The Indomitable Duchess: Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk

[This post was originally done as a guest post for Sarah’s History Blog. Sarah can now be found blogging at her excellent Henry III blog.]

Detail from upper effigy of Alice's tomb (a cadaver effigy is below it)
Detail from upper effigy of Alice’s tomb (a cadaver effigy is below it)

In what would prove to be his last letter, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, preparing to sail off into exile, wrote a letter to his young son, John, in which he advised the boy “always, as ye be bound by the commandment of God to do, to love, to worship your lady and mother, and also that you always obey her commandments, and to believe her council and advice in all your works, the which dreadeth not, but shall be best and truest to you.” The woman of which Suffolk spoke so highly was his duchess, Alice Chaucer.

A granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice was born around 1404, probably at the manor of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, and was the only child of Thomas Chaucer and Maud Burghersh. She never met her famous grandfather, who died in 1400. Her wealthy and well-connected father, who served several times as Speaker of the Commons, arranged her marriage early: by October 1414, Alice was the wife of Sir John Phelip, a wealthy knight who was nearly twenty-five years her senior. A year later, on October 2, 1415, Sir John died at the siege of Harfleur, a victim not of a French arrow but of the flux.

By 1424, and perhaps as early as 1421, Alice had made an even better marriage than her first. This time, her groom was Thomas Montague, Earl of Salisbury, a widower. Born in 1388, Salisbury was one of the best and most experienced English commanders in France, where Alice spent part of her married life. There, at a wedding celebration in November 1424, she is said to have aroused the lust of Philip, Duke of Burgundy. Furious about this, the story goes, Salisbury became an implacable enemy of the amorous Burgundy.

Whatever the truth of this tale, it does not seem to have lessened Salisbury’s good opinion of Alice. In his will, he referred to her as his “beloved wife,” and asked that his tomb at Bisham Abbey be designed so that his first wife could lie on one side and Alice, “if she will,” on the other. Alice, however, would make other burial plans for herself.

On October 27, 1428, Salisbury, who was besieging Orléans, was watching the city from a window at Les Tourelles when he was struck by debris from a cannonball, which tore away much of his lower face. For a week, he lingered before dying at Meung on November 3. He and Alice had had no children, although the earl himself had a daughter (also named Alice) by his first wife as well as an illegitimate son. Alice Chaucer served as the supervisor of her husband’s will. He left her half of his net goods, 1,000 marks in gold, and 3,000 marks in jewellery and plate, as well as the revenues of his Norman lands as long as they could be collected.

William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, took up Salisbury’s command in France. Two years after Salisbury’s death, Suffolk took over his widow as well: on November 11, 1430, he and Alice were issued a royal license to marry.

Born in 1396, Suffolk had spent most of his adult life serving in France. He had been taken prisoner at Jargeau, by forces led by Joan of Arc, in 1429, and was set free in early 1430. From that point on, his career would center around the court of Henry VI and his and Alice’s estates in East Anglia and the Thames Valley.

As her husband became a prominent figure at court, so did Alice. In 1432, she was made a Lady of the Garter. In the autumn of 1444, she accompanied her husband to France to escort Henry VI’s bride, Margaret of Anjou, to England. When Margaret, traveling through English-occupied France, fell ill in March 1445, Alice, dressed in the queen’s robes, took her place in the ceremonial entry into Rouen. By this time, Alice was the Marchioness of Suffolk, as William had been made a marquis on September 14, 1444, for his role in arranging the king’s French marriage.

An odd incident involving Alice and one of Suffolk’s prominent supporters, Sir Thomas Tuddenham, dates from before June 1448, when William was made Duke of Suffolk. As rendered in modern English by Susan Swain Madders, officials of the city of Norwich complained:

