Anyone wishing to write a screenplay for a film or TV drama to rival Game of Thrones might do well to look towards the lovely Suffolk county town of Ipswich. Suffolk has a reputation for the tranquil beauty of its rural landscape and unspoilt coastline, and of course, for the most famous end-product of its agriculture: beer. If you live in Suffolk, it's difficult not to be aware of the significance that beer and brewing has had in the county's history and culture. Its most famous breweries also have well-known literary connections, from the many writers in the Cobbold family, of the Tolly Cobbold brewery, such as the poet Elizabeth Cobbold (1765-1824) and her son, Richard (1797-1877), the author of The History of Margaret Catchpole, to the descendant of the Greene King brewing dynasty, the novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991). It was not until I started the research for my last book, Secret Ipswich (Amberley, 2015), however, that I realised how closely another great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), was associated with the town, and what a fascinating story it is. The further research that I had to do for my latest book, Ipswich Pubs, made me realise the significance that Chaucer's family had in the life of late-medieval Ipswich and the Towne of Tavernes. It is a story of violence, theft, and even murder, involving, among many complicated plots and sub-plots, the kidnapping of the poet's father.

The Great White Horse Hotel

Chaucer's grandfather was Robert Malin le Chaucer, and it's thought the name might have been derived from the occupation of shoemaker, or chausseur. He was also known as Robert the Saddler, so it's possible that he was some kind of maker or seller of leather goods. Some scholars believe that hosiery, cloth and leather goods were often sold in taverns, and the term 'chaucer' referred to those vintners and taverners who did so. Chaucer's family was certainly in the tavern trade for many generations. His grandfather was known as Robert le Taverner and he was, as his name suggests, the owner of several taverns in Ipswich. This was not merely any old town, however, or indeed, any old tavern. Ipswich, we discover, was known as the 'Towne of Tavernes,' a deserved sobriquet, probably resulting from the great demand for accommodation from the thousands of travellers who flocked to its shrine, Our Lady of Grace, which was only third in significance in England (after Canterbury and Walsingham) until its destruction during the Reformation. Ipswich was packed with taverns, inns and beerhouses for centuries and the Malyn family owned several inns and wine shops, mostly around what was known as the 'street of taverns,' which is still called Tavern Street today, although there is not a single pub left now. One of the Chaucer's Malyns' hostelries was simply called The Tavern. It probably stood on the site of the huge building that became the Great White Horse Hotel, later of Pickwick Papers fame.

The corner of Tavern Street and Dial Lane where the Holly Tavern may have stood

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Malyns had significant business interests in the town. Those who decry the state of the twenty-first-century Ipswich town centre might do well to remember that, in the Middle Ages, Tavern Street was at the conjunction of the Flesh Market, the Henne Market or Poultry (Tower Street), close to the Cheese and Fish Markets, and Cook's Row (now Dial Lane) was where all the bakers and cookshops were. Given that animals were butchered on the spot, the smell of the place must have been ripe, to put it mildly. It was a rough, violent time and we know a great deal about this family because, as property-owners, the Malyns were often recorded in the town's taxation records, and as a family that was constantly involved with criminal activity, they appeared in the court records just as frequently.

In 1338, following a property dispute, a notorious fellow - who appears twice in Ipswich Pubs, committing acts of violence - Roger Bande, walked into the Holly Tavern and, with his sword, almost severed the hand of the owner, Albreda Malyn. She died from the wound he inflicted, but he went unpunished. Bande would get away with worse including murder. The Malyns - whose name may even be a version of the word 'malign' although I think it's more likely to be derived from Magdalen in some form - were little better. In 1344, Albreda's son, William was pardoned by the King "by fine of 300 marks, for all manner of oppressions, conspiracies, maintaining of quarrels, champerties, detaining of the King's wool and money, and taking of wool to foreign parts uncocketed and uncustomed, and of victuals and merchandise to Scotland contrary to the King's command."

A plaque to Chaucer’s ancestors on the site of one of their wine shops

The most interesting story of all, however, involved Geoffrey Chaucer's father, John. In 1324 he was abducted at swordpoint by his aunt, Agnes Westhall and the man who was to be her second husband, Geoffrey Stace. The poet was later named after Stace, so there was clearly no long-term resentment, but the court case resulted in a large fine of £250 being imposed on Agnes and she was sent to the Marshalsea prison in London. The motive behind this strange turn of events was, as usual, connected with a property dispute. Agnes wanted to force her nephew into a marriage with her daughter, Joan, to ensure that through John she would get her hands on some of his substantial inheritance, as his father had died. A court case had found in favour of the child and his guardians in the disputed ownership of the Ipswich Vintry Tavern and several other nearby properties. The boy was rescued by his stepfather and stepbrother, and would be brought up in London, where he followed the family trade and became a vintner of some standing in the City of London. The forced marriage to Joan, who may have been twenty years older than John, did not take place, and everything appeared to end amicably.

It's not known whether Geoffrey Chaucer ever visited his Suffolk relatives, but in The Canterbury Tales, in the prelude to ‘The Merchant's Tale’, he painted a portrait of a merchant, who might easily have been one of his Malyn ancestors, the river Orwell being the site of the port of Ipswich:

A Marchant was ther with a forked berd,

In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;

Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat,

His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.

His resons he spak ful solempnely,

Sownynge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng.

He wolde the see were kept for any thyng

Bitwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.

The early history of the Towne of Tavernes was one of violence, criminality and intrigue. Having written a brief history of many of Ipswich's pubs, inns and taverns, it doesn't appear that things were very different over the centuries that followed. Behind the picturesque - and Ipswich has more than its fair share of wonderful fifteenth and sixteenth century buildings, most of which were inns at some time - lies a picaresque and fascinating story. How sad then that so few of these great inns still exist and that one of the most famous Chaucer's Malyn-owned hostelries, The Tavern, which became the Great White Horse Hotel, has become just another Starbucks' coffee shop.


Susan Gardiner's book Ipswich Pubs is available for purchase now.