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  • Chasing the Consent of Alice Chaucer
  • Samantha Katz Seal

In the waning days of the year 1424, a series of marriage ceremonies provided entertainment for the elite of Lancastrian France. On November 30, 1424, Philip ("the Good"), duke of Burgundy, England's foremost ally in her ambition to claim all of France, married his second wife, Bonne of Artois. And yet, the ceremony associated with the union of Philip and Bonne was seemingly less elaborate—and was weighed down by fewer plots—than the wedding ceremonies that had preceded it. In July, Burgundy's Grand Chamberlain, Jean de la Trémoille, wed in an event designed to display the magnificent collaboration and mutual loyalty of Burgundy and the regent of English France, John of Bedford. The wedding was held at Burgundy's own expense, and it was attended by "many noble knights, esquires, ladies and damsels of high degree, who were all magnificently entertained by the duke of Burgundy and his officers. There was a grand display of every costly viand and wines, followed by dancings, tiltings, and other amusements."1 And it was at this wedding, the chronicles tell us, fêted on every side by the luxuries of wealth, that Philip, duke of Burgundy, attempted to seduce Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the English poet and young wife of the earl of Salisbury.2 [End Page 273]

The chronicler Pierre Fenin recorded the incident as follows: the duke was "a strong lover of the ladies and at this feast he became enamored with the countess of Salisbury, who was very beautiful, as I've said before. And thus the duke sent her a message."3 Burgundy also, Fenin notes, danced excessively often with the countess at the feast.4 Whatever the content of the message, "when the earl of Salisbury learned the news, he knew the duke to have evil intentions. Because of this, he strove to injure him."5 Another eyewitness, Guillaume Benoît, a servant of William de la Pole, the earl of Suffolk, added more detail, claiming that Suffolk had told him "Monsieur de Burgundy is in love with Madame … he gave her a diamond valued at 6 écus and [the duke] was at Meleun and made a great feast there."6 Moreover, Suffolk supposedly alleged the attempted seduction to be part of a political conspiracy, charging the leader of his own army with plotting to keep Alice "at court … to attract Monsieur de Burgundy."7

Burgundy's attempt to seduce Alice is thus politics and romance, intrigue and chivalry and sexual extortion all rolled up into one small (but popular with historians!) anecdote. And in the simplest terms, we need to understand the events and aftermath of the de la Trémoille wedding through a political lens: the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, that cornerstone of medieval English empire, was starting to fray, and venery was a far more pleasant culprit for that tension than the venality of either Burgundy himself or Henry VI's avaricious uncle, Humphrey of Gloucester. But this story is also, both explicitly and implicitly, one about consent and the performance of courtly love, occurring at a moment when the historical [End Page 274] and the romantic seemed to merge inextricably into chivalric pageantry.8 For the question of Burgundy's pursuit of Alice is uncomfortably embedded into an account of what appears to have been Suffolk's own extramarital pursuit of her, a woman he would not himself marry for at least another six years. What historians have attempted to simplify into a love triangle of sorts is quite clearly a square; the majority of the records are not about Salisbury's reaction to the insult to his wife at all, but instead document Suffolk's possessiveness about a woman over whom he had no legal claim.

Suffolk's claim on Alice is not marriage, but chivalry; she is "his lady," if not yet his wife. Chivalric literature has limited space, however, for female consent. The prize of the lady's response is the highest desired intimacy in such texts, but it is also inherently coerced, an outcome created and crafted by male action.9 And as Amia Srinivasan has recently...