Guest post by Michéle Schindler
Alice Chaucer was a formidable lady. Living to nearly 71 years of age, she was a royal confidante and friend, mother-in-law to a king`s sister, a politican and a reviled widow in her time. Though born a commoner, she moved in royal circles, her approval sought after and her opinion considered even by her king and queen.
Though this rise was in large parts due to Alice herself, and her reportedly witty and charming personality, it was made possible through her connections, partly inherited from her father and partly gained through marriage.
Alice was born to Thomas Chaucer, oldest son of the famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and his wife Maud Burghersh between May and November 1404, a rich and influential if not noble couple. Though it is possible she had siblings who died in infancy or childhood, Alice would eventually grow up as Thomas and Maud`s only child and their sole heir. Very little is known about Maud, but Thomas was a popular and well-connected man. Repeatedly elected as Speaker of the House of Commons, his advice on a number of matters was sought after, his company cherished, and, more prosaically, his wealth coveted. Though Thomas`s only claim to nobility was being first cousin to John of Gaunt`s Beaufort children, through his mother Philippa Roet, this wealth would have made a connection with him sought after and his only child and daughter Alice a coveted price on the marriage market. Thomas and Maud would have been able to take their pick, choosing a man they considered right for their daughter, and they did not take long in doing so. By 1414, they had chosen Sir John Phelip as husband for their then only ten-year-old daughter. Significantly older than Alice, Sir John was around thirty years of age and had been married twice before. It is not known when the marriage took place, though it seems unlikely that it was much before 1414. Having been made for wealth on Sir John`s part, and for connections on the Chaucers` part, the match was never to be consummated. In fact, Alice probably never left her parents` household after her wedding to Sir John, and may very well have only met her first husband once or twice. It was clearly a business arrangement, but though Alice herself naturally had no say in it, she would eventually come to profit from the match.
It can be assumed, though not said with absolute certainty, that being married did not change much in Alice`s life, and she did not in any way share in Sir John`s life, which was adventurous and, as he was involved in organising the invasion of France with Henry V, rather busy at that time. It is impossible to say how the marriage would have turned out once Alice was old enough to be a wife in more than name only, for within a year of Alice first being mentioned as Sir John`s wife, he was dead. Within months of making his will in June 1415, he had succumbed to dysentery during the siege of Harfleur, dying on 2 October 1415.
Though his death cannot have affected Alice much, it certainly was to influence the rest of her life. Though Sir John had died too early for Alice to ever share her life with him, he had been very generous to her and her family in his will, leaving her not only some tokens such as a gold ewer and cup, as well as a furnished room in one of his houses but, significantly, had left the lordship of several rich manors to her. At the age of only eleven, Alice was therefore a wealthy widow, well-connected not only through her parents` families but also her late husband`s. Though the provisions made for Alice meant that her husband`s brother and heir, Sir William Phelip, inherited less than he would have had his brother died unmarried, he did not seem to carry a grudge about this. Alice was to stay on good terms with him until he died in 1440, and as he received the barony of Bardolph in the name of his wife and connected the family to the Beaumont family by marriage, Alice profitted from these connections.
Perhaps because her first, short-lived marriage had provided her with all the wealth and connections a lady of her standing could hope off, neither Alice nor her parents seemed to be in a hurry to see her remarried. They could afford to be picky, choose a marriage that would bring even more profits.
Even so, the marriage she finally agreed to at some point after late 1421 and before 1424 was a splendid one. Her second husband was Thomas Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, famed military commander in the Hundred Years` War. Praise for him was plentiful in any contemporary source that mentioned him; by marrying him, Alice not only became a countess, but also the wife of a much admired and very famous man.
As she was between 18 and 20 when she married Salisbury, Alice appears to have immediately joined his household. She was old enough to be a wife in deed as well as name by then, and doubtlessly Salisbury, who had only one legitimate daughter from a previous marriage, hoped that she would give him a son. However, as Alice was, by all accounts, a beautiful and witty woman, it may not just have been that hope that made Salisbury keen to be in her presence. It is known that Alice often accompanied him to France when he was there for military and political reasons. On one such occasion, she accompanied him to a wedding hosted by Philip, Duke of Burgundy in November 1424, a celebration during which the duke repeatedly made passes at Alice, whom the chronicler Pierre de Fénin describes as “very beautiful lady”. Alice rejected these passes, but her husband Salisbury became enraged with the duke, and would carry a grudge about it. However, there is absolutely no indication he blamed Alice in any way. In fact, their marriage appears to have been a very good one, and all surviving mentions Salisbury made of his second wife indicate affection, which was not hampered or broken by Alice not giving him a child, either. Whether this was due to her not conceiving or if she suffered miscarriages is unknown.
