Wednesday, March 30, 2016

John Gower: a renowned poet in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV

by Anne O'Brien
I have been well acquainted with Geoffrey Chaucer since my school days when, through sheer necessity as I then thought, we read the Prologue and Nun's Priest's Tale from his Canterbury Tales as part of the A level English Course.  Since then I have frequently dipped into Chaucer for pleasure and research, as well as William Langland's Piers Plowman.  They both provide excellent commentary on medieval people and society.
But why had I never known about John Gower?  To my shame, I had not.  I came across him by chance during a visit to Southwark Cathedral where his striking tomb is to be found.  Reading the description, that he wrote during the reign of King Richard II, about whom I was writing at the time, I knew that I should find out more about this enigmatic character, dressed magnificently as he is in red with an eye-catching livery collar. 

There are few solid details of John Gower's background and early life.  He may have been born in Yorkshire,  his family may have held property in Kent, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Nothing is known of his education, although it has been speculated that he was trained in law. Gower himself held properties in Suffolk and Kent, where he seems to have resided until taking up residence in the priory of St. Mary Overie in Southwark, London, around 1377.
A very sketchy back ground, for a man with so monumental a tomb.
What we do know is that John Gower was a personal friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, a contemporary of William Langland, and a gifted writer in his own right as an exceptional trilingual poet.  He wrote in English, French and Latin.  He gained an international reputation when some of his works were also translated into Portuguese and later into Spanish.  His works contained moral and political themes as well as discussions of the power of love.  They were highly praised by his peers.
John Gower's most  important writings are these:
Speculum Hominis: a poem, first written in French, on the fall of man and the effect of sin in the world.
Vox Clamantis:, any essay with also deals with sin,  particularly criticising the corruption inherent in society. This is an important piece of writing because it provides a contemporary view of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.  Here is an appropriate illustration from his work of Gower firing arrows at the world.
 Confessio Amantis: Gower began his most acclaimed work in 1386. Unlike his previous works, he wrote the Confessio in English, possibly at the request of Richard II, and it is a collection of tales discussing courtly love. The framework is that of a lover complaining first to Venus, and later in the work, confessing to her priest, Genius. Completed around 1390, Confessio Amantis made an important contribution to courtly love literature in English.  Some of the stories have their counterparts in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and one of the stories later served as the source for Shakespeare's Pericles, in which Shakespeare had Gower appear in the Chorus.
Chaucer was greatly appreciative of Gower's work, a circumstance that is well documented.   In 1385 he dedicated Troilus and Criseyde to him, giving him the epithet 'moral Gower'.  When Chaucer was sent as a diplomat to Italy in 1378, Gower was one of the men to whom he gave power of attorney over his affairs in England, which gives power to the thought that Gower was trained in the law.  Gower reciprocated by placing a speech in praise of Chaucer in the mouth of Venus at the end of the Confessio Amantis.
An interesting political comment on this work which particularly appealed to me since I was writing about the politics of the late fourteenth century: the original version of Confessio Amantis was written to include praise of Richard II.  In 1393, disillusioned by Richard's inept government and the uprising of the Lords Appelant, Gower removed the praise of Richard, replacing it with a dedication to Henry of Lancaster who was to become Henry IV.
In return, Henry presented Gower with a Lancastrian livery collar of esses, the collar much loved by Henry's father John of Gaunt, which Gower proudly wore for the rest of his life.  It can be seen around his neck his tomb, with the image of a swan attached to the ring, the swan being one of King Henry's heraldic creatures. In his addition to his poem Vox Clamantis, Gower compared this gift of the heraldic collar to a gift from heaven.  He saw it as a mark of faithfulness and true nobility.
King Henry IV continued to appreciate Gower's work.  On becoming King in 1399 Henry granted Gower a pension in the form of an annual allowance of two pipes (240 gallons) of Gascon wine.  A worthy acknowledgement. 
In his later days there is evidence that Gower married, probably for the second time, to Agnes Groundolf, who survived him.   Possibly as early as 1400, he became blind.  John  Gower died in October 1408, leaving a large estate and was buried in Southwark Cathedral where his tomb can be seen today.  A man of considerable erudition who should definitely not be overlooked.
My novel of Joanna of Navarre, The Queen's Choice, already available in hardback and eBook, will be released in paperback in the UK in May 2016.  Both Richard II and Henry IV play significant roles in my novel - but not, sadly, John Gower.
Detail on all my novels can be found on my website:



  1. It's a bit difficult to enjoy Gower as a poet in this day and age, but he's a great source for social history.

  2. Do you know if scholars in, say, the 17th century studied Gower and Chaucer during their time at Oxford and Cambridge? My larger question is how our understanding of Old English survived through turbulent times like the Civil Wars and Interregnum.


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