Chaucer’s Customs Petition: (part 2) the Writers


A reproduction of Chaucer’s 1385 petition is published in The British Inheritance: A Treasury of Historic Documents, from which the following images were made. The caption to the reproduction states in part: “It is probable that one of these hands is Chaucer’s, but it is impossible to say which.” (p.31) This is clearly mistaken.

Although there are no positively known samples of Chaucer’s handwriting with which to compare, the text of the petition was probably not written by Chaucer, but by a hired public scrivener, possibly by the name of Adam Pinkhurst.

petition chaucer 1385 text

Public Record Office, C 81/1394/87 (detail)

This identification is the conclusion of Chaucer scholar Simon Horobin based on his paleographic analysis of the  petition, as well as other scholarship identifying Pinkhurst as a scribe who worked on the earliest extant copies of Chaucer’s poetry. Pinkhurst is known to have been a member of the scrivener’s company guild in London, and probably was employed to copy or write a variety of document types, some requiring the use of the functional and terse court-hand seen in Chaucer’s petition, as well as a more literary hand. Chaucer presumably went to the shop of this scrivener with a draft, to have it written out in a professional manner.

An additional piece of literary evidence put forward for the identification is a short poem by Chaucer from this time period “Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn”:

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.

I wonder if Chaucer had also to correct his scribe, clearly accustomed to writing quickly, when he produced his petition.


The writer of the notification of the king’s assent, above the text of the petition,

petition chaucer 1385 le roy lad grante

Public Record Office, C 81/1394/87 (detail)

and the signature below,

petition chaucer 1385 oxen

Public Record Office, C 81/1394/87 (detail)

was Robert de Vere, ninth earl of Oxford. De Vere was Chamberlain of England, and the eighteen-year old king’s close political ally and recipient of largesse. In converting the petition to a warrant for the issue of letters patent under the great seal he was acting in a secretarial capacity for the king. He uses the name Oxen, short for Oxenford, and includes a scribbled graphic element. In Life-Records this is described merely as an asterisk, a description repeated by every other writer on the subject. Upon close examination however, and visible in other examples,  one can see it is a five-pointed star, in heraldic terminology a “mulet”. The Earl of Ox[en]ford uses it here as an emblem representing his family name of De Vere, who held a hereditary claim to the office of Chamberlain of England.

The star is a prominent and famous element of the De Vere coat of arms. There are at least two stories in which this mulet plays a leading role. The first is the 11th century origins of the De Vere star, a legendary episode of the crusades, in which an army is saved by God’s intercession on behalf of the Christian crusaders, shining a saving light on the standard of Audrey de Vere on a night of fighting near Antioch. The second, more absurd episode occured during the Wars of the Roses. At the foggy Battle of Barnet in 1471 an army mistook the flags of its ally (a De Vere) for that of its enemy, fumed at the sight of white roses (or perhaps splendorous suns), attacked their ally, and the battle turned.


Crow, Martin Michael, Clair Colby Olson, and John Matthews Manly. Chaucer Life-Records. [Austin]: University of Texas Press, 1966.

Gillespie, Alexandra. “Reading Chaucer’s Words to Adam.” The Chaucer Review. 42.3 (2008): 269-283.

Horobin, Simon. “Adam Pinkhurst, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Hengwrt Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.” The Chaucer Review. 44.4 (2010): 351-367.

Hulbert, J R. “Chaucer and the Earl of Oxford.” Modern Philology. 10.3 (1913): 433-437.

Mooney, Linne R. “Chaucer’s Scribe.” Speculum. 81.1 (2006): 97-138.

Prescott, Andrew. “Administrative Records and the Scribal Achievement of Medieval England.” in Edwards, Anthony S. G, and Orietta Da Rold, eds. English Manuscript Studies, 1100-1700: Volume 17. London: The British Library, 2012.

Prescott, Andrew, and Elizabeth M. Hallam.  The British Inheritance: A Treasury of Historic Documents. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999.


Chaucer’s Customs Petition: Introduction

In 1385 Geoffrey Chaucer, who held the office of controller of wool customs at London, requested permission from the king to appoint a sufficient deputy for as long as he held the office.  The following is the text of his petition to Richard II preserved in the UK National Archives  [C81/1394/87], published in Life-Records of Chaucer:

1385 petition text

Life-Records of Chaucer, Part IV ed. R.E.G Kirk, London : Published for the Chaucer Society by K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1900 .p.251

The brief notes to the text provide some basic information about the petition: that it is written in an ordinary chancery clerk’s hand, probably not written by Chaucer himself, and signed by the ninth earl of Oxford.

At this time Chaucer had been a London customs controller for about 10 years, having been appointed by Edward III to this minor but politically sensitive office. The controller acted as a royal check on the accounts of the collector of customs. An early biography of Chaucer describes the episode in an inventive and dreamy fashion. This is from Chaucer’s Life by Walter Skeat:

In 1385, a stroke of good fortune befell him, which evidently gave him much relief and pleasure. It appears that Chaucer had asked the king to allow him to have a sufficient deputy in his office as Comptroller at the Wool Quay (in French, Wolkee) of London. And on Feb. 17, he was released from the somewhat severe pressure of his official duties (of which he complains feelingly in the House of Fame, 652-660) by being allowed to appoint a permanent deputy. He seems to have revelled in his newly-found leisure; and we may fairly infer from the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, which seems to have been begun shortly afterwards, that he was chiefly indebted for this favour to the good queen Anne.

In the 1920’s a new project to publish the Life Records was begun, with the aim to provide a  foundation of primary sources on which biographers and historians could rely. This was eventually published in 1966 as Chaucer Life-Records. This edition provides extremely rich descriptions of all the documents printed, including the 1385 petition. There is a valuable discussion also of the operations of the customs service, and the types of records it produced.

Here are some of the descriptive details this edition includes: “the signature (with an asterisk) and the phrase Le roy lad grante are in another ink and in the same, contemporary, hand, much less formal than that of the record itself….”,  the “notification of assent [Le roy lad grante] and the name Oxen below is probably that of Robert de Vere, the ninth earl of Oxford …. by this addition the record became a sufficient warrant for the sealing of the letters patent ….” [p. 169] The background provided by the editors further explain that permission to appoint a deputy for a controller was rare. As a writer of a counter-roll representing the king’s interests at the audit of the collector’s accounts, the controller was expected to perform his duties in person and must have done so. Chaucer however had been given permission to appoint a temporary deputy on a few occasions prior to this, because he was directed to perform other duties on behalf of the king.

The actual letters patent issued to the controller has not survived. However, the enrolment of this license on the Patent Rolls is in the UK National Archives [C66, 8 Ric. II, Pt. 2, m. 31]. The text of the enrolment is published in Chaucer Life-Records (p. 168-9):

Pro Galfrido Chaucer.

Rex omnibus ad quos etc. salutem. Sciatis quod de gracia nostra speciali concessimus et licenciam dedimus dilecto nobis Galfrido Chaucer contrarotulatori custumarum et subsidiorum nostrorum in portu civitatis nostre Londonie quod ipse officium predictum per sufficientem deputatum suum pro quo respondere voluerit facere et excercere possit quamdiu idem Galfridus in officio steterit supradicto absque impedimento collectorum custumarum et subsidiorum nostrorum predictorum in portu predicto pro tempore existencium (seu aliorum quorumcumque). In cuius etc. Teste rege apud Westmonasterium xvii Februarii.

Per ipsum regum

There is no evidence Chaucer used this permission to appoint a deputy, and lost the position the next year.

But I am not here especially concerned with the biography of Chaucer. In following posts I will describe the brief life of his petition.


Crow, Martin M. and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.