In the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, there is a tomb and alabaster effigy which attracts visitors from all over the world. Within the tomb lies Alice de la Pole, late duchess of Suffolk (and lady of the Garter), but her posthumous “fame” derives from her maiden name, which was Chaucer. Alice was born c.1404, probably at Ewelme, the only child of Thomas Chaucer (c.1367-1434) and his wife Maud Burghersh (c.1379-1437). Thomas was the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), and he was a man who mattered. His marriage had brought him estates throughout southern England, he was MP for Oxfordshire fourteen times, and was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons on five occasions, a record which stood for three hundred years. So, Alice’s background was a very comfortable one, and as an only child she could expect parental favour.
Alice lived her seventy and more years during the turbulent 15th century, and her own life reflects something of the political and dynastic upheavals which afflicted England. We know little about her early life, but aged only eleven, she was married to Sir John Phelip (c.1380-1415). It was not unusual for girls of this age to be betrothed or married, but this was to be a very short marriage, for Sir John died within the year. Alice’s second marriage was to a leading nobleman, Thomas de Montacute, 4th earl of Salisbury (1388-1428), but they had no children and he died when she was still in her mid twenties.
Alice’s third marriage, in 1430, was the one which propelled her to prominence, influence and wealth. Her new husband was William de la Pole, 4th earl of Suffolk (1396-1450), who later became duke of Suffolk and one of the realm’s mightiest subjects. He’d been made a knight of the Garter in 1421, and Alice herself was first granted Garter robes in 1432 and then again in the years 1434-36 and 1448-49. They had one son, John de la Pole (1442-92). In 1445, she was chosen to accompany Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) to England prior to her marriage to Henry VI, and the two women became friends, at least for the time being. Alice became a leading figure at Henry VI’s court, but eminence fosters jealousy and some saw her influence as malign. This led to demands from parliament for her removal from the royal household.
1450 proved to be the crunch year for Alice and William. The latter was the king’s favourite and had been the chief power in the land, but his policies were increasingly unpopular and his authority was crumbling. Associated with defeat in France and corrupt government at home, he was impeached by the Commons, then sent into exile by Henry VI, mainly for his own safety. However, news of his ‘release’ sparked public anger, and his enemies were not going to let him escape final justice. So, as William was sailing across the channel, his boat was intercepted by another, and the hapless duke was seized, given a mock trial, and summarily executed. Later, his body was found washed up on the sands near Dover.
Her husband’s brutal demise put Alice in a potentially perilous position, and for a time there was danger around her. In a chilling echo of William’s downfall, Jack Cade’s rebels arranged a mock trial of her in London in the summer of 1450. Had the rebellion not fizzled out the outlook for her could have been grim. There were also private attacks on her estates in the 1450s. Yet she survived and went on to prosper. She inherited William’s properties (which included the castle and honour of Wallingford), and was now a wealthy landowner with property in twenty-two counties. Five years after William’s death, the Wars of the Roses began. Perhaps sensing which way the wind would veer, Alice abandoned her Lancastrian allegiance, and switched her loyalty to the Yorkists. Having backed the right horse, by a twist of irony she became custodian in 1471 of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron.
As befitted the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice had an interest in the literature of her time. In particular, she was one of a host of patrons of the Benedictine monk and prolific poet, John Lydgate (c.1370-1449). Lydgate was considered to be the equal of Chaucer in his time, but posterity has not been kind towards his output. It seems he was a master of saying nothing very much to excessive length.
Alice de la Pole, duchess of Suffolk, died in 1475, the year in which Edward IV founded the present St George’s Chapel, symbol of the Yorkist ascendancy which she came to embrace. Her life may not be as well documented as we would wish, but we know enough to see her as one of the formidable women of late medieval England.
Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)