Six Degrees of Chaucer: How Southwark Shaped The Canterbury Tales

By Danièle Cybulskie

When you look at the writing going on in the playhouses of Southwark in the sixteenth century, a complex pattern of relationships between some of the most famous writers at the time – William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and others – emerges, and scholars have been discussing for years how this network inspired and challenged its members. In carefully untangling the networks in Southwark two hundred years earlier, Sebastian Sobecki has found another network of intriguing connections between Geoffrey Chaucer and some of the biggest influencers of the day, including John Gower, and Bishop William of Wykeham, chancellor of England.

Southwark is located on the southern bank of the Thames, and was considered separate from London, which lay on the other side of London Bridge, during the Middle Ages. Although it gained an unsavoury reputation during Shakespeare’s day as the location of playhouses and brothels, in Chaucer’s day, it was part of the pilgrim’s route from Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral and home of The Tabard, the inn made so famous by The Canterbury Tales. As part of the see of Winchester, it was one of the places where the bishop had a home, and one of the places which was, Sobecki argues, a catalyst for Chaucer’s inspiration, as well as his place in the world.


Although Chaucer and John Gower make reference to each other in the late 1380s (Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde and Gower in Confessio Amantis), it’s been difficult to determine from these small scraps of information what kind of a relationship the two men had. Sobecki, however, has found other traces of the connections between these two writers beyond just these works. He points first to a legal document from 1378 in which Chaucer “hands power of attorney to Gower and the lawyer Richard Forster” as Chaucer prepared to leave England in the service of the king. This demonstrates, says Sobecki, that although the two men may not have been close at that time, they did know each other to a certain extent. Sobecki believes that Gower was a lawyer, himself, and (following Matthew Giancarlo’s suggestion) that he was such a talented lawyer that Chaucer may have been inspired to create The Canterbury Tales’ Man of Law in Gower’s image.

It’s always tempting to pull two larger-than-life historical figures together and find connections like this one which may look almost like wishful thinking, but Sobecki has pulled further at the knot and found more interesting clues. For example, one of the men who bought property from Gower (and whom Gower later praised in poetry) was Lord Cobham, a close friend of William Wykeham – the bishop of Winchester and two-time chancellor of England. Cobham, as fate would have it, was likely to have known Chaucer, too, as they were both sent abroad on some of the same royal missions.


Gower, Cobham, and Wykeham all lived in Southwark, and it was Wykeham who later gave permission for a local curate to conduct Gower’s wedding ceremony in Gower’s own home, instead of in the church. It’s possible that it was a friendship (or at least acquaintanceship) says Sobecki, that might’ve made this odd wedding arrangement possible.

While teasing out the connections between Chaucer and these influential Southwark residents, Sobecki confronts head-on the question that has perplexed Chaucer scholars for centuries: how did he land the lofty and complex position of clerk of the king’s works when there is no indication he was qualified for this work? Chaucer came from a relatively obscure family of wine merchants, and though he had spent years in the service of the royal family, it was in much lower positions. Who might have vouched for him? The answer, suggests Sobecki, might just be William of Wykeham. Wykeham took on the chancellorship of England a decade after our first recorded incidence of Chaucer and Gower’s acquaintance (Chaucer’s power of attorney document) and Chaucer was appointed only two months later in an official royal letter addressed to Wykeham. If Wykeham was close to Cobham and perhaps Gower, and both Cobham and Gower could vouch for Chaucer, it’s possible they made the fateful introduction that led Geoffrey Chaucer to be the man in charge of construction on some of London’s most venerable landmarks.

Beyond the sleuthing that has uncovered connections between Chaucer, Gower, and Wykeham, Sobecki has delved into some of Southwark’s records, and made some interesting discoveries about possible inspirations for the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales, too.

Drawing of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, created just before it was demolished in 1873.

Harry Bailey, the real Tabard’s innkeeper and the fictional host of The Canterbury Tales, was the designated tax-collector for his Southwark neighbours between 1377 and 1381, including the notorious poll tax that touched off the Peasants’ Revolt. In the records of his tax collection lie many of the same figures that would later appear on pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. In fact, Sobecki notes, though Chaucer’s cast of characters misses out on many of the more highly-ranked members of medieval society – and therefore is not a full representation of all of the “estates” of medieval society – it does include at least one person from almost all of the thirteen labour categories found in the poll tax records for Southwark.


The “inside-joke” type of references, such as the familiar figures from the neighbourhood included in the tax records, as well others like an unscrupulous prioress well-known to those who lived in Southwark, would’ve been spotted and appreciated by those who lived in the area in which Bailey collected taxes. Sobecki speculates that there’s a good chance it’s this particular Southwark audience – including Gower and Chaucer’s other acquaintances there – for whom The Canterbury Tales may have been intended.

To find out more about the inside jokes in The Canterbury Tales, as well as the connections between Chaucer and Gower – two of the most well-known writers of the fourteenth century – Sebastian Sobecki’s article is worth reading in full.

The article “A Southwark Tale: Gower, the 1381 Poll Tax, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales” is published in Speculum. Click here to access it.


Sebastian Sobecki is Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture at the University of Gronigen. Click here to visit his faculty page or follow him on Twitter @SebSobecki

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on her website or on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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