Thomas Chaucer was the eldest son of the poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the nephew of Katherine Swynford, mistress and second wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. His family connections meant that he was drawn into the service of John of Gaunt and subsequently showed unswerving loyalty to Gaunt’s descendants, in particular Henry V and Cardinal Henry Beaufort. He managed the affairs of Henry Beaufort, including in Oxfordshire, but much of his career was played out in parliament and in royal service. He was speaker of the House of Commons under Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI; Chief Butler of England and a royal ambassador to France and the Low Countries for Henry V.
His marriage to Maud Burghersh of Ewelme brought him family connections to the great noble houses of Mohun, Despenser and Plantagenet. She also brought with her valuable estates in Oxfordshire, centred on Ewelme. On the basis of these, he built up his landholding and power base in the Chilterns and Cotswolds. It is within this context that he bought the manor at Buckland before 1428. However, given his role in national politics and his primary residence at Ewelme, it is unlikely that he spent much, or even any, time there.
The only child and heir of Thomas Chaucer, Alice’s career illustrates just how far the Chaucers had risen in English society. Her first marriage to Sir John Phelip, whilst still a minor, lasted barely more than a year and was followed six years later by a second marriage to Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury. He died in 1428 and, some time between 1430 and 1432, Alice married William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk. De la Pole was a military commander who had been active in the fighting in France during the Hundred Years War, and spent three years as a prisoner of Charles VII of France. He was able to secure advancement at the royal court in part due to the influence of his father-in-law, Thomas Chaucer, and because close to Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Once established on the royal council, he also secured the position of steward of the household. This gave him valuable access to King Henry VI first when he was a boy king and later when it became apparent that he was not mentally capable of ruling as an adult. He was also prominent in negotiating the marriage agreement between King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou which included a truce and a suggestion that English lands in Maine and Anjou might be ceded to Margaret’s family.
Alice and her husband benefitted from his position and influence, acquiring valuable rewards and even portions of royal land. Unfortunately, their acquisitiveness would come to count against them when his grip on political power began to falter. From 1447 de la Pole was the leading political figure in England and became Duke of Suffolk in 1448, but he was publicly blamed for the arrest and sudden death of Humphrey of Lancaster, duke of Gloucester, in 1447. At the same time, England faced increasing financial difficulties and the loss of its possessions in northern France. Noblemen began to abandon de la Pole and, by 1450, his regime had largely collapsed. Under pressure from the House of Commons, the King was forced to arrest him but, reluctant to have him tried at the insistence of the common population, chose to banish him instead. En route to the Low Countries, de la Pole’s ship was intercepted by a privateer ship and he was executed by its crew as a traitor.
The murder of her husband left Alice vulnerable to attack. In July 1450, when Jack Cade’s rebels took London, they held a mock trial of Alice and this was followed by a formal state trial. At the same time her lands were subject to private attacks. However, she was able to weather these attacks and retaliated by pursuing illegal claims to lands in East Anglia on behalf of her son, the new duke of Suffolk. Whilst her family’s loyalties had been to the Lancastrian dynasty, Alice decided to abandon them and join the Yorkist cause. That she was accepted by Edward IV and his followers is evident in her role as gaoler of Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou in 1471.
At the same time as pursuing political ambitions on behalf of her family, Alice continued a policy of buying up land. Combined with the inheritances from her parents and three husbands, this meant that she became an extremely wealthy woman. She held estates in twenty-two counties, lent money to the crown and lived a lavish lifestyle. Her own personal ties were to East Anglia where William de la Pole was based and to Ewelme, where she was born, and buried. Like her father, she probably saw Buckland as part of her portfolio of properties rather than a favoured home.