It was so, that Alice, Duchess, that time Countess of Suffolk, lately in person came to this city, disguised like a country housewife. Sir Thomas Tuddenham, and two other persons, went with her, also disguised; and they, to take their disports, went out of the city one evening, near night, so disguised, towards a hovel called Lakenham Wood, to take the air, and disport themselves, beholding the said city. One Thomas Ailmer, of Norwich, esteeming in his conceit that the said duchess and Sir Thomas had been other persons, met them, and opposed their going out in that wise, and fell at variance with the said Sir Thomas, so that they fought; whereby the said duchess was sore afraid; by cause whereof the said duchess and Sir Thomas took a displeasure against the city, notwithstanding that the mayor of the city at that time being, arrested Thomas Ailmer, and held him in prison more than thirty weeks without bail; to the intent thereby both to chastise Ailmer, and to appease the displeasure of the said duchess and Sir Thomas; and also the said mayor arrested and imprisoned all other persons which the said duchess and Sir Thomas could understand had in any way given favour or comfort to the said Ailmer, in making the affray. Notwithstanding which punishment, the displeasure of the duchess and Sir Thomas was not appeased.

Because of this and other incidents, the city claimed, the crown had seized its franchise. Sadly, we have only the city’s version of events, not Alice’s. Nor do we know what Suffolk thought of his wife “disporting” herself with Tuddenham (who would be executed in 1462 by Edward IV). Perhaps Tuddenham’s odd marital history—his only marriage had been dissolved for lack of consummation, although his wife gave birth to a child by her father’s chamberlain—made him above suspicion.

As this incident shows, Alice was not a popular figure in Norwich, and matters were to get much worse. By the late 1440’s, English reversals in France and rivalries in East Anglia combined by the late 1440’s to make Suffolk one of the most hated men in England. Accused by the Commons of treason charges which included plotting with the French and attempting to put his own son on the throne, he was imprisoned in the Tower in 1450. Henry VI attempted to save his chief minister and pacify his enemies by sending him into exile. He left Ipswich on May 1.

Sailing into the Straits of Dover, Suffolk’s pinnace was intercepted by a larger vessel named Nicholas of the Tower, the crew of which forced Suffolk to leave his own ship and board theirs, where he was met with cries of “Welcome, traitor!” After a mock trial, he was condemned to die and was allowed to spend the evening preparing for death with his chaplain. The next morning, Suffolk was hustled onto a smaller boat, where he was beheaded with six strokes of a rusty sword. Suffolk’s head and body were rowed to the shore of Dover, where they were tossed on to the sand.

Alice had not followed Suffolk into exile but had stayed home in England, presumably to run the couple’s estates. With her was the couple’s only surviving child, John, born on September 27, 1442. It was to John that Suffolk had addressed the farewell letter urging his seven-year-old son to be guided by his mother. Suffolk also made his regard for Alice manifest in his will, written on January 17, 1450. In it, he named Alice his sole executrix, for above all the earth my singular trust is most in her.”

To get through the next months, Alice would need all of the comfort her murdered husband’s trust in her could give. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1450, and over the next two years, poachers repeatedly raided her parks—and that was the least of her problems. After Suffolk’s murder, the unrest in Kent exploded into what is known as Jack Cade’s Rebellion.  Alice was one of the rebels’ targets.  When the rebels entered London in July 1450, they forced members of a commissioner of oyer and terminer to indict a number of supposed traitors, Alice among them. It is unknown what charges were pressed against Alice, but it seems likely that they were connected with the marriage of her son, John de la Pole, to the equally young Margaret Beaufort, daughter of the deceased John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. One of the charges against Suffolk had been that he was planning to proclaim Margaret as the childless king’s heir and make his own son king through this marriage.

Alice was probably safe at one of her own manors, or perhaps with the queen, during Cade’s rebellion, but the news coming out of the city, which included the rebels’ murder of at least five men, must have deeply shaken her. Even after the crisis of the rebellion passed, she found herself the target of popular hatred. This time, in the parliament that convened in November 1450, the Commons brought a petition that certain persons be banned from coming into the king’s presence. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, headed the list; Alice was second. An attempt was also made to attaint  the dead Duke of Suffolk as a traitor, which would have prevented his son from inheriting his estates. Fortunately for Alice, the king resisted both petitions. It probably helped a great deal that on October 8, 1450, Alice lent the crown 3,500 marks toward the war effort in France.

Yet Alice’s problems were still not over, for sometime before March 1451 Alice was tried for treason before the assembled lords—perhaps on the indictment that had been brought in July.  Little is known of Alice’s trial or other state trials that were held at this time, probably, as John Watts points out, because the defendants, including Alice, were acquitted.

With this crisis over, and the Suffolk estates secure, Alice’s life returned to normal. In 1453, Alice was among the great ladies summoned to attend the churching of Margaret of Anjou, who had at last borne Henry VI a son, Edward of Lancaster. In 1455, as constable of Wallingford Castle, an office she held jointly with her son, she was entrusted with a state prisoner: the troublesome Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter. The rebellious son-in-law of Richard, Duke of York, Exeter had been taken into custody following the Yorkist victory at St. Albans in 1455.

In early 1453, the marriage of John de la Pole and Margaret Beaufort was dissolved, apparently at the initiative of the king, who gave Margaret’s wardship to his half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor.  Perhaps the king was also coming under pressure by those who still feared a Suffolk-Beaufort marriage; ironically, it would be Margaret’s next marriage, to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, that would have momentous consequences in 1485.

As the nobility began to divide in support of the houses of either Lancaster or York, Alice made a decision that would prove most fortunate.  She held her son’s wardship and marriage, in an age where the wardships of wealthy young heirs were hot commodities, and in 1458, she and Richard, Duke of York, entered into an agreement for John de la Pole to marry Elizabeth, one of York’s daughters. It has been suggested that she might have become alienated from the crown because of the dissolution of her son’s first marriage, but it is just as likely that she simply saw the opportunity for an advantageous match. Whatever her motivations, her decision would prove to be a wise one, for in 1461, York’s son, Edward IV, sat on the throne of England.

During her long widowhood, Alice proved herself to be adept at looking after her and her son’s interests—even predatory. Singly or with her son, she seized the manors of Cotton, Dedham, Hellesdon, and Drayton from the Paston family, despite a claim to them that was dubious or nonexistent. Such actions do not show the duchess in an attractive light, but any sign of weakness would have left her vulnerable to the machinations of others. Colin Richmond has suggested that she was partly motivated by devotion to the memory of her husband, who had coveted the manors himself. (Suffolk had sold Cotton, his birthplace, to pay his ransom to the French and had regretted the sale.) If this is so, it makes her actions a little more palatable, although certainly the Pastons did not see it that way.  Margaret Paston had good reason to advise her son not to approach the duchess without his counselors, on the ground that the duchess was “subtle and has subtle counsel with her.

There was another side to the duchess, however. After the murder of her husband, she never remarried, but may have taken a vow of chastity. This could have been a device to avoid having a political marriage thrust upon her, but it could also be a token of her affection for her murdered husband. She donated books and gold to Oxford University, and contributed twenty pounds toward the construction of its divinity school. In 1454, she donated twenty marks to Eye Church for the construction of a tower; the donation was for the good of Suffolk’s soul and for her son’s good estate. Having moved Suffolk’s body from Wingfield, its original burial spot, to the Charterhouse at Hull, where Suffolk had requested burial in his will, Alice arranged with the prior there to have two paupers fed daily. The prior was also to erect two stone images of Alice and Suffolk, holding in the right hand a disk as a symbol of bread and fish and in the right hand an ale pot.

The most famous—and most enduring—act of piety associated with the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk is God’s House at Ewelme, founded by the couple in 1437. God’s House was an almshouse for thirteen paupers; later, the duke and duchess added a school.  The foundation survives today as the Ewelme Trust; the almshouse and school are still used for their original purposes.

The almshouses erected by William and Alice
The almshouses erected by William and Alice

Alice was also a bibliophile. She may have commissioned the poet John Lydgate’s The Virtues of the Mass. A 1466 inventory made when Alice was moving her goods from Wingfield to Ewelme shows that she owned a number of books. Fourteen were religious texts of the sort that would  be used in her chapel, but seven others, in English, French, and Latin, were clearly for Alice’s own use. The Latin book, for “the moral instruction of a prince,” was likely acquired for the education of Alice’s son. The others included Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cité Des Dames, and the Ditz de Philisophius, which Anthony Woodville later translated for William Caxton’s press. On one occasion, Alice worried that her books might be damaged in the place where she had left them and ordered her servant to move them to a safer location.

The upheavals of 1469 to 1471 seem to have affected Alice little. In 1472 at Wallingford, she played host to a reluctant guest—Margaret of Anjou, who had been taken prisoner by the victorious Yorkist forces after the battle of Tewkesbury. Alice had headed the entourage of ladies who escorted the young Margaret to England; now Alice was the custodian of the woman she had once served.

Alice did not live to see Margaret return to her native land in 1476. Aged about seventy-one, Alice died in May or June of 1475. Her will does not survive, but it seems likely that her unusual tomb at the church of St. Mary the Virgin at Ewelme was made to her own specifications. It contains an upper effigy of Alice, who wears the coronet of a duchess and who has the Order of the Garter wrapped around her left arm.  In its day, the effigy was painted. Below the upper effigy is an enclosed cadaver effigy, showing the naked, shriveled corpse of Alice lying in an opened shroud. John Goodall notes that it is the only life-sized female cadaver sculpture in England to have survived intact.

While many medieval monuments have been lost to us, Alice’s tomb can still be seen in its glory today. A tough and resilient woman in an era that bred some of history’s toughest and most resilient women, Alice probably would not be surprised.

Selected Sources:

Marjorie Anderson, “Alice Chaucer and Her Husbands,” in PMLA, March 1945.

Rowena E. Archer, “Chaucer , Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c.1404–1475),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011.

Rowena E. Archer, “’How ladies . . . who live on their manors ought to manage their households and estates’: Women as Landholders and Administrators in the Later Middle Ages.” In Woman Is a Worthy Wight: Women in English Society c. 1200-1500, P. J. P. Goldberg, ed.

John A. A. Goodall, God’s House at Ewelme.

I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450.

Karen K. Jambeck, “The Library of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk: A Fifteenth-Century Owner of a ‘Boke of le Citee de Dames,’” in The Profane Arts (1998).

Susan Swain Madders, Rambles in an Old City, Comprising Antiquarian, Historical, Biographical, and Political Associations.

Carol M. Meale, “Reading Women’s Culture in Fifteenth-Century England: The Case of Alice Chaucer,” in Mediaevalitas: Reading the Middle Ages, Piero Boitani and Anna Torti, eds.

Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Testamenta Vetusta.

Colin Richmond, The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century: The First Phase.

John Watts, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship.


10 thoughts on “The Indomitable Duchess: Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk”

  1. Hi Susan
    We stumbled upon the church in Ewelme whilst out for a walk last month. Amazing church and tomb. We also wandered into the cloister which is still inhabited today. Despite living locally, I had somehow avoided Ewelme and its treasures.

  2. This post is most welcome. I’ve wondered about Alice Chaucer. Grand-daughter of a civil servant and his wife, the daughter of a mere Knight of Hainault. The de Roet sisters were progenitors of some remarkable families and women. It is easier to understand in the case of Katherine, whose husband (finally) was a King’s son. One wonders if Philippa could ever even have imagined the “career of her grand-daughter.

  3. Amazing the information we are able to read about that previously we had no access to or knowledge of. The internet and computers make it so much easier and to find that women of the MA’s were very well educated and could run a large manor house, large estate, or large castle with so many people to manage and all that entailed, salting of fish, meats, making candles, shearing sheep, spinning and weaving, sewing clothes by hand, the crops to be planted, reaped, stored for winter, and all that laundry plus getting on with the daily needs. Women of the time were very good managers, not what we have been led to believe. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Thank you Susan for this. It made for fascinating reading about a very strong lady whom I knew little about. There have been quite a bit on TV with Philippa Gregory’s documentary et al about how strong women had to be in those times and Alice is another example of the truth of that.

  5. Hello, Susan.

    I am the 32nd great grandson of Alice. Your writings and research of Alice have helped to bring her to life. In turn, I am teaching my daughters of their noble ancestor.

    Thank you.
    Greig Craft

  6. Pingback: The Stone-Worker’s Tale | Dottie Tales

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top