Medieval Studies John Clanvowe
Andrew Galloway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 May 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0036


Interest in John Clanvowe’s works and life (b. c. 1341–d. c. 1391) initially developed because a 290-line poem—often printed under the title The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, now commonly known by the title given in the earliest of its medieval copies, The Boke of Cupide—was preserved in five 15th-century manuscripts among the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, but seemed to quote Chaucer rather than be actually by Chaucer. Scholars gradually concluded that it was by someone else. Whether the late-medieval scribes who preserved The Boke of Cupide in this way thought that this poem was by Chaucer is unclear, because collections of anonymous lyrics were common in the period. But from the 16th through the 19th century, printers and editors of Chaucer’s poetry universally assumed that The Boke of Cupide was by Chaucer, partly because it opens by quoting lines from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale (lines 1785–1786). Only after Skeat 1896 (cited under Works and Attribution) showed that the poem was unlike Chaucer’s poetry, and simply alludes to Chaucer’s writings, did scholars turn to the question of just who had written The Boke of Cupide, and what else that writer might have written or done. The phrase “explicit Clanvowe” (“Clanvowe ends”) at the end of one medieval copy of The Boke of Cupide (Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 6) led Skeat to conclude that the author was Sir Thomas Clanvowe, who flourished in the early 15th century. Skeat looked to a Clanvowe from the early 15th century (Thomas) because Skeat assumed that the poem’s title alluded to a poem from 1402 by Thomas Hoccleve, The Letter of Cupid. But mentions of Cupid are very common, and Skeat’s view that Thomas Clanvowe had written it was soon abandoned in favor of an earlier Clanvowe: Sir John, known to be an associate and supporter of Chaucer. John Clanvowe was, moreover, identified as a member of an elite group of Chamber knights who, in the 1380s, followed and supported the heretical Wycliffites, also known as the Lollards. The identification of the author of The Boke of Cupide with a notorious late-medieval English heresy generated further interest in his life and work, especially in the other work more confidently ascribed to John Clanvowe, the prose religious treatise in English titled The Two Ways. This work constitutes the only piece of religious writing by any of the King’s Chamber knights who were said to be Lollards.


Fairly extensive biographical materials on John Clanvowe survive, many of them quoted and discussed in Scattergood 1975, which also presents the only modern edition of the two works presumed to be by Clanvowe. Saul 2004 presents a more recent summary of Clanvowe’s life. Clanvowe was one of a handful of courtier-poets closely involved with Geoffrey Chaucer. Clanvowe is named as a witness on Chaucer’s behalf in the 1380 quitclaim that released Chaucer from an accusation of rape brought by Cecily Chaumpaigne, and Clanvowe was a witness along with Chaucer at the 1386 Scrope–Grosvenor trial in the Court of Chivalry (where both Clanvowe and Chaucer testified in support of the claims by the Scrope family to bear a particular coat of arms). Clanvowe’s writings, literary associates, and religious interests have also been of interest for exploring the atmosphere of the royal English court in the later 14th century, especially the King’s Chamber, where Clanvowe served until his death on a crusade in 1391 (see Catto 1982, pp. 53–54; Green 1980, pp. 38–70; McFarlane 1972, pp. 148–149). Most notably, the contemporary monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham names Clanvowe among a group of knights of the Chamber who, in 1387, enthusiastically supported the heretical sect of Lollardy, a proto-Puritanical movement already responsible (Walsingham claims) for tearing down religious images, slandering the clergy, and denying the full transformation of the Eucharist at consecration (The St. Albans Chronicle, Volume 1: 1376–1394, ed. and trans. John Taylor, Wendy Childs, and Leslie Watkiss [Oxford: Clarendon, 2003], pp. 820–821). And four years after Clanvowe’s death, in 1395 during a session of Parliament, Walsingham declares, the remaining members of the same group of knights encouraged some Lollards to nail to the doors of Westminster Cathedral a list of attacks against the clergy, along with a series of other heretical “conclusions” summarizing Lollard doctrine (The St. Albans Chronicle, Volume 2: 1394–1422, ed. and trans. John Taylor, Wendy Childs, and Leslie Watkiss [Oxford: Clarendon, 2011], pp. 12–13). Clanvowe’s own religious treatise, The Two Ways, is not explicitly anticlerical or otherwise openly supportive of Lollardy, and mostly guides the reader to a close following of the Ten Commandments (the “narrow way” of salvation) and away from the “broad way” of damnation. No other evidence of Clanvowe’s religious beliefs survive, but Kenneth Bruce McFarlane was convinced of Clanvowe’s adherence to the Lollards’ positions (McFarlane 1972); so too Saul 2004). Clanvowe’s commitment to a full range of Lollard doctrine is increasingly being questioned by experts on Lollardy, although he is seen as likely to support the Lollard commitment to English translations of the Bible and other spiritual writings, as well as to the idea that the laity should guide their own spiritual lives, without reliance on the clergy (see Havens 2002; Hudson 1988, pp. 249 and 422–423). As Catto 1982 suggests, Lollardy by the higher nobility in the period is best approached as part of a general shift in their new interest in asceticism and religion, rather than as a single position. Bowers 2004 opens a further question in Clanvowe’s biography by pointing to Clanvowe’s close and (Bowers speculates) possibly homosexual ties to a fellow-Chamber knight and crusader Sir William Neville—although the evidence that this friendship was erotic is only indirect, constituted mainly by the two men’s shared tomb, with a monument style usually reserved for tombs joining husband and wife. Düll, et al. 1991 argues that the bond between Clanvowe and Neville was one between formally sworn “brothers in arms,” a vow of lifelong loyalty not uncommon among members of the late-medieval nobility. There is no evidence that Clanvowe married. McFarlane 1972 (p. 172), however, notes that his heir, Sir Thomas Clanvowe, might have been his son; Saul 2004 suggests that Thomas was a younger brother.

