Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk

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Alice de la Pole, from her tomb at Ewelme Parish Church, Oxfordshire

Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk (1404–1475) was a granddaughter of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Married three times, she eventually became a Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Life[edit]

Alice was born Alice Chaucer, daughter to Thomas Chaucer and Matilda Burghersh. Her grandfather was the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, writer of The Canterbury Tales. When she was 11 she married Sir John Philip. The couple lived briefly at Donnington Castle, but Sir John died within a year. Sir John, also titled Lord Donnington, had married Maud, the widow of Walter Cookesey of Caldwall Castle, Kidderminster in the County of Worcestershire. Sir John lived at Caldwall Castle during his marriage to Maud and upon her death married Alice Chaucer. Sir John, a close personal friend of Henry V, died of dysentery after the successful 22 September 1415 capture of the fortress of Harfleur in Normandy. Sir John is buried at St Mary's Church in Kidderminster, Worcestershire.

Later, after 1421, Alice married Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury (who died in 1428). Finally, in 1430, she married William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk, by whom she had a son John in 1442 (who became 2nd Duke of Suffolk in 1463). William became constable of Wallingford Castle in 1434.

Alice was a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Anjou in 1445, and a patron of the arts. She ordered the making of a series of tapestries depicting the life of St Anne. The tapestries were in the room in her Ewelme house where Alice would have greeted visitors. She outlived her husband for a number of years and dwelled at Ewelme as the mistress of the house for a decade (during which times the tapestries were commissioned). She is a rare and important example of an autonomous woman patronising art works depicting empowered historical female characters. St Anne, mother of Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus, was a saint who was enjoying increasing popularity amongst female worshippers and was of particular pertinence to Alice as Anne, like Alice, also had had three marriages and was pregnant later in her life. Images of St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read were a popular image of Anne at this time, implying perhaps a contemporary reverence for literacy and education for women, though Alice is frequently overlooked as an historical figure of significance because of patriarchal assumptions about the subservience of women in history. Alice was a woman of intelligence and her life reveals information about the late medieval experience of women. She possessed a large library. [1]

William was steward of the household to Henry VI, and from 1447 to 1450 was the dominant force in the council and chief minister to the king; as such he was particularly associated with the unpopular royal policies whose failures culminated in the anti-court protest and political violence of Cade's Revolt in 1450.

Alice could be both ruthless and acquisitive in pursuit of her son, John's, inheritance. In 1437, the Duke constructed the God's House at Ewelme, a reminder of their Catholic devotions. But after her husband's execution she took back much of her friend's, Margaret Paston's, manors in Norfolk, with dubious title deeds. The Pastons grew to loathe this Yorkist family, notorious for their corruption.

In 1450, William was impeached by the Commons in Parliament, but Henry VI intervened to exile his favourite rather than have him tried by the Lords. On his way across the Channel his vessel was intercepted by The Nicholas of the Tower whose crew subjected him to a mock trial, after which he was beheaded and his body thrown overboard. William's remains were recovered from a beach at Dover, and Alice had her husband buried at the Carthusian Priory in Hull, founded in 1377 by his grandfather, Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk. After William was killed, his properties, including the castle and Honour of Wallingford and St Valery, passed to Alice. She lent the Crown 3500 Marks and the king spared the family from attainder of title. She survived many challenges to her position, including a state trial in 1451. Whilst she had benefited from Lancastrian connections, she switched to supporting the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. In 1455 she was custodian of the Duke of Exeter at the castle. She was officially castellan at Wallingford until at least 1471 and possibly until her death in 1475. In 1472, Alice became custodian of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron. A wealthy landowner, Alice de la Pole held land in 22 counties, and was a patron to poet John Lydgate.

She is buried in an elaborate church monument incorporating a Cadaver tomb at St Mary's Church, Ewelme.[2][3] Alice's alabaster tomb, almost undamaged by time, consists of a canopy of panelled stone, below which is the recumbent effigy of the Duchess atop the tomb chest which contains her remains; the space beneath the chest encloses her sculpted cadaver, which is viewed through elaborate reticulated arches.[4] Her effigy was examined by Queen Victoria's commissioners in order to discover how a lady should wear the Order of the Garter.

Alice de la Pole's issue and the Yorkist claim to the throne[edit]

Son[edit]

Alice's son, John de la Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, married Elizabeth, the second surviving daughter of Richard of York and Cecily Neville.

This marriage brought Yorkist royal connections into the de la Pole family: Elizabeth's siblings included the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III, George, Duke of Clarence and Margaret of York (later Duchess of Burgundy).

Grandsons[edit]

John de la Pole's three sons by Elizabeth - Alice's grandsons - pursued the unsuccessful Yorkist claim to the throne against Henry VII.

  1. John de la Pole, 1st Earl of Lincoln, was designated heir to his uncle Richard III and pursued the Yorkist claim to the throne under Henry VII. Along with his aunt Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy he supported the pretender Lambert Simnel, but was killed at the Battle of Stoke (1487).
  2. Lincoln's younger brother, Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, became the leading Yorkist claimant to Henry VII's throne and was executed in 1513.
  3. Richard de la Pole, their youngest brother, continued the Yorkist claim until he was slain at the Battle of Pavia, 1525.

Further reading[edit]

The History of Wallingford, in the County of Berks: 1327 to 1880. Churches and monastic institutions. W. Clowes. 1881.  Mate, Mavis E. (1999). Women in Medieval English Society. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-58733-4. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Library of Alice Chaucer, The Duchess of Suffolk" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 March 2014. Retrieved 13 March 2014. 
  2. ^ "Leicester Research Archive: Saint Christopher Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches, c.1250-c.1500". Hdl.handle.net. 15 January 2010. Retrieved 30 January 2016. 
  3. ^ "Alice Chaucer's Tomb - Friends of Ewelme ChurchFriends of Ewelme Church". Friendsofewelmechurch.co.uk. Retrieved 30 January 2016. 
  4. ^ Julia Bolton Holloway. "Geoffrey Chaucer. The Tomb of the Duchess". Florin.ms. Retrieved 30 January 2016.