The Reeve of Bawdeswell – a character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales



        CHAUCER & BAWDESWELL  Robin Taylor, Feb. 1998


An article, said to be from The Byntre & Bawdeswell Magazine dated January 1908 says:


“Mr Walter Rye, the learned antiquarian has been able to identify John Chaucer of Lynn as the poet's father, while his grandfather Robert Chaucer was known as de Gunthorpe, and a John de Bawdeswell was Rector of Gunthorpe in 1349 when Chaucer was a young man.”  (The latter is not mentioned again in his book.)


On reading Walter Rye's book "Chaucer, A Norfolk Man" which he published In 1915 after a lifetime of researching the poet, one is left with little doubt Chaucer was well acquainted with Norfolk.


His grandfather was a Customs Officer at Lynn, which was one of the main ports of import for wine and spirits to England. There is some evidence that the poet himself was born and schooled in Lynn. His father was an Excise Officer as well and so was Geoffrey Chaucer in due course. The family was associated with Ipswich, London and King's Lynn.

Various individuals from Bawdeswell crop up from time to time in old records. Thomas de Baldeswell who was admitted Freeman of London In 1312 on the same day as William de Knapton (his sister-in-law was once betrothed to Chaucer's father)... a remote family acquaintance and a bit before he was born.

Another of the name Thomas de Baldeswell who became a Freeman of Lynn in 1382 and afterwards an assessor of Taxes at Lynn in 1386. Now that's much more likely - someone in the same line of business.

A third possibility. It is thought Chaucer might have been at 0xford University. There was a divinity lecturer there, a Franciscan monk, one Peter de Haldeswell. Since there is no place In England of that name, this is thought to be a transcriber's error for Baldeswell.

The poet is also believed to have been a friend of the Countess of Pembroke who was Patron of Bawdeswell Church Living - sponsoring the local clergyman.

How he came to use the village's name in his story can only be guessed at.

A possible theory is that in his work as a Collector of Revenue in the Eastern Counties for the King, and through various people connected with the village, he would know of Bawdeswell and the sound of the name suited the rather bawdy character of his Reeve.

Walter Rye never turned up any connection between Bawdeswell and Chaucer other than that he was a Norfolk man and had met and heard of people from Bawdeswell.

I throw in the suggestion that Chaucer must have travelled between King's Lynn and Norwich in the course of his work and the route would be by Elmham and Bawdeswell. Bawdeswell is recorded as a horse change-over stop and a coaching station in later years.

Maybe he just liked the name of the place or he based his Reeve on one of the people that came from Bawdeswell - either Thomas de Baldeswell the Tax Assessor whom he would have met at Lynn in the course of his own work, or the Franciscan monk at Oxford whom he might have known, or somebody he met whilst passing through.


I am indebted to Dr Andrew Macnair for the loan of 'Chaucer A Norfolk Man' by Walter Rye 1915, and to Robert Rickett formerly of the Norfolk Archaeological Unit for the loan of his notes on Bawdeswell.

Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" translated into modern english by Nevill Coghill is available in the Penguin Classics Series .