What a busy summer it has transpired to be! I’ve been enjoying a few weeks of research in preparation for my new book, and whilst on one journey I stopped by the pretty Oxfordshire village of Ewelme. I’ve always really wanted to visit Ewelme, mainly due to its links with a lady who has always fascinated me: Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk.
Alice was the granddaughter of the famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer, himself the brother-in-law of Katherine Swynford (third wife of John of Gaunt), which made Alice that lady’s great niece. Her parents were Geoffrey Chaucer’s son, Thomas, and Maud Burghersh, a wealthy heiress, and Alice was their only child.
Alice was probably born in around 1404 at her parent’s estate of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, an estate which in turn would eventually pass to Alice’s children and grandchildren. Nothing is known of Alice’s early life, but it is likely that she was given some form of education in the form of estate management and sewing, as was usual for a girl of her rank.
In 1414 at the age of about ten, Alice was married to Sir John Phelip, but was widowed shortly afterwards before the marriage could be consummated. By 1428 she had been widowed again when her second husband, Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury died, killed at the siege of Orleans against Joan of Arc in 1428. By the terms of Salisbury’s will, Alice was left a rich woman indeed, and therefore a desirable bride for potential suitors. Alice was reportedly also a very beautiful woman, which can only have added to her appeal.
By 1432 Alice had made her third, and most glamorous marriage yet. This time her groom was William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk. The marriage appears to have been a happy one, and in Suffolks’ will he would name Alice as ‘his best-loved wife to be his sole executrix’. Thus far, Alice’s marriages had produced no children, and there is only one child which can be said with certainty to have come of her marriage to Suffolk. This was her son, John de la Pole, father of the later notorious Earl of Lincoln. The same year, Alice was created a Lady of the Garter.
Alice was indeed an influential and formidable woman, and it was doubtless under her influence that Suffolk founded alms-houses and a school on the estate at Ewelme, with Alice’s help. They also made considerable improvements to the manor house at Ewelme, as well as adding to the church.
Alice’s husband Suffolk was one of those gentlemen who went to France to negotiate for a marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Suffolk and Margaret became friends, and it was no doubt this that gave rise to the rumours that they were lovers. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I, the playwright has Suffolk proclaiming that ‘she’s beautiful and therefore to be wooed-she is a woman and therefore to be won!’ Suffolk was favoured by the King and was created Lord Chancellor, and Alice was a highly honoured lady-in-waiting to the new queen. In fact, the two women became so close that in the parliament of 1450-51 it was demanded that Alice should be removed from the Queen’s household!
This did not happen, and in 1450 Alice’s husband, the unpopular Suffolk, was murdered whilst journeying into exile. Whilst on his way to Calais, Suffolks’ ship was intercepted by the Nicholas of the Tower, a much larger vessel. The crew of the Nicholas forced Suffolk to board their ship, where he was met with cries of ‘Welcome, traitor!’ The following day he was forced on to a smaller boat, where he was beheaded with six strokes of a rusty sword. His head and body were then tossed on to the beach at Dover. He was buried at Wingfield in Suffolk.
Following her husband’s death, Alice never remarried, and may possibly have taken a vow of chastity. She became increasingly disillusioned with the Lancastrian regime, so much so that she changed sides during the Wars of the Roses. She began negotiations for her son to marry a daughter of the Duke of York, Elizabeth (sister of Edward IV and Richard III). Alice was clearly trusted by the new Yorkist king, Edward IV, for following the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, Alice was made the jailer of her former friend, Margaret of Anjou.
She became an extremely wealthy landowner, and on more than one occasion became embroiled in disputes over property, of which she was predominantly the victor.
Alice died at some point between May and June 1475, and was buried in the church at Ewelme where her tomb, featuring a likeness which may be a portrait, can still be seen. This was designed and created during Alice’s own lifetime, when she also had tombs made for her parents in the same church. Although not a royal lady, there is no doubt that Alice Chaucer was certainly a force to be reckoned with, and during this period became one of the most formidable women of her day.