Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400), poet and administrator, was probably born in the early 1340s in London. Nothing is known of his education but he may well have attended the almonry school of St Paul's Cathedral. In 1357 he was a page in the household of Prince Lionel. Between 1359 and 1360 he was with the army of Edward III in France and in October of 1360 he is recorded as carrying letters to England. By 1366 Chaucer was married, probably to Philippa Roelt, the daughter of Sir Payn Roelt, a knight of Hainault, and Guyenne king of arms.
By 1367 Chaucer had become a member of the royal household, being described as an esquier or a valettus, one of a company of men who were dispatched on administrative or diplomatic missions in England or sometimes in Europe. He visited Italy in 1372-3 and again in 1378. From 1374 he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (1374-86). In 1386 Chaucer retired from his comptrollerships, and moved to Kent where he was a justice of the peace, probably until 1389. From 1389 to 1391 he was clerk of the king's works.
Chaucer's early literary works are based largely on French models and include the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose. Following his visits to Italy Chaucer's works were modelled primarily on those of Dante and Boccaccio. Major works include The House of Fame, which recounts the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae. Other works include the unfinished Legend of Good Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet into English verse, and Troilus and Criseyde, in which he perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal.
During the 1390s Chaucer wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. This unfinished poem, introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of life in 14th-century England and vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. The work offers what is in effect an anthology of medieval literary genres, ranging from saint's life to bawdy fabliau.
There is no record of Chaucer after 5 June 1400, and no will survives. The traditional date of his death, 25 October 1400, depends upon an inscription placed on a tomb in the abbey in 1556, and may well be correct. According to Caxton, he was buried at the entrance to the chapel of St Benedict in Westminster Abbey.
Source: Douglas Gray, 'Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340-1400)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). By permission of Oxford University Press: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5191.