In the wooded village of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, we discover an elaborate church monument incorporating a cadaver tomb at St Mary’s Church. An alabaster tomb, remaining essentially undamaged by time, is the resting place of Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales. Alice was the last of the Chaucers. She lies beneath a stone canopy. She wears the Order of the Garter on her arm, one of the few women to be so honored. It is said Alice’s effigy was examined by Queen Victoria’s commissioners in order to discover how a lady should wear the Order of the Garter. Inside the cabinet is an emaciated figure covered by a shroud and looking up at a frescoed roof, which can only by seen by visitors brave enough to lie down on the floor next to the tomb.
According to Christopher Winn in I Never That About the English (Ebury Press, ©2008, pp. 224-226), Geoffrey Chaucer’s sister-in-marriage, Katherine Swynford, became the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third surviving son of Edward III. Chaucer’s oldest son, Thomas, was favored by Henry V and fought at Agincourt. Thomas married an heiress, Matilda Burghersh, who purchased the manor of Ewelme for them. Alice was their only child. At age 11, Alice married Sir John Philip. She was Sir John’s second wife. The couple lived briefly at Donnington Castle, but Sir John died within a year, having been killed at Harfleur. Others say, 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. [The siege of Harfleur (18 August 1415 – 22 September 1415) was successfully undertaken by the English in Normandy, France, during the Hundred Years’ War. It was the first major military action in the Lancastrian War, the third and last phase of the century-long conflict. The siege ended when the French port of Harfleur surrendered to the English.]
Next, Alice married (1421) Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury, who died in 1428. Salisbury died at the siege of Orleans. The siege of Orléans (12 October 1428 – 8 May 1429) was the watershed of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. It was the French royal army’s first major military victory to follow the crushing defeat at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and also the first while Joan of Arc was with the Army. The siege took place at the pinnacle of English power during the later stages of the war. The city held strategic and symbolic significance to both sides of the conflict. The consensus among contemporaries was that the English regent, John of Lancaster, would have succeeded in realizing Henry V’s dream of conquering all of France if Orléans fell. For half a year the English and their French allies appeared to be winning, but the siege collapsed nine days after Joan’s arrival. [Siege or Orléans]
Finally, in 1430, she married William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk, by whom she had a son John in 1442. In 1444, Suffolk negotiated a marriage between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. William and Alice traveled to France to escort the new Queen to England, where she stayed as a guest in their palace at Ewelme.
Alice was known to be 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 was a popular image of Anne at this time, implying perhaps a contemporary reverence for literacy and education for women, how 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.” [Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk]
Led on by the criticism of the Duke of York, William, who served as the Lord High Chamberlain for King Henry, took the blame for the loss of English land in France. William acted as 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. York wished to place his own son Edward (later Edward IV) on the throne and he advocated for William de la Pole’s banishment to the Continent. 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, Duke of Suffolk, was hustled into a small boat, where he was “beheaded with six strokes of a rusty sword, and his body dumped on the beach near Dover.” [page 225] 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.” [Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk]
Alice continued to live at Ewelme. She left a group of medieval buildings “without parallel in an English village. They owe their superb state of preservation to the fact that they are built of brick, a new and costly material at the time, and also because Ewelme has been left largely undisturbed over the years, being far from any main roads and well concealed in its own valley.
“The schoolroom, put up by Alice in the 1430s, is still used as a school and is THE OLDEST SCHOOL IN THE STATE SYSTEM STILL HOUSED IN ITS ORIGINAL BUILDING. Most other schools established at that time, notably Eton, founded in 1440 under the Earl of Suffolk’s supervision for Henry VI, became private schools.
“Next door are the superb cloistered almshouses, designed for 13 poor men and fashioned around a square, flower-filled courtyard. They are still run as almshouses by the Ewelme Trust.
“A steep, covered stairway leads to St Mary’s Church, which shows signs of William de la Pole’s Suffolk influence with space, light, a high roof and flint walls. The interior retains its screen and high, pinnacled oak front cover, and is rich with monuments and carving because, according to the villagers, Cromwell’s rampaging soldiers couldn’t find the village. In St John’s Chapel are the simple tombs of Thomas and Mildred Chaucer, their portraits picked out in bronze on top.
“Of Alice’s grand home, where Henry VIII honeymooned with Catherine Howard, and Queen Elizabeth stayed, little remains, just a few bits of wall embedded in the Georgian manor house which stands on the site.” [pp. 225-227]
Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk