Chaucer [married names Phelip, Montagu, de la Pole], Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c.1404–1475), noblewoman
by Rowena E. Archer

Chaucer [married names Phelip, Montagu, de la Pole], Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c.1404–1475), noblewoman, was the only child and heir of , himself the son of the poet , and of Maud Burghersh (c.1379–1437), coheir of the Burghersh estates including the manor of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, where Alice was probably born.

Alice is first recorded on 21 October 1414 when, although still below the canonical age, she was already the wife of Sir John Phelip (c.1380–1415). Final arrangements for certain Chaucer properties and all Phelip's lands, including the immensely valuable alien priory of Grovebury, Bedfordshire, to be settled on the couple jointly, had scarcely been completed when Alice was widowed on 2 October 1415. By Phelip's will, Alice received a gold cup and a room with all its furniture in his house. Although accounts survive in her name for her Grovebury lands, it is probable, since she was still a minor, that she returned to her parental home and that her father was managing her property. She was married some time after 1421 to ; her beauty so captivated the duke of Burgundy at a Paris wedding in 1424, that he attempted to seduce her, much to Montagu's fury. She had no children with Salisbury and was widowed on 3 November 1428. Alice was supervisor of Salisbury's will, under the terms of which she was to receive half his net goods together with 1000 marks in gold, 3000 marks in jewellery and plate, and the revenues of his Norman lands so long as these were collectable. On 11 November 1430 Alice was licensed to marry , and they were certainly married by 21 May 1432. Between 1430 and 1435 elaborate agreements were drawn up for her jointure in most of Suffolk's lands. Her only certain child, , was born on 27 September 1442 and on 4 November 1444 she was promised his guardianship in the event of Suffolk's early death.

Alice's influence on Suffolk, whether because of her lands or out of genuine affection, seems to have been considerable. On 3 July 1437 the couple were licensed to found an almshouse at Ewelme, called God's House, for two chaplains and thirteen poor men and by 1448, when the statutes were drawn up, they had added a grammar school. On 19 January 1440 Alice, together with Suffolk and her brother-in-law, William Phelip, received the constableship of Wallingford Castle and it was as sole constable that Alice received custody of the duke of Exeter in 1455.

In 1445 Alice accompanied the future Queen Margaret of Anjou to England and came to enjoy such prominence at court that her removal from the household was demanded in the parliament of 1450–51. Her malign influence is colourfully attested to by the citizens of Norwich who recorded how one evening, before 2 June 1448, the countess had come to the city ‘disguised lyke an huswyf of the countre’ and how Alice and her husband's notorious henchmen, Sir Thomas Tuddenham and John Heydon, both to remain in her service long after Suffolk's death, had gone into nearby Lakenham Woods ‘to tak the ayr and disport theymself’. A fight had ensued involving one of the city officials and ultimately to this event, which had incurred the Suffolks' displeasure, the city ascribed the royal seizure of its franchise (Hudson and others, 1.344).

Suffolk died on 2 May 1450, leaving Alice as the widow of Henry VI's discredited minister, more vulnerable than ever. Swiftly, on 8 May she secured the keeping of all the de la Pole lands but Alice's notoriety was such that Cade's rebels undertook a mock trial of her in London in July and a formal state trial followed. She survived public vilification as well as private attacks on her estates in the 1450s. Perhaps emboldened by her successful recovery she began to pursue her late husband's illegal claims to manors in East Anglia belonging to Sir John Fastolf (d. 1459) that he had coveted, and where Suffolk had failed in the attempt, Alice was completely successful. By this time the Pastons, also claiming Fastolf's inheritance, had experienced her generally aggressive tactics. Margaret Paston heaped the blame not upon the new duke alone but on his mother.

Whether owing to a specific grievance, possibly the dissolution of her son's marriage to , or out of general political astuteness, Alice turned her back on the collapsing Lancastrian dynasty. In 1458 she began negotiating with Richard, duke of York, for her son's marriage to York's daughter. She recovered for herself the rich Grovebury estate which she had been forced to grant to Henry VI's foundation at Eton in 1446. She was favoured by exemptions in Edward IV's Acts of Resumption and counted William, Lord Hastings, among her feed men, and was so completely in the Yorkist camp that she was made Margaret of Anjou's gaoler in 1471 after the battle of Tewkesbury.

Alice Chaucer grew to be an extremely wealthy widow through her parents (from whom she inherited in 1437), her three valuable marriages, and her own policy of buying up land during her last long widowhood. By these means she accumulated estates in twenty-two counties, from three of which in 1454 she received an income of £1300. She was wealthy enough to be a crown creditor in 1450 and in the 1460s. That her lifestyle was fairly lavish and that she was something of a literary patron, notably of an old Chaucer friend, John Lydgate, are substantiated by the inventory of her goods and books made in 1466 when she left East Anglia and came home to Ewelme.

Alice died between 20 May and 9 June 1475 and was buried at Ewelme where her elegant effigy, possibly a portrait, showing her wearing the Garter insignia on her left forearm, lies on the alabaster tomb chest, complete with her unique cadaver below, which she had commissioned before her death.

ROWENA E. ARCHER

Sources  

Chancery records · TNA: PRO · BL, Egerton Roll 8779 · BL, Harley Charter 54.1.9 · H. A. Napier, Historical notices of the parishes of Swyncombe and Ewelme in the county of Oxford (1858) · M. B. Rudd, ‘Thomas Chaucer’, Research Publications of the University of Minnesota Studies in Language and Literature, 9 (1932) · C. Richmond, The Paston family in the fifteenth century: the first phase (1990) · C. A. Metcalfe, ‘Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk, c.1404–1475’, BA diss., University of Keele, 1970 · J. A. Goodall, ‘God's House at Ewelme’, PhD diss., Courtauld Inst., 1997 · L. E. James, ‘The career and political influence of William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk, 1437–50’, BLitt diss., U. Oxf., 1979 · Eighth report, 1, HMC, 7 (1907–9), 624–32 · Ninth report, 1, HMC, 8 (1883), 216–22 · The Paston letters, AD 1422–1509, ed. J. Gairdner, new edn, 6 vols. (1904) · C. M. Meale, ‘“ … alle the bokes that I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch”: laywomen and their books in late medieval England’, Women and literature in Britain, 1150–1500, ed. C. M. Meale (1993), 159–82 · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Ewelme · St George's Chapel, Windsor, Grovebury accounts · W. Hudson, ed., The records of the city of Norwich, 1 (1906)

Likenesses  

alabaster effigy on monument, c.1470, St Mary's Church, Ewelme, Oxfordshire [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

over £1342—lands in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex: BL, Egerton roll 8779, 1453–1454


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Alice Chaucer (c.1404–1475): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/54434