Newbury Branch meeting 9th September 2020, conducted on Zoom
Speaker: David Willettts
Alice Chaucer was the grand-daughter of the poet Geoffrey, born probably a few years after his death, and five years after the accession of Henry IV. Her father Thomas was a diplomat in the royal service, in the course of which he travelled to Italy, was captured and ransomed.
Alice was married at the age of 11 to Sir John Phelip, who brought the manor of Ewelme to the marriage. She was an educated woman, speaking French, Latin and English. They lived for a short period at Donnington Castle, which Thomas Chaucer bought for his daughter as a wedding present. Formerly it had been the fortified home of the Adderbury family.
The castles of Donnington and Wallingford were key defence fortifications in the south of England, protecting the north-south and east-west crossroads as well as the Thames valley. Thomas Chaucer held Wallingford.
England’s claim to the throne of France led to the 100 Years War (1337-1453). Edward III’s marriage to Philippa of Hainault (in the Low Countries) was designed to support this claim. Thus his reign was characterised by constant warfare, in the course of which his son the Black Prince died, leading to the minority of Richard II after Edward’s death (1377). Richard II’s reign included the Peasants’ Revolt, and the exile of Henry Bolingbroke, later to become the usurper Henry IV, who reigned from 1399 to 1413.
This was the world into which Alice Chaucer was born. She was descended from the line of Catherine Swynford, second wife of John of Gaunt, who was the third of Edward III’s five sons.
Thomas Chaucer also served Henry V in finding his wife, the Capetian Catherine of Valois. She bore Henry VI, but his father never saw him, dying at Harfleur. Henry VI, at nine years old, challenged the throne of France, leading to the conflict famous for the British defeating and burning Joan of Arc.
Alice’s first marriage (without issue) led to widowhood within a year. In 1421, aged 16, she was married to Thomas Montacute/Montagu, fourth earl of Salisbury, a powerful courtier and soldier. He took part in the siege of Orleans in 1427, Joan of Arc’s last campaign, where he was killed by a cannonball. Thus Alice was widowed for the second time, at the age of 23.
Her third marriage was to William de la Pole, a trusted advisor to the young Henry VI, who went to Paris to be crowned king of France. His reign was characterised by endless peregrinations, including a trip to Donnington, and to Alice’s home at Ewelme, which she had turned into a palace. One of Pole’s duties was to find a French princess for the young king, to which end he brought Margaret of Anjou to England. Alice became friends with the new queen, although the relationship later soured when the Wars of the Roses drove them to different sides.
As Yorkists Alice and her husband lost royal protection. Pole was impeached by the House of Commons and saved by Henry VI’s intervention, but subsequently he was brutally murdered at sea. Alice thus inherited Wallingford Castle. She was later impeached for treason by the House of Lords, but acquitted. She continued to acquire property and embellishments for Ewelme, which boasted fine Flanders tapestries and a library. For this, and for acting as patron to the poet John Lydgate, she has gained a reputation for patronage of the arts. She also had responsibilities as castellan of Wallingford Castle, which included keeping the Duke of Exeter under guard.
At the battle of Tewkesbury Henry VI died, and his widow Margaret of Anjou was taken to Alice at Wallingford Castle.
Alice’s tomb at Ewelme describes her as the Most Serene Princess, Duchess of Suffolk, the former title acquired by her grandson’s marriage.