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  • Wards and Widows:Troilus and Criseyde and New Documents on Chaucer's Life
  • Sebastian Sobecki

While many aspects of Geoffrey Chaucer's biography have been studied in depth, his role as a guardian of two Kentish heirs has received only scant attention. This essay reexamines the historical documents related to Chaucer's guardianship of one of these heirs, Edmund Staplegate, who became the poet's ward in 1375. I introduce a new Chaucer life record and show that the arrangement between Chaucer and his ward continued for longer than has been assumed. The document trail shows that Staplegate did not come of age in 1377 as is commonly believed, but continued to be associated with the poet as late as 1382.

This new light on the Staplegate wardship holds a number of implications for Chaucer's biography and his writings. Most importantly, the evidence suggests that Chaucer was expected to arrange a marriage for his ward during and after the raptus accusations brought by Cecily Chaumpaigne against him in 1380. The new material, therefore, offers a revised context for the dispute with Chaumpaigne and for the contested translation of the word raptus, by introducing the possibility that her legal challenge may have been prompted by Chaucer's attempt to arrange a suitable marriage for his ward Edmund. After all, the term raptus is very common in wardship disputes, where it almost always denotes abduction. Second, Chaucer's guardianship of Staplegate reveals new insights into his relationship with the poet John Gower and the London lawyer Richard Forster, whose will I have discovered and present here for the first time.

Finally, this reevaluation of the Staplegate wardship and the dispute with Chaumpaigne opens up a new interpretation of Chaucer's most ambitious poem, Troilus and Criseyde, which was composed either during or shortly after the events discussed in this essay. I argue that Troilus and Criseyde fictionalizes questions of widowhood, wardship, and marriage, binding together Chaucer and the character of the go-between Pandarus through their shared social roles as guardians and matchmakers. In total, this essay introduces four previously unknown documents: a contemporary legal challenge involving Staplegate from 1377; a new Chaucer life record from 1382 connected to the Staplegate [End Page 413] wardship; the earliest record, from 1381, showing Gower active in London; and the 1411 will of Forster, Chaucer's lawyer in 1378.

i. new light on chaucer's wardships

One of the less frequently discussed roles the historical Chaucer performed was that of acting as the legal guardian of two Kentish heirs. Minors who inherited estates usually had a family member appointed as their guardian, provided there was no conflict of interest. In the case of heirs who were tenants-in-chief, that is, those who held their lands directly from the king without any intermediary, the wardship of the minor together with the rents from the estate would revert to the king for the duration of the minority. The king, in turn, bestowed such lucrative wardships on his favorites, often as a reward. This type of duty, although occasionally onerous, could prove immensely profitable for the guardian: not only was the guardian entitled to the king's share of the income from the heir's land, but he or she was also responsible for arranging the heir's marriage—a privilege that could lead to a substantial payment and to personal and familial advancement. Wardships and, in particular, the right to arrange a marriage were considered so desirable that they were bought, resold, leased, and even used as collateral to secure loans.1 These proto-capitalist practices have led some commentators to speak of "a market in wardships and marriages in which the price was set by demand."2

Two wardships fell into Chaucer's lap in the winter of 1375. The first concerned Staplegate, the son of a wealthy Canterbury merchant. Staplegate's inheritance was considerably more substantial than that of Chaucer's second ward, John Soles, whose estate only yielded a moderate rent with which the poet did not concern himself. The only real value in the case of the Soles wardship (but also the most prized aspect of the Staplegate wardship) was the...


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