  • Bowers, John. “Three Readings of The Knight’s Tale: Sir John Clanvowe, Geoffrey Chaucer, and James I of Scotland.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34.2 (2004): 279–308.

    DOI: 10.1215/10829636-34-2-279

    Focuses on Clanvowe’s intimate relationships with men and apparent absence of erotic ties to women, including what Bowers suggests was a long homosexual relationship with Sir William Neville, whose grave and monument near Istanbul (displaying a “conjugal impaling of arms”) Clanvowe shared. The funerary evidence is discussed further with different conclusions in Düll, et al. 1991.

  • Catto, Jeremy. “Religion and the English Nobility in the Later Fourteenth Century.” In History & Imagination: Essays in Honor of H. R. Trevor-Roper. Edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Valerie Pearl, and Blair Worden, 43–55. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982.

    Classic essay, surveying of a new religious sensibility visible among the 14th-century secular nobility up to the advent of the “Lollard knights.” Focuses on the literary interests and production, the charitable foundations, and the austere funeral requests of a group of nobility surrounding Chaucer, including Clanvowe (see pp. 51–53). Some of these nobility were “Lollards” but others clearly not; thus the essay argues that a newly penitential religious outlook was shared by many of the higher nobility regardless of their particular religious ideas.

  • Düll, Siegrid, Anthony Luttrell, and Maurice Keen. “Faithful unto Death: The Tomb Slab of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, Constantinople 1391.” Antiquaries Journal 71 (1991): 174–190.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003581500086868

    Close study of Clanvowe’s and Neville’s shared tomb after their death on crusade in Constantinople. The monument, carved by an Italian sculptor, features a style of impaled arms typical for married couples (or bishops with their sees). Tracing their careers, and their association with others on crusade who displayed special penance and perhaps Lollard interests, this article concludes that Clanvowe and Neville were sworn “brothers in arms,” an intimate bond found among some other noble men of the period, though displayed in an unusual way on Clanvowe’s tomb.

  • Green, Richard Firth. Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

    Well-informed discussion of the social, intellectual, and literary spheres of the late-medieval English court. Though direct discussion of Clanvowe is brief, chapter 2 on the King’s Chamber and knights serving there (pp. 39–70) is valuable for its description of the general social context in which Clanvowe’s career unfolded.

  • Havens, Jill. “A Curious Erasure in Walsingham’s Short Chronicle and the Politics of Heresy.” In Fourteenth Century England. Vol. 2. Edited by Chris Given-Wilson, 95–106. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2002.

    Focuses on an erasure of the names of the “Lollard knights,” including John Clanvowe, from a lavishly produced late-14th-century copy of Thomas Walsingham’s short version of his Chronicle; the article plausibly argues (with useful further contextualization) that the person responsible for the erasure was none other than Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who was seeking to protect his courtly friends from the accusations of heresy that Walsingham’s Chronicle made against them. The article notes that both Woodstock’s and Clanvowe’s interest in Lollardy was likely to be focused more on general matters such as English presentations of the Bible than on the more theological Wycliffite claims about transubstantiation.

  • Hudson, Anne. The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

    A major guide to Lollardy. Clanvowe’s connection to this movement emerges as general rather than doctrinally specific. Hudson sees in The Two Ways a kind of “puritan pious sentiment” that is not necessarily a “product of Wycliffism” (p. 387), and notes that the two medieval copies of The Two Ways both present the treatise among works “of unimpeachable orthodoxy” (p. 422). The book’s index conflates Thomas with John Clanvowe, treating Thomas as the author of The Two Ways, but the book’s discussion does not make this error.

  • McFarlane, Kenneth Bruce. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.

    Part 2, “Lollard Knights” (pp. 197–206), presents the life and views of Clanvowe in relation to Sir William Neville, including a summary of The Two Ways. Important for its overview of Clanvowe’s life and setting, as well as its popularization of the label “the Lollard knights” that, in spite of criticisms, has remained. The book argues that The Two Ways shows the “trace of Lollardy . . . in the silences” concerning clerics and pilgrimage (p. 205), i.e., matters that Lollards particularly condemned. Still influential, although the assumptions about the knights’ rigid Lollard views are dