The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Volume I Part 1

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The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753).

by Theophilus Cibber.

Vol. I


It has been observed that men of eminence in all ages, and distinguished for the same excellence, have generally had something in their lives similar to each other. The place of Homer's nativity, has not been more variously conjectured, or his parents more differently a.s.signed than our author's. Leland, who lived nearest to Chaucer's time of all those who have wrote his life, was commissioned by king Henry VIII, to search all the libraries, and religious houses in England, when those archives were preserved, before their destruction was produced by the reformation, or Polydore Virgil had consumed such curious pieces as would have contradicted his framed and fabulous history. He for some reasons believed Oxford or Berkshire to have given birth to this great man, but has not informed us what those reasons were that induced him to believe so, and at present there appears no other, but that the seats of his family were in those countries. Pitts positively a.s.serts, without producing any authority to support it, that Woodstock was the place; which opinion Mr. Camden seems to hint at, where he mentions that town; but it may be suspected that Pitts had no other ground for the a.s.sertion, than Chaucer's mentioning Woodstock park in his works, and having a house there. But after all these different pretensions, he himself, in the Testament of Love, seems to point out the place of his nativity to be the city of London, and tho' Mr. Camden mentions the claim of Woodstock, he does not give much credit to it; for speaking of Spencer (who was uncontrovertedly born in London) he calls him fellow citizen to Chaucer.

The descent of Chaucer is as uncertain, and unfixed by the critics, as the place of his birth. Mr. Speight is of opinion that one Richard Chaucer was his father, and that one Elizabeth Chaucer, a nun of St. Helen's, in the second year of Richard II. might have been his sister, or of his kindred. But this conjecture, says Urry,[1] seems very improbable; for this Richard was a vintner, living at the corner of Kirton-lane, and at his death left his house, tavern, and stock to the church of St. Mary Aldermary, which in all probability he would not have done if he had had any sons to possess his fortune; nor is it very likely he could enjoy the family estates mentioned by Leland in Oxfordshire, and at the same time follow such an occupation. Pitts a.s.serts, that his father was a knight; but tho' there is no authority to support this a.s.sertion, yet it is reasonable to suppose that he was something superior to a common employ. We find one John Chaucer attending upon Edward III. and Queen Philippa, in their expedition to Flanders and Cologn, who had the King's protection to go over sea in the twelfth year of his reign. It is highly probable that this gentleman was father to our Geoffry, and the supposition is strengthened by Chaucer's first application, after leaving the university and inns of law, being to the Court; nor is it unlikely that the service of the father should recommend the son.

It is universally agreed, that he was born in the second year of the reign of King Edward III. A.D. 1328. His first studies were in the university of Cambridge, and when about eighteen years of age he wrote his Court of Love, but of what college he was is uncertain, there being no account of him in the records of the University. From Cambridge he was removed to Oxford in order to compleat his studies, and after a considerable stay there, and a strict application to the public lectures of the university, he became (says Leland) "a ready logician, a smooth rhetorician, a pleasant poet, a great philosopher, an ingenious mathematician, and a holy divine. That he was a great master in astronomy, is plain by his discourses of the Astrolabe. That he was versed in hermetic philosophy (which prevailed much at that time), appears by his Tale of the Chanons Yeoman: His knowledge in divinity is evident from his Parson's Tale, and his philosophy from the Testament of Love." Thus qualified to make a figure in the world, he left his learned retirement, and travelled into France, Holland, and other countries, where he spent some of his younger days. Upon his return he entered himself in the Inner Temple, where he studied the munic.i.p.al laws of the land. But he had not long prosecuted that dry study, till his superior abilities were taken notice of by some persons of distinction, by whole patronage he then approached the splendor of the court. The reign of Edward III. was glorious and successful, he was a discerning as well as a fortunate Monarch; he had a taste as well for erudition as for arms; he was an encourager of men of wit and parts, and permitted them to approach him, without reserve. At Edward's court nothing but gallantry and a round of pleasure prevailed, and how well qualified our poet was to shine in the soft circles, whoever has read his works, will be at no loss to determine; but besides the advantages of his wit and learning, he possessed those of person in a very considerable degree. He was then about the age of thirty, of a fair beautiful complexion, his lips red and full, his size of a just medium, and his air polished and graceful, so that he united whatever could claim the approbation of the Great, and charm the eyes of the Fair. He had abilities to record the valour of the one, and celebrate the beauty of the other, and being qualified by his genteel behaviour to entertain both, he became a finished courtier. The first dignity to which we find him preferred, was that of page to the king, a place of so much honour and esteem at that time, that Richard II. leaves particular legacies to his pages, when few others of his servants are taken notice of. In the forty-first year of Edward III. he received as a reward of his services, an annuity of twenty marks per ann. payable out of the Exchequer, which in those days was no inconsiderable pension; in a year after he was advanced to be of his Majesty's privy chamber, and a very few months to be his shield bearer, a t.i.tle, at that time, (tho' now extinct) of very great honour, being always next the king's person, and generally upon signal victories rewarded with military honours. Our poet being thus eminent by his places, contracted friendships, and procured the esteem of persons of the first quality. Queen Philippa, the Duke of Lancaster, and his d.u.c.h.ess Blanch, shewed particular honour to him, and lady Margaret the king's daughter, and the countess of Pembroke gave him their warmest patronage as a poet. In his poems called the Romaunt, and the Rose, and Troilus and Creseide, he gave offence to some court ladies by the looseness of his description, which the lady Margaret resented, and obliged him to atone for it, by his Legend of good Women, a piece as chaste as the others were luxuriously amorous, and, under the name of the Daisy, he veils lady Margaret, whom of all his patrons he most esteemed.

Thus loved and honoured, his younger years were dedicated to pleasure and the court. By the recommendation of the Dutchess Blanch, he married one Philippa Rouet, sister to the guardianess of her grace's children, who was a native of Hainault: He was then about thirty years of age, and being fixed by marriage, the king began to employ him in more public and advantageous posts. In the forty-sixth year of his majesty's reign, Chaucer was sent to Venice in commission with others, to treat with the Doge and Senate of Genoa, about affairs of great importance to our state. The duke of Lancaster, whose favourite pa.s.sion was ambition, which demanded the a.s.sistance of learned men, engaged warmly in our poet's interest; besides, the duke was remarkably fond of Lady Catherine Swynford, his wife's sister, who was then guardianess to his children, and whom he afterwards made his wife; thus was he doubly attached to Chaucer, and with the varying fortune of the duke of Lancaster we find him rise or fall. Much about this time, for his successful negociations at Genoa, the king granted to him by letters patent, by the t.i.tle of Armiger Noster, one pitcher of wine daily in the port of London, and soon after made him comptroller of the customs, with this particular proviso, that he should personally execute the office, and write the accounts relating to it with his own hand. But as he was advanced to higher places of trust, so he became more entangled in the affairs of state, the consequence of which proved very prejudicial to him. The duke of Lancaster having been the chief instrument of raising him to dignity, expected the fruits of those favours in a ready compliance with him in all his designs. That prince was certainly one of the proudest and most ambitious men of his time, nor could he patiently bear the name of a subject even to his father; nothing but absolute power, and the t.i.tle of king could satisfy him; upon the death of his elder brother, Edward the black prince, he fixed an eye upon the English crown, and seemed to stretch out an impatient hand to reach it. In this view he sought, by all means possible, to secure his interest against the decease of the old king; and being afraid of the opposition of the clergy, who are always strenuous against an irregular succession, he embraced the opinions and espoused the interests of Wickliff, who now appeared at Oxford, and being a man of very great abilities, and much esteemed at court, drew over to his party great numbers, as well fashionable as low people. In this confusion, the duke of Lancaster endeavoured all he could to shake the power of the clergy, and to procure votaries amongst the leading popular men. Chaucer had no small hand in promoting these proceedings, both by his public interest and writings. Towards the close of Edward's reign, he was very active in the intrigues of the court party, and so recommended himself to the Prince successor, that upon his ascending the throne, he confirmed to him by the t.i.tle of Dilectus Armiger Noster, the grant made by the late king of twenty marks per annum, and at the same time confirmed the other grant of the late King for a pitcher of wine to be delivered him daily in the port of London. In less than two years after this, we find our poet so reduced in his cirumstances, (but by what means is unknown) that the King in order to screen him from his creditors, took him under his protection, and allowed him still to enjoy his former grants. The duke of Lancaster, whose restless ambition ever excited him to disturb the state, engaged now with, all the interest of which he was master to promote himself to the crown; the opinions of Wickliff gained ground, and so great a commotion now prevailed amongst the clergy, that the king perceiving the state in danger, and being willing to support the clerical interest, suffered the archbishop of Canterbury to summon Wickliff to appear before him, whose interest after this arraignment very much decayed.[2] The king who was devoted to his pleasures, resigned himself, to some young courtiers who hated the duke of Lancaster, and caused a fryar to accuse him of an attempt to kill the king; but before he had an opportunity of making out the charge against him, the fryar was murdered in a cruel and barbarous manner by lord John Holland, to whose care he had been committed. This lord John Holland, called lord Huntingdon, and duke of Exeter, was half brother to the King, and had married Elizabeth, daughter of the duke of Lancaster. He was a great patron of Chaucer, and much respected by him. With the duke of Lancaster's interest Chaucer's also sunk. His patron being unable to support him, he could no longer struggle against opposite parties, or maintain his posts of honour. The duke pa.s.sing over sea, his friends felt all the malice of an enraged court; which induced them to call in a number of the populace to a.s.sist them, of which our poet was a zealous promoter. One John of Northampton, a late lord mayor of London was at the head of these disturbances; which did not long continue; for upon beheading one of the rioters, and Northampton's being taken into custody, the commotion subsided. Strict search was made after Chaucer, who escaped into Hainault; afterwards he went to France, and finding the king resolute to get him into his hands, he fled from thence to Zealand. Several accomplices in this affair were with him, whom he supported in their exile, while the chief ringleaders, (except Northampton who was condemned at Reading upon the evidence of his clerk) had restored themselves to court favour by acknowledging their crime, and now forgot the integrity and resolution of Chaucer, who suffered exile to secure their secrets; and so monstrously ungrateful were they, that they wished his death, and by keeping supplies of money from him, endeavoured to effect it;-While he expended his fortune in removing from place to place, and in supporting his fellow exiles, so far from receiving any a.s.sistance from England, his apartments were let, and the money received for rent was never acccounted for to him; nor could he recover any from those who owed it him, they being of opinion it was impossible for him ever to return to his own country. The government still pursuing their resentment against him and his friends, they were obliged to leave Zealand, and Chaucer being unable to bear longer the calamities of poverty and exile, and finding no security wherever he fled, chose rather to throw himself upon the laws of his country, than perish abroad by hunger and oppression. He had not long returned till he was arrested by order of the king, and confined in the tower of London. The court sometimes flattered him with the return of the royal favour if he would impeach his accomplices, and sometimes threatened him with immediate destruction; their threats and promises he along while disregarded, but recollecting the ingrat.i.tude of his old friends, and the miseries he had already suffered, he at last made a confession, and according to the custom of trials at that time, offered to prove the truth of it by combat. What the consequence of this discovery was to his accomplices, is uncertain, it no doubt exposed him to their resentment, and procured him the name of a traytor; but the king, who regarded him as one beloved by his grandfather, was pleased to pardon him. Thus fallen from a heighth of greatness, our poet retired to bemoan the fickleness of fortune, and then wrote his Testament of Love, in which are many pathetic exclamations concerning the vicissitude of human things, which he then bitterly experienced. But as he had formerly been the favourite of fortune, when dignities were multiplied thick upon him, so his miseries now succeeded with an equal swiftness; he was not only discarded by his majesty, unpensioned, and abandoned, but he lost the favour of the duke of Lancaster, as the influence of his wife's sister with that prince was now much lessened. The duke being dejected with the troubles in which he was involved, began to reflect on his vicious course of life, and particularly his keeping that lady as his concubine; which produced a resolution of putting her out of his house, and he made a vow to that purpose. Chaucer, thus reduced, and weary of the perpetual turmoils at court, retired to Woodstock, to enjoy a studious quiet; where he wrote his excellent treatise of the Astrolabe; but notwithstanding the severe treatment of the government, he still retained his loyalty, and strictly enjoined his son to pray for the king. As the pious resolutions of some people are often the consequence of a present evil, so at the return of prosperity they are soon dissipated. This proved the case with the duke of Lancaster: his party again gathered strength, his interest began to rise; upon which he took again his mistress to his bosom, and not content with heaping favours, honours, and t.i.tles upon her, he made her his wife, procured an act of parliament to legitimate her children, which gave great offence to the d.u.c.h.ess of Gloucester, the countess of Derby, and Arundel, as she then was ent.i.tled to take place of them. With her interest, Chaucer's also returned, and after a long and bitter storm, the sun began to shine upon him with an evening ray; for at the sixty-fifth year of his age, the king granted to him, by the t.i.tle of Delectus Armiger Noster, an annuity of twenty marks per annum during his life, as a compensation for the former pension his needy circ.u.mstances obliged him to part with; but however sufficient that might be for present support, yet as he was enc.u.mbered with debts, he durst not appear publickly till his majesty again granted him his royal protection to screen him from the persecution of his creditors; he also restored to him his grant of a pitcher of wine daily, and a pipe annually, to be delivered to him by his son Thomas, who that year possessed the office of chief butler to the king.

Now that I have mentioned his son, it will not be improper, to take a view of our author's domestical affairs, at least as far as we are enabled, by materials that have descended to our times.

Thomas his eldest son, was married to one of the greatest fortunes in England, Maud, daughter and heir of Sir John Burgheershe, knight of the garter, and Dr. Henry Burghurshe bishop of Lincoln, chancellor and treasurer of England. Mr. Speight says this lady was given him in marriage by Edward III. in return of his services performed in his emba.s.sies in France. His second son Lewis was born in 1381, for when his father wrote the treatise of the Astrolabe, he was ten years old; he was then a student in Merton college in Oxford, and pupil to Nicholas Strade, but there is no further account of him. Thomas who now enjoyed the office of chief butler to his majesty, had the same place confirmed to him for life, by letters patent to king Henry IV, and continued by Henry VI. In the 2d year of Henry IV, we find him Speaker of the House of Commons, Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and Constable of Wallingford castle and Knaresborough castle during life. In the 6th year of the same prince, he was sent amba.s.sador to France. In the 9th of the same reign the Commons presented him their Speaker; as they did likewise in the 11th year. Soon after this Queen Jane, granted to him for his good service, the manor of Woodstock, Hannerborough and Wotten during life; and in the 13th year, he was again presented Speaker as he was in the 2d of Henry V, and much about that time he was sent by the king, to treat of a marriage with Catherine daughter to the duke of Burgundy; he was sent again amba.s.sador to France, and pa.s.sed thro' a great many public stations. Mr. Stebbing says that he was knighted, but we find no such t.i.tle given him in any record. He died at Ewelm, the chief place of his residence, in the year 1434. By his wife Maud he had one daughter named Alice, who was thrice married, first to Sir John Philips, and afterwards to Thomas Montacute earl of Salisbury: her third husband was the famous William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, who lost his head by the fury of the Yorkists, who dreaded his influence in the opposite party, tho' he stood proscribed by the parliament of Henry VI. for misguiding that easy prince. Their son John had three sons, the second of whom, Edmund, forfeited his life to the crown for treason against Henry VII, by which means the estates which Chaucer's family possessed came to the crown. But to return to our poet: By means of the duke of Lancaster's marriage with his sister in law, he again grew to a considerable share of wealth; but being now about seventy years of age, and fatigued with a tedious view of hurried greatness, he quitted the stage of grandeur where he had acted so considerable a part with varied success, and retired to Dunnigton castle[3] near Newbury, to reflect at leisure upon past transactions in the still retreats of contemplation. In this retirement did he spend his few remaining years, universally loved and honoured; he was familiar with all men of learning in his time, and contracted friendship with persons of the greatest eminence as well in literature as politics; Gower, Occleve, Lidgate, Wickliffe were great admirers, and particular friends of Chaucer; besides he was well acquainted with foreign poets, particularly Francis Petrarch the famous Italian poet, and refiner of the language. A Revolution in England soon after this happened, in which we find Chaucer but little concerned; he made no mean compliments to Henry IV, but Gower his cotemporary, though then very old, flattered the reigning prince, and insulted the memory of his murdered Sovereign. All acts of parliament and grants in the last reign being annulled, Chaucer again repaired to Court to get fresh grants, but bending with age and weakness, tho' he was successful in his request, the fatigue of attendance so overcame him, that death prevented his enjoying his new possessions. He died the 25th of October in the year 1400, in the second of Henry IV, in the 72d of his age, and bore the shock of death with the same fort.i.tude and resignation with which he had undergone a variety of pressures, and vicissitudes of fortune.