The marriage lasted between four to six years, depending on when the marriage took place, before Salisbury died. Like Alice`s first husband, he did not die of natural causes, but in consequence of his military involvement in France. Being the commander of the English troops at one of the most famous events of the Hundred Years War, the Siege of Orleans, Salisbury died a brutal death. Having retired to a tower overlooking the besieged city, he was inside the building when it was hit by a cannon ball, naturally all but destroying the room he was inside and sending shrapnel flying. Salisbury was hit by this debris, which, according to one contemporary source, tore off the right half of his face and his right eye.
Though it must have been immediately obvious that he could not survive these wounds, Salisbury did not die immediately. He was carried to safety to the city of Meaux, where he died eight days later, on 3 November 1428. It is not known whether Alice was in France when her husband died, and if so, if she arrived in Meaux quickly enough to be with her husband when he died.
At the age of 24, Alice was a warrior`s widow for the second time. Like Sir John Phelip, Salisbury had made provisions for her, leaving her 1,000 marks in gold, 3,000 marks in plate and jewellery together with half of the rest of his possessions, which meant that Alice would never want for money again, even if she chose not to remarry. Moreover, Salisbury`s connections together with Sir John`s gave her an in with most of the nobility. She had no more need to remarry for any material reasons. Any marriage she chose to make after becoming a widow for the second time would be because it was her wish to do so.
Perhaps, Alice was uncertain whether she ever wished to remarry after Salisbury`s death, but if so, she soon was to make up her mind. Within two years, she had chosen a third husband – Salisbury`s successor as commander of the English troops in France, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk.
Unlike Salisbury, for whom we have no such evidence, Alice definitely knew Suffolk before she married him; he had been close to her husband and had been present at the wedding in 1424 during which Alice rejected the Duke of Burgundy. Though her feelings about Suffolk then, or his feelings about her, are naturally unknowable, it was the first marriage Alice chose for herself. Though, as a widow, she would have been entitled to choose any husband she wished after Sir John`s death, in practise her youth prevented her from it. This was not the case in 1430. She was old enough to make her own decision, was a dowager duchess, well-connected and very rich. Her decisions were her own, and she chose Suffolk for herself.
It is tempting to think of her doing so for love, but it is also possible that she simply considered him the most noble offer she was going to get, and prefered being married to an earl to being alone. For his part, Suffolk naturally profitted a lot from her connections and her money, though the very fact he agreed to a rather stern marriage contract whereby Alice retained control over her fortune suggests it was at the very least not solely for money that he chose to marry her. Moreover, the fact that she had not given Salisbury any children might have suggested to Suffolk she was not able to have children, which would definitely be a disadvantage for someone of his standing. All in all, the evidence suggests that though both Alice and her third husband may have been partly motivated by pragmatic reasons when deciding to marry, a certain amount of affection was involved.
Whyever it was made, the marriage, for which royal licence was granted in November 1430, would turn out to be a strong one. Suffolk, who had spent most of his time in France since becoming an earl in 1415, returned to England more and more to be with his wife, and began rising in the young King Henry VI`s favour, much supported by Alice. It was her connections and especially her money that first gave William a foothold at royal court, more so than his own connections and title. Though especially Alice`s connection to the royal court is commonly assumed to have grown after Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou, there is a lot of evidence that she was popular with the young king long before that happened. Suffolk`s career at court has been amply covered in a lot of books and articles, but rarely is a focus laid on his marriage, even though he himself was obviously proud of his wife. Much like Salisbury before him, he appeared to be very happy with her, while Alice always supported her husband in what he did, even when it was an unpopular choice.
Henry VI`s trust in the couple is perhaps best examplified not in the many grants and presents he made them, but in the fact that, when his mother Katherine of Valois died in 1437, he granted them custody of his young half-brothers, Edmund and Owen Tudor.
This arrangement did not last long, though it does not seem to have been changed because of any sort of disagreement between king and earl and countess, but a decision by Suffolk himself, who appears to have chosen to send them to his sister Katherine, who was a nun at Barking Abbey.
Why this decision was made, we do not know, but it easy to imagine that Suffolk and Alice enjoyed taking care of children while at the same time feeling sorry they themselves did not have any. There are indications Alice had miscarriages in 1438 and 1440, by which time she and Suffolk must have feared they were destined to be childless. However, this would turn out to be untrue and in September 1442, Alice gave birth to her only child, a boy called John after Suffolk`s brother. It is often claimed that Henry VI was John`s godfather, but while this is very probable, it is not definite. Even if he was not, however, Henry VI certainly went out of his way to favour the child of the couple so close to him, making arrangements for him in the event of his father`s death and, when their boy was one and a half years old, jointly granting Alice and Suffolk the wardship of one of the wealthiest heiresses in the kingdom, Margaret Beaufort, who would grow up to be Henry VII`s mother.
Though initially, Alice and Suffolk did not want the two children to marry, purchasing the wardship of another wealthy heiress, John and Margaret would go on to have a short, unconsummated marriage after Suffolk fell from the heights he was achieving with Alice`s help. During the 1440s, they rose ever higher. When Margaret of Anjou became ill during the festivities before her marriage to Henry VI, and was unable to participate in the ceremonial entry into the city of Rouen that had been arranged for her, Alice was even chosen to act as her substitute, being feted like a queen. Margaret grew to like them both as much as Henry did, meaning their star rose ever further, and they became not only marquis and marquisse and finally duke and duchess due to the king`s pleasure, they also received other titles that had fallen into abeyance, such as the earldom of Pembroke.
However, quite naturally, such favour also engendered resentment, as did the fact that Suffolk was blamed for a lot of the problems within Henry VI`s government, such as the extreme debts. The fact that he was openly for peace with France did not help, and eventually, in 1450, he was accused of treason. Famously, he was not condemned but send to exile, and on his way there, intercepted and murdered.
Alice had always supported her husband, even in his extremely unpopular decisions. After his death, this was to prove almost fatal for her, for she was connected to him and his unpopularity in the public mind, which made rebels in 1450 demand she, too, be charged with treason. This did not happen, however, and Alice knew how to defuse the situation, withdrawing from court long enough for it all to be less raw.
Alice did not remarry after Suffolk`s death, focusing most of her energies on her son. At first, she attempted to have him stay married to Margaret Beaufort, to make sure the hastily arranged marriage before Suffolk`s death was to remain valid, but when it was annulled and Margaret married to Alice`s erstwhile foster son, Edmund Tudor, she arranged a marriage for John to one of Richard, Duke of York`s daughters. Named Elizabeth, she was to become a sister of the king when, after years of battles, Edward IV took the throne. She also gave John many children, giving Alice 13 grandchildren over a period of 24 years. Alice was close to them all and spent her last years living with them. Though no longer involved in national politics, at the age of nearly 70, Alice was granted the custody of Margaret of Anjou, after the latter was captured in 1471. This appears to have been an act of kindness on Edward IV`s part, making sure the fallen queen was with someone who had been a friend, but it also shows a remarkable trust in Alice. As one of the very few, she had managed to come out on top, no matter whether the Lancastrians or the Yorkists won.
Alice died on 21 May 1475, aged 70 or just 71. In those seven decades of life, she had helped shape English politics, had been connected with the highest and mightiest of European nobility, been both feted and loathed. Her life is a splendid example both how very important a woman, even one comparatively low-born, could change in the 15th century, and it is also a splendid example of marriage politics in the 15th century. Far from women being helpless pawns, it could be used by them just as much as by men, and Alice used it to the hilt. Being both helped by and helpful to her husbands, she was clearly regarded as a partner, not a submissive pawn, by Thomas Montacute, Earl of Salisbury and William de la Pole, Earl of Salisbury, her opinion valued by king and queen, and as such, she was more modern than we perhaps think possible for a 15th century woman.
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