Richard II, Chaucer, and a forgotten time

Illumination of a king with blond straight hair dressed in blue and red, with ermine, a gold collar, wearing a gold crown and carrying an orb and sceptre, with gold square-toed shoes. He is standing on grass against a background of gold swirls over purple.
King Richard II, as depicted in a Tudor illumination from the Black Book of the Garter, c.1534-1552 [SGC G.1]

St George’s Chapel was founded by Edward III and grandly rebuilt in the reign of Edward IV, but sometimes we can overlook the contributions made by the kings that came between them. One of these is Richard II, who came to the throne unexpectedly at the age of ten after the deaths of his father, Edward Prince of Wales, in 1376 and his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377. Had the boy-king completely neglected the young St George’s Chapel, there is a real risk that it could have failed altogether. Instead, our records show that Richard II took care to continue the financial and physical upkeep of his grandfather’s foundation.

In 1348 Edward III had established the concept of St George’s Chapel, but he based it mostly in buildings that were already a hundred years old, having first been constructed under Henry III. By 1390, the Chapel was noted as being “threatened with ruin and on the point of falling to the ground, unless it be quickly repaired”.[1] King Richard II issued instructions to his own Clerk of Works to oversee the necessary works for repair. He had authority to appoint masons, carpenters and labourers and to purchase stone necessary for the work.

The repairs must have been extensive, as while they were carried out, the Dean and Canons were provided with temporary facilities for celebrating their daily services in the Great Hall.

Who carried out this work?

The Clerk of Works given this responsibility is rather better known for his work in another sphere altogether. It was Geoffrey Chaucer, a celebrated author and poet. He had begun to write his most famous work The Canterbury Tales in 1387, only a few years before his appointment to this post in Windsor. The son of a vintner, Chaucer was appointed as a page in the household of one of Edward III’s sons while still a young boy. This gave him access to the royal court and throughout his life he enjoyed a varied and high-profile career. His short tenure of two years as Clerk of the King’s Works is his only experience of architecture. It has been speculated that the different roles he held throughout his life gave him inspiration for the cast of pilgrims he wrote about in The Canterbury Tales, each of whom had a different occupation. His opportunities to travel extensively in service of several masters would have exposed him to different forms and styles of literature.

Chaucer’s links to the College continued, with his granddaughter Alice being granted Garter robes and a copy of  The Canterbury Tales – with a surprise – still in the Chapter Library. 

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

[1] Hope, William St John, Windsor Castle.

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.