Dryden says, he was poet laureat to three kings, but Urry is of opinion that Dryden must be mistaken, as among all his works not one court poem is to be found, and Selden observes, that he could find no poet honoured with that t.i.tle in England before the reign of Edward IV, to whom one John Kaye dedicated the Siege of Rhodes in prose by the t.i.tle of his Humble Poet Laureat.

I cannot better display the character of this great man than in the following words of Urry. "As to his temper, says he, he had a mixture of the gay, the modest and the grave. His reading was deep and extensive, his judgment sound and discerning; he was communicative of his knowledge, and ready to correct or pa.s.s over the faults of his cotemporary writers. He knew how to judge of and excuse the slips of weaker capacities, and pitied rather than exposed the ignorance of that age. In one word, he was a great scholar, a pleasant wit, a candid critic, a sociable companion, a stedfast friend, a great philosopher, a temperate oeconomist, and a pious christian." As to his genius as a poet, Dryden (than whom a higher authority cannot be produced) speaking of Homer and Virgil, positively a.s.serts, that our author exceeded the latter, and stands in compet.i.tion with the former.

His language, how unintelligible soever it may seem, is almost as modern as any of his cotemporaries, or of those who followed him at the distance of 50 or 60 years, as Harding, Skelton and others, and in some places it is so smooth and beautiful, that Dryden would not attempt to alter it; I shall now give some account of his works in the order in which they were written, so far as can be collected from them, and subjoin a specimen of his poetry, of which profession as he may justly be called the Morning Star, so as we descend into later times; we may see the progress of poetry in England from its great original, Chaucer, to its full blaze, and perfect consummation in Dryden.

Mr. Philips supposes a greater part of his works to be lost, than what we have extant of him; of that number may be many a song, and many a lecherous lay, which perhaps might have been written by him while he was a student at Cambridge.

The Court of Love, as has been before observed, was written while he resided at Cambridge in the 18th year of his age.

The Craft Lovers was written in the year of our Lord, 1348, and probably the Remedy of Love was written about that time, or not long after.

The Lamentation of Mary Magdalen taken from Origen, was written by him in his early years, and perhaps Boethius de Consolatione Philosophiae was translated by him about the same time.

The Romaunt of the Rose, is a translation from the French: this poem was begun by William de Lerris, and continued by John de Meun, both famous French poets; it seems to have been translated about the time of the rise of Wickliffe's Opinions, it consisting of violent invectives against religious orders.

The Complaint of the Black Knight, during John of Gaunt's courtship with Blanch is supposed to be written on account of the duke of Lancaster's marriage.

The poem of Troilus and Creseide was written in the early part of his life, translated (as he says) from Lollius an historiographer in Urbane in Italy; he has added several things of his own, and borrowed from others what he thought proper for the embellishment of this work, and in this respect was much indebted to his friend Petrarch the Italian poet.

The House of Fame; from this poem Mr. Pope acknowledges he took the hint of his Temple of Fame.

The book of Blaunch the d.u.c.h.ess, commonly called the Dreme of Chaucer, was written upon the death of that lady.

The a.s.sembly of Fowls (or Parlement of Briddis, as he calls it in his Retraction) was written before the death of queen Philippa.

The Life of St. Cecilia seems to have been first a single poem, afterwards made one of his Canterbury Tales which is told by the second Nonne: and so perhaps was that of the Wife of Bath, which he advises John of Gaunt to read, and was afterwards inserted in his Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales were written about the year 1383. It is certain the Tale of the Nonnes Priest was written after the Insurrection of Jack Straw and Wat Tyler.

The Flower and the Leaf was written by him in the Prologue to the Legend of G.o.de Women.

Chaucer's ABC, called la Priere de nostre Dame, was written for the use of the d.u.c.h.ess Blaunch.

The book of the Lion is mentioned in his Retraction, and by Lidgate in the prologue to the Fall of Princes, but is now lost, as is that.

