University of Virginia Library

Search this document 


expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 



Page 89

Joseph A. Dane and Alexandra Gillespie

What is now known as Chaucer's tomb at Westminster Abbey was set up by Nicholas Brigham in 1556. The tomb has several inscriptions. These have been variously transcribed by antiquarians and Chaucerians for over 400 years; versions appear in William Camden's Reges (1600), in John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (1570), in the editions of Chaucer by Thomas Speght in 1598 and 1602, and in numerous later sources. The history of these transcriptions provides a record of how information is transmitted and often manufactured in scholarly traditions. Most of the presumed eye-witnesses repeat reports by earlier unreliable witnesses, and various “restorations” impose modern misreadings onto what must have been a barely legible original.[1]

We have recently found two sixteenth-century transcriptions of this epitaph in books at the Huntington Library and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. One appears to be a direct and accurate transcription of the epitaph on the tomb; as such, it rather unnervingly undermines many of the basic premises and arguments developed in the studies cited in note 1 above—studies arguing that original readings are finally unrecoverable and that efforts to seek them are intellectually flawed. The other is directly related to the error-plagued versions that appear in the printed Chaucer editions beginning with the Speght edition in 1598; yet clearly this second transcription predates these versions. Together these provide evidence of the diverse channels through which literary evidence circulated in the late sixteenth century.

The first appears on the title page of the Huntington Library copy of Chaucer's Works (Kele, 1550?; STC 5072; RB #99584; see fig. 1). The transcription of the epitaph is in a nearly contemporary secretary hand, along with a version (in a second hand) of lines that Thomas Speght and others describe as “written about the ledge” of this tomb. These lines “about the ledge” were first printed by Camden in 1600; two years later, in the Preface to the 1602 Chaucer edition, Speght claims they are “clean worne out.”[2]


Page 90


Page 91


Page 92

The earliest mark of ownership in the book is on sig. A6v at the end of the General Prologue (“Richard Wylbraham owneth this boke”), and the book bears as well the nineteenth-century bookplate of George Fortescue Wilbraham. Of several sixteenth-century possibilities, this early owner is probably Richard Wilbraham d. 1612.[3] There are in addition a few scattered notae in the earlier portions of the book marking general sententiae, and other marginalia that seem to correspond to the two hands seen on the title page.

The epitaph reads as follows (abbreviations are expanded):

The epetaph of G. Chaucer knyght.
Qui fuit Anglorum vates. Ter maximus olim
Galfridus Chaucer. conditur hoc tumulo
Annum si queras domini si tempora mortis
ecce nota subsunt. que tibi cuncta notant.
25 octobris anno domini 1400.
Because the epitaph exists in multiple versions, a translation is misleading. But most, including this, can be paraphrased roughly as follows: Here lies Geoffrey Chaucer the great English poet; if you wish to know his dates, check out the notes below, which explain everything—25 October 1400. (This date is of course Chaucer's death date.) The two-line Latin distich that follows is in the same hand.
Chaucer occubuit sed corpore, cetera magnis
post cineres virtus vincere sola facit.
[Chaucer is dead, but his spirit lives on.][4]
We know of no other version of this distich.

A second hand, also in a sixteenth-century secretary (we believe this is the same hand that signs Richard Wilbraham), then provides a version of lines that most witnesses say are part of the epitaph on the tomb (these lines are not printed in either Speght edition):

recquies erumnarum mors
N. Brigham hos fecit musarum nomine sumptus.
[The relief of all troubles is death. Nicholas Brigham assumed these expenses in the name of the Muses.]
There is no further room at the foot of the title page, and on the inner margin the same hand provides a version of what in the Speght edition are


Page 93
called “verses about the ledge” of the tomb (verses presumably unreadable by 1602):
Si rogites quis eram forsan te fama docebit
quod si fama negat mundi quia gloria transit
Hec monumentie lege.
[If you ask who I was, perhaps fame will teach you; and if fame denies this (since the glory of the world passes) read these monuments.]
None of the early printed versions of the epitaph and the “verses about the ledge” (for example, those of Foxe, Camden, or Speght) could be the source for the particular variants found in the transcription in this book.[5] And the only version of the tomb inscription so far recorded that is earlier than these printed versions occurs in the 1562 manuscript notes by John Bale transcribed by Thomas Hearne in 1729. Hearne's transcription is as follows.[6]
Hic Tullius minor dicebatur, tam erat artis dicendi peritus. Thomas
Ocklevum Scribam olim habuit.
Epitaphium Chauceri MS.
Qui fuit Anglorum Vates ter maximus olim,
Galfridus Chaucer, conditur hoc tumulo.
Annum si quaeras Domini, si tempora mortis,
Ecce notae subsunt, quae tibi cuncta notant.
26. Octobris anno Domini 1400
Nicolaus Brigam Westmonasterii hos fecit Musarum nomine sumptus.
Super ejus Sepulchro.
Si rogites, quis eram, forsan te fana docebit.
Quod si fama negat, Mundi quia gloria transit,
Haec Monumenta lege.
[He was called a lesser Cicero, so skilled was he in the art of speaking; he once had Thomas Hoccleve as a scribe... etc.]
Bale's version of the epitaph is very close to that in the Wilbraham book; and the two tend to agree on certain variants against all later witnesses. Neither could be a copy of the other, since each has text not found in the other (e.g., in Bale, the abbreviation M.S. [manibus sacris], and in the Wilbraham book the line “recquies erumnarum mors”). The most obvious explanation for such agreement is that these are taken directly from the tomb itself, or are more closely related to a direct and accurate transcription of the tomb than are any other extant witnesses.

Apparently, the earlier annotator of the Wilbraham book transcribed a


Page 94
version of the epitaph and composed the two-line Latin distich “Chaucer occubuit.... ” Sometime after this, Richard Wilbraham, perhaps returning to the Abbey with book in hand, transcribed the last two lines, including the attribution of the monument to Brigham, and then struggled to find space for the “verses about the ledge.” The concluding Latin distich of the first annotator, one now sandwiched between the epitaph and the reference to Brigham, is very similar in its phrasing and sentiments to other Latin epigrams produced on Chaucer in the late sixteenth century, and perhaps others will recognize, as we do not, the source of the particular commonplaces expressed here, as well as what is mysterious to us, the signature I C B. [7]

Our second example comes from the last printed page of a copy of Stow's 1561 edition of Chaucer at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Ad C393 C56L sa (sig. 3u8v; see fig. 2). The transcription includes three sets of verses: the last two verses of a poem by Surigone (verses first printed in Caxton's Boece and included in many of the sixteenth-century Chaucer folios), the epitaph, and the “verses about the ledge.” The order in which these texts are given is the same as that found in Speght's Preface to the 1602 edition, and much of the surrounding commentary is similar:

Geffry Chaucer dyed 25 of October. 1400. aged 72. years & lyes buried in Westminster
Abbey, with these old verses on his Tombe.
Galfridus Chaucer vates et fama poesis
Materne, hac sacra sum tumulatus humo.
Afterwards mr Nicholas Brigham anno.1555. added this Inscription on his Tombe
Qui fuit Anglorum ter maximus olim
Galfridus Chaucer conditur hoc tumulo
Annum si quaras domini, si tempora mortis
Ecce notae subsunt quae tibi cuncta notant
25 Octobris, 1400
Aerumnarum requies mors.
Nc. Brigham hos fecit musarum nomine sumptus
About the Ledge of his Tombe
Si rogitaes quis eram, forsan te fama docebit
Quod si fama negat, mundi quia gloria transit
Haec monumenta lege
This reads much like a condensed version of Speght's preface.[8] But the epitaph has none of the very distinctive Speght variants, and the lines “Aerumnarum requies mors. / Nc. Brigham hos fecit musarum nomine sumptus” do not appear in Speght (Speght paraphrases the Brigham reference in English). The text, however, is very close to what we find in the early manuscript versions of Wilbraham and Bale cited above. Again, the nature of these agreements suggests that both the Bale transcription and the one in the Texas


Page 95
Chaucer are derived from the same manuscript version—one which resembled the less accurate source (or less accurately copied source) used by Speght in his edition.

The provenance of this copy supports this conclusion. The book appears to have belonged to its editor, John Stow. The black calf binding has been restored, but the cover is original and bears the initials “I.S.” Stow's distinctive, crabbed hand is found on sig. [2]X6r, where he associates “The Dreame of Chaucer” with its modern title Book of the Duchess and records details about John of Gaunt's patronage of the poem.[9] It appears the book passed from Stow to his patron, Matthew Parker, the antiquarian book-collector and Elizabeth I's Archbishop of Canterbury. Signatures on the title page include that of Parker's son, the Reverend John Parker (1548-1618), inscribed in the red crayon used by both him and his father.[10] The initial “I” appears in the gutter of sig. [2]z6v and Archbishop Parker's initial “M” appears on sig. 2H6v in the same red crayon. It was characteristic for Matthew Parker to have his scribes annotate his many vernacular English manuscripts. He owned at least one unidentified copy of “Chawcer written,” and from this his scribes might have taken the version of the Retraction added in a secretary hand to the verso of the title page (none of the early folio editions of Chaucer from 1532-1602 has this text). All of the early manuscript annotations in this book seem to come from Parker's circle; the mixed secretaryitalic of the tomb inscription (fig. 2) as well as the hand seen in the historical notes and commentary in other parts of the book are consistent with hands seen elsewhere in Parker manuscripts.

The source for the inscription in the book is very likely manuscript material of the sort used by Speght for his own edition. Speght states directly that Stow supplied him with materials (“a booke of Iohn Stowes... ” 1598 edition, sig. c2r). Stow probably circulated such material through the Society of Antiquaries, which he and Parker founded in the 1560s. At that time, Parker was also responsible for enacting a 1568 Privy Council injunction, exhorting Englishmen to preserve evidence of the “works and monuments” of the English past.[11] The transcription of the epitaph and verses on the monument of the Thrice Great English Poet Chaucer would be entirely consistent with such Elizabethan antiquarian endeavors.


Page 96

The two books illustrate two different kinds of literary witnessing. One is seen in the Wilbraham book: to transcribe what is on Chaucer's tomb, one simply goes to Chaucer's tomb. Somewhat curiously, Wilbraham and Bale are among the very few Chaucerians who seem to have thought of this; but then, there were no printed versions available to save them the trouble. The second is the more traditional. Information about Chaucer circulated through texts—texts that accumulated errors very quickly. The notes in the Parker volume as well as the preface in Speght's edition must be derived from a text circulating during the later sixteenth century, probably from the collections of John Stow. This text accumulated in its multiple copies the kinds of errors one finds in Speght's 1598 version (which is not even consistent with its 1602 reprint). Such a text, especially one from Stow, could account for the relations between the texts in Parker's book and Speght's printed preface. It would also explain the peculiar paradox of the “verses about the ledge.” Speght claims these are illegible, but then provides a transcription that is very close to that of the two earliest witnesses (Wilbraham and John Bale). That Camden, who surely was in Westminster Abbey at the turn of the century, should provide a clearly faulty text of these verses in 1600, is entirely consistent with Speght's claim in 1602 that they are “clean worne out.”



Joseph A. Dane, “Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb?—Prolegomena.” Huntington Library Quarterly 57 (1994): 98-123; rpt. Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb?—Studies in the Reception of Chaucer's Book (East Lansing, 1998), chap. 1.


William Camden, Reges, Reginae, Nobiles, et Alij in Ecclesia Collegiata B. Petri Westmonasterij Sepulti (London, 1600); [Thomas Speght], The Workes of our Antient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer... (London, 1602), sig. c2v (the verses do not appear in the first Speght edition of 1598).


Richard Wilbraham of Nantwich, Esq. d. 2 Feb. 1613, the father of Sir Roger Wilbraham, the diarist. See George Ormerod, The History of the County Palatine, and City of Chester, 3 vols. (London, 1819), 3:184, and corrections by Henry Spencer Scott, ed., The Journal of Sir Roger Wilbraham for the years 1593-1616, Camden Miscellany, 10 (London, 1902), 110. See further, the provenance notes by Margaret Ford on the inscriptions in the Wentworth copy of the 1473 Caxton edition of Le Febvre—a book-copy which circulated, gathering marginalia, in the same area (English Incunabula from the Wentworth Library [London, 1998], 12).


We believe we know what particular witticism is on the brink of articulation here, but the effort to extract it is not much rewarded, since our poet does not really recover from the peculiar scansion of “Chaucer”; “Occubuit Chaucer” might help.


See the Table of Variants in “Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb,” p. 123. Among the more significant variants in the epitaph are Speght's vitae for mortis in line 3 of the epitaph, and various distinctive forms of the date. The variant in the Wilbraham book “recquies erumnarum mors” is unique (most versions read “Aerumnarum requies mors,” and some of them add a date, either 1555 or 1556). The first printed version of this final distich is in Camden's Reges, but the text contains the unscannable variant fueram for eram. The version in the Preface to Speght's 1602 edition reads as follows: “Si rogites quis eram, forsan te fama docebit: Quod si fama negat, mundi quia gloria transit, haec monumenta lege.”


Johannis de Trokelow: Annales Eduardi II..., ed. Thomas Hearne (Oxford, 1729), p. 286 “Nottae MSS. ipsius Joannis Bale, adjectae Codici impresso de Scriptoribus. &c.” Text also in Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion (1357-1900), 5 pts. (1908-17; rpt. Cambridge, 1925), 4:28-29.


See e.g., Spurgeon, 1:100, and the epitaph signed H.M. (1567), with similar platitudes about uniquely surviving and conquering Virtue.


Speght, 1602: “Geffrey Chaucer departed out of this world the 25 day of October, in the yeare of our Lord 1400, after hee had lived about 72 yeares... and was buried at Westminster. The old verses which were written on his graue at the first, were these.... But since M. Nicholas Brigham did at his owne cost and charges erect a faire marble monument... etc.”


“This booke was made of ye death of Blanch Duches of Lancaster.” See notes in Eleanor Hammond, Chaucer: A Bibliographical Manual (New York, 1908), 363-364. The identification is first printed as a heading to the poem in the Speght editions; in the earlier Stow edition, it appears only in the Table of Contents. See further the discussion of these titles by Kathleen Forni, “`Chaucer's Dreame,'” Huntington Library Quarterly (forthcoming).


Other signatures are those of Robert Webbe, and Robert Mandy, which we have not attempted to trace. Almost all the books which can be identified from the Parkers' booklists have red pencil marks or signatures. See R. I. Page, Matthew Parker and his Books (Kalamazoo, 1993), and Sheila Strongman, “John Parker's Monuments: An Edition of the Lists in Lambeth Palace MS 737,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 7 (1977), 1-27; references to Chaucer MSS at 18 and 25.


Privy Council broadsheet, 7 July 1568 (STC 7754.6). On the foundation of the Society of Antiquaries and its activities, see the entries for Stow and Parker in the Dictionary of National Biography on CD-ROM (Oxford, 1996).