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Clanvow, Sir John (c.1341–1391), courtier and poet, was probably the son and heir of John Clanvow, a minor landowner in the Welsh borders. In his early years John the younger saw active service abroad. In 1364 he fought in Brittany, and he was with Sir John Chandos, in 1370 when the latter fell at Lussac in Poitou, and afterwards with Sir Robert Knolles in Picardy. In 1373–4 he accompanied John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, on his great chevauchée across France from Calais to Bordeaux. In 1378, in another foray into Brittany, he was again with Gaunt when the latter launched his abortive attack on St Malo.

Between campaigns Clanvow formed attachments of a more lasting kind. Possibly as a result of connections forged in his native county, he came into contact with Humphrey (IX) de Bohun, seventh earl of Hereford, by whom he was retained with a life annuity of £40. When the earl died without a son in 1373, Clanvow was taken on as a king's knight by Edward III who, in addition to confirming the earl's grant, awarded him an annuity for life of £50. Payment of the annuity was continued by the king's successor, Richard II, whose favour Clanvow was to enjoy for the rest of his life. In 1381 or a little earlier he was appointed one of the group of ‘chamber knights’, who were the most trusted executants of the royal will. His annuity was first raised to 100 marks (£66 13s. 4d.), assigned on the lordship of Haverford, and then on 20 August 1385 replaced by a grant for life to him of that lordship.

Clanvow's retention by the crown brought him a variety of employments. In Herefordshire he was a JP and several times a commissioner to investigate disturbances, while at court he was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with a number of diplomatic missions. Important though these duties were, they were fairly routine in character; they did not bring Clanvow to the notice of a wider public. What did was his espousal of unorthodox religious views. According to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, Clanvow was one of a group of who were adherents of the ideas of John Wyclif. Of this group Clanvow is the only one known to have committed his beliefs to writing. In a tract, known from its principal theme as The Two Ways, he reflects, significantly in English, on the choice that the Lord offers men between the pain of hell and the bliss of heaven. There are no avowedly Wycliffite thoughts in the piece; it is not doctrinally polemical; and it eschews comment on the real presence. But its silences may be considered suggestive of dissent: there is no mention of confession, pilgrimage, or the veneration of the saints. Authority throughout rests on the scriptures. Support for Wycliffite positions is therefore implicit, if not entirely explicit.

Clanvow's literary activity also extended to the writing of poetry. The Book of Cupid, his one surviving work, is a piece of sufficient merit to have been thought until the nineteenth century to have been written by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer. Like the latter's Parliament of Fowls, to which it is indebted, it takes the form of a dream vision incorporating a debate about the nature of love. The two protagonists, the cuckoo and the nightingale, present a series of antithetical statements about the power of love, in which the cuckoo finally gains the edge. The narrator himself—the subject of his poem—joins in, and offers sympathy to the defeated party. It is an ingenious and accomplished poem. Though it lacks the tension of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, it is possessed of a wry, self-mocking quality which makes it one of the most attractive works of the age.

In his final years Clanvow participated in the revival of crusading activity in Europe and north Africa. In 1390 he took part with other English knights in a Genoese-led attack on the port of Tunis, and in the following year was on his way to Constantinople when he died, on 17 October, in a village in Greece. From the subsequent descent of his estates it can be established that John's heir was one Thomas Clanvow, either a son or a brother; but the general uncertainty attending the family pedigree makes it impossible to establish with accuracy the relationship between him and other members of the family.

Nigel Saul, rev.


Chancery records · Rymer, Foedera · L. C. Hector and B. F. Harvey, eds. and trans., The Westminster chronicle, 1381–1394, OMT (1982) · The works of Sir John Clanvow, ed. V. J. Scattergood (1975) · K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian kings and Lollard knights (1972)