De Vulcani vene, i. e. of the Brocke of Vulcan, which is likewise mentioned by Lidgate.

La belle Dame sans Mercy, was translated from the French of Alain Chartier, secretary to Lewis XI, king of France.

The Complaint of Mars and Venus was translated from the French of Sir Otes de Grantson, a French poet.

The Complaint of Annilida to false Arcite.

The Legend of G.o.de Women (called the a.s.sembly of Ladies, and by some the Nineteen Ladies) was written to oblige the queen, at the request of the countess of Pembroke.

The treatise of the Conclusion of the Astrolabie was written in the year 1391.

Of the Cuckow and Nightingale, this seems by the description to have been written at Woodstock.

The Ballade beginning In Feverre, &c. was a compliment to the countess of Pembroke.

Several other ballads are ascribed to him, some of which are justly suspected not to have been his. The comedies imputed to him are no other than his Canterbury Tales, and the tragedies were those the monks tell in his Tales.

The Testament of Love was written in his trouble the latter part of his life.

The Song beginning Fly fro the Prese, &c. was written in his death-bed.

Leland says, that by the content of the learned in his time, the Plowman's Tale was attributed to Chaucer, but was suppressed in the edition then extant, because the vices of the clergy were exposed in it. Mr. Speight in his life of Chaucer, printed in 1602, mentions a tale in William Thynne's first printed book of Chaucer's works more odious to the clergy than the Plowman's Tale. One thing must not be omitted concerning the works of Chaucer. In the year 1526 the bishop of London prohibited a great number of books which he thought had a tendency to destroy religion and virtue, as did also the king in 1529, but in so great esteem were his works then, and so highly valued by the people of taste, that they were excepted out of the prohibition of that act.


Lordings! quoth he, in chirch when I preche, I paine mee to have an have an hauteine speche; And ring it out, as round as doth a bell; For I can all by rote that I tell.

My teme is always one, and ever was, (Radix omnium malorum est cupiditas) First, I p.r.o.nounce fro whence I come, And then my bills, I shew all and some: Our liege-lords seal on my patent!

That shew I first, my body to warrent; That no man be so bold, priest ne clerk, Me to disturb of Christ's holy werke; And after that I tell forth my tales, Of bulls, of popes, and of cardinales, Of patriarkes, and of bishops I shew; And in Latin I speake wordes a few, To faver with my predication, And for to stere men to devotion, Then shew I forth my long, christall stones, Ycrammed full of clouts and of bones; Relickes they been, as were they, echone!

Then have I, in Latin a shoder-bone, Which that was of an holy Jewes shepe.

Good men, fay, take of my words kepe!

If this bone be washen in any well, If cow, or calfe, shepe, or oxe swell That any worm hath eaten, or hem strong, Take water of this well, and wash his tong.

And it is hole a-non: And furthermore, Of pockes, and scabs, and every sore Shall shepe be hole, that of this well Drinketh a draught: Take keep of that I tell!

If that the good man, that beasts oweth, Woll every day, ere the c.o.c.ke croweth, Fasting drink of this well, a draught, (As thilk holy Jew our elders taught) His beasts and his store shall multiplie: And sirs, also it healeth jealousie, For, though a man be fall in jealous rage, Let make with this Water his potage, And never shall he more his wife mistrist, Thughe, in sooth, the defaut by her wist: All had she taken priests two or three!

Here is a mittaine eke, that ye may see.

He that has his hand well put in this mittaine; He shall have multiplying of his graine, When he hath sowen, be it wheat or otes; So that he offer good pens or grotes!

Those who would prefer the thoughts of this father of English poetry, in a modern dress, are referred to the elegant versions of him, by Dryden, Pope, and others, who have done ample justice to their ill.u.s.trious predecessor.

[Footnote 1: Life of Chaucer prefixed to Ogle's edition of that author modernized.]

[Footnote 2: Some biographers of Chaucer say, that pope Gregory IX. gave orders to the archbishop of Canterbury to summon him, and that when a synod was convened at St. Paul's, a quarrel happened between the bishop of London and the duke of Lancaster, concerning Wickliff's sitting down in their presence.]

[Footnote 3: Mr. Camden gives a particular description of this castle.]


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