The Rise and Rise of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Sullolk | Banbury Museum

The Rise and Rise of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Sullolk

Report on BHS lecture of 10th Jan 2019

‘The rise and rise of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk’  

Dr Rowena Archer, a medieval historian who has studied Alice Chaucer (c 1405-1475) and her family for many years, gave the first lecture of 2019.  The Duchess was a formidable woman who rose to great wealth from a commoner background who was also an adept politician in the turbulent years of the mid fifteenth century. 

Her father, Thomas (son of Geoffrey Chaucer) probably acted as an example; five times Speaker of the House of Commons he was prominent in assisting Henry V and in manoeuvring advantageous marriages.  Alice herself was married at the age of about 10 to Sir John Phelip, who died almost immediately after the battle of Agincourt, leaving her with the jointure of all the Phelip lands; an important start to her subsequent landed wealth, some of which also came to her from the estates of her mother, Maud Burghersh. As a wealthy widow she remarried Thomas Montagu, fourth earl of Salisbury (d 1428) and thirdly William de la Pole, the fourth earl, and subsequently, first duke of Suffolk. He was Steward of the Household of Henry VI and an influential minister to the king, but was exiled in 1450 as a result of his impeachment by the House of Commons.  Murdered by pirates on his way to France he left Alice with a young child, John, and immense wealth which she used for influence and to consolidate her lands.

At her husband’s death that wealth was calculated to include property in 22 counties, six London houses and five castles. all richly furnished in a manner which suited her status, and jewellery previously estimated to be worth 3000 marks. Surviving accounts suggest that her income was at least £1500 per annum and probably more like double that; she adroitly avoided a state trial in 1451 and although her origins were Lancastrian she switched sides in 1455 when she organised the second marriage of her son John to Elizabeth of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III. She used the de la Pole entourage to annex additional land in Norfolk, infuriating the Paston family amongst others, but nevertheless was appointed a Lady of the Garter and is depicted wearing the garter on her wrist on her fine tomb at Ewelme church.

Although she lived at Wallingford castle for much of her life (which had come to her through the de la Pole family) she eventually retired to the Palace at Ewelme which she and William de la Pole had built, together with the church in which she is buried, the alms-houses and the school. The grandeur of her three-part alabaster tomb, the trappings around her and the richness of the decoration attest to the stature which she thought herself due and probably the awe with which she was regarded.  The tomb itself, with an unusual lower part containing an effigy of her body in death, is a striking testament to a powerful and successful woman of the mid fifteenth century whose influence has been underestimated. 

Helen Forde