In 1437 Alice and William de la Pole were granted a licence by King Henry VI to establish a chantry foundation, comprising a set of almshouses, a school and a chapel in Ewelme.
Chantry Foundations could be large religious complexes, churches or even altars, places where divine praise was offered to their founders. They were important objects of patronage in the period and through them, wealthy families could express and consolidate their political and social power very visibly within the landscape.
The de la Poles were certainly a wealthy couple. Alice was the daughter of Sir Thomas Chaucer and Matilda Burghersh, and granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. It is probable that Alice was brought up in Ewelme, most likely at the family’s home, Ewelme Manor. Thomas Chaucer was an important statesman, involved in much mid-century court and political intrigue. Alice was married twice before she wedded William in 1430, and both marriages, the first to Sir John Phelip and the second to Earl of Salisbury, were strategic unions, with the latter leaving Alice a very wealth widow.
William de la Pole was the son of Michael de la Pole (2nd Duke of Suffolk) and his wife Katherine de Stafford. As might be expected of prominent servants of the Crown, the family was immensely wealthy, with properties throughout the country, but their main residences were in Hull and Suffolk. Michael de la Pole had been instrumental in establishing the Maison Dieu (House of God) in Hull. This was an almshouse for 13 poor men and 13 poor women, created in 1384 and sited next to a larger monastic development founded by William’s grandfather.
This complex may well have inspired William and Alice’s development of God’s House in Ewelme. The de la Poles had an extensive network of endowed buildings and foundations across the country, but the development in Ewelme was very much a celebration of the Chaucer family. It comprised a chantry chapel for Alice’s parents, and such a foundation was very necessary to convey a family’s nobility at this time. The de la Poles were a well-established family, the Chaucers less so, but having a family foundation made Alice a worthy match for William and the influence of this union is still being felt today.
For further information on the formation of God’s House in Ewelme, see John Goodall, 2001. God’s House in Ewelme. Aldershot: Ashgate.