at Canterbury. It was the starting point for other tales of the performance of many miracles in his name, or by his spiritual intervention. These led on to the canonisation of the martyr. The story of their quarrel and of Becket’s death is full of contradictions and mysteries, belonging to the period of the re-establishment of order after the anarchy of the civil war between supporters of Stephen and those of Matilda, in which Becket was one of Henry’s chief aides. Part of this new order was the founding of an English legal system, the split between the two men coming over whether a cleric committing a crime should be tried in a civil court, or whether he could only be held to account by an ecclesiastical court, with its milder forms of correction, as Becket demanded. This conflict, as at Bury St Edmunds, was one which regularly played itself out in real life. For many then, as now, it seemed that no man, not even a king, could place himself above the law of the land, but in pre-Reformation England, clerics and nuns were set aside through the rites of ordination from their lay brothers and sisters. They were sacramentally different, owing their chief allegiance to the Catholic Church, which alone had the power to judge them. Although this was a mid-twelfth century quarrel, it was one which was not settled four another four centuries, after it had claimed the lives of many more martyrs on both sides.

 003In 1174, four years after Becket’s murder, in the year of Henry II’s penance at Canterbury, a great fire destroyed the choir of the cathedral which had been built by Prior Conrad earlier in the century. Rebuilding started almost immediately and in 1220 the choir was finished, the body of the saint being transferred from the crypt to its new home in a great ceremony in the presence of King Henry III. There it became a treasury of gold and precious stones donated by kings, emperors and nobles. The approach to the high altar and the shrine was by means of a series of steps up from the old Norman nave. In the fourteenth century this was made more magnificent by the rebuilding of the nave and the redesigning of the transepts. With its huge aisle windows flooding the interior with light and its immensely high vaulting, Yevele’s nave is one of the masterworks of the later Gothic in England.

DSC09542The final addition, that of the central tower, Bell Harry, was begun in 1496. By this time, generations of pilgrims had made their ways, by various means, from Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester, Farnham, Sandwich and, of course, from London, taking the route of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, down the Roman road known as Watling Street. The pilgrims would travel together for companionship, for safety, and out of a spirit of common devotion. Other holy places and hostelries (left) en route provided rest and consolation for them on their journeys. Those coming from Southampton would travel via Winchester where the shrine of the Saxon saint, Swithin, had been restored in the thirteenth-century retrochoir within the Norman cathedral. Nearer Canterbury they would sojourn with the Carmelites at Aylesford. The route from London by way of Greenwich and Deptford led to Rochester Cathedral, where the tomb of the Scottish pilgrim, saint William of Perth, murdered on his way to the Holy Land, attracted special veneration. In 1420, a hundred thousand pilgrims visited the shrine.

012The attraction of St Thomas’ shrine was for people of all classes and nations. Among the early Hungarian visitors was the Emperor Sigismund (1387-1437), the Holy Roman Emperor. His sister, Anne of Bohemia, married Richard II at the instigation of Michael de la Pole, the first Earl of Suffolk. She arrived in England in a light-weight covered carriage, or Kocsi (named after the village in Hungary where it was invented), and its relative comfort made it popular with ladies, giving English the word coach, one of the few Hungarian words in English, but one still used frequently both as a noun and a verb. Though the marriage, which took place in 1382, was unpopular at the English Court, for financial reasons, there is evidence that Anne became more popular with time, especially with the ordinary citizens of London, for whom she interceded with her husband. Anne of Bohemia died of plague in 1394, aged only twenty-eight. She is known to have visited Norwich, where a ceiling in a hospital was dedicated to her, and in All Saints Church, Wytham, in Oxfordshire, there is a late-fourteenth century stained glass window depicting royal saints, thought to be likenesses of Anne and Richard. Golafre, like his illegitimate cousin before him, had begun his career in the service of Richard at court, and he paid for the windows to be made in Oxford. Like Richard, Golafre was a great lover of Gothic art forms from across Europe. The church also contains a memorial brass and stone to Julianna Golafre, who married Robert Wytham, probably given by their grand-daughter, Agnes Wytham, who was named by John Golafre as his heir, though she died soon after him in 1444.

009017Anne of Bohemia took a great interest in the writings of John Wycliffe, the reforming cleric from Lutterworth, and in the Lollards, his itinerant preachers. She is said to have introduced Wycliffe’s work to Prague, where it had a strong influence on the Bohemian reformer, Jan Hus. By the end of the fourteenth century, Wycliffite heresies had taken firm root in Suffolk, as they had throughout much of the East Midlands and East Anglia. In villages and towns throughout the county there were groups of Wycliffites, or Lollards who met in secret to study the Bible in English, the well-worn, often-copied tracts which condemned transubstantiation, the orthodox doctrine of the mass, pilgrimages, veneration of images, relics and other superstitions. Beccles and Bungay were centres of vigorous Lollardy, but there was also intermittent activity in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury, and numerous towns and villages along the Essex border. These probably drew their inspiration from the Lollard group in Colchester, which was, for more than a century before the Reformation, a persistent centre of heresy.

018The Lollards were reacting, in part,to the revival of what they felt were superstitious rites and cults within the church, such as the cult of the Virgin Mary. Only one English shrine equaled that of St Thomas of Canterbury in international fame, that of Walsingham in Norfolk, though St David’s Cathedral in Wales, St Mungo’s in Glasgow Cathedral and St Brigid’s at Kildare in Ireland all attracted pilgrims down the centuries, in addition to serving as centres of holiness and learning.

Walsingham’s fame was based on a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1061 in which the lady of the manor was carried in the spirit to Nazareth and shown the house where the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to Mary. She was told to build an exact copy of the house at Walsingham. She then employed skilled joiners to construct the Holy House of wood, a task which they completed (apparently) with the help of a further intervention by Our Lady and her angels.


004In 1169, the Holy House and the stone church which had been built around it came into the possession of Augustinian canons. They popularised the legends still further and pilgrims began to come from many directions. As with the routes to Canterbury, sojourns were made for them along the way. At Houghton St Giles, a mile outside town, on the road from London known as Walsingham Way, there is a charming,
small chapel, known as the Slipper Chapel (see photo above). Here the pilgrims would hang up their shoes before walking the remaining length of winding road into Walsingham to receive their blessing in the ruins of the abbey and in the shrine where the cult of Mary had been revived.


In Chaucer’s pilgrims, whether on their way to Canterbury or Walsingham, and Wycliffe’s Lollards in Suffolk, we have two distinct pictures of mixed gatherings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These centuries were still about great castes and manor houses, cathedrals and abbeys, but as the language and literature of the English developed, we are able to trace the lives of a greater range of classes and characters.

In the following century, these competing cultures of pilgrimage and the itinerant preaching of the word were destined to come into open conflict with each other, sometimes violently, but also creatively, especially in poetry, drama and music.

Printed Sources:

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Robert McCrum (1986), William Cran, Robert MacNeil, The Story of English. London: Penguin.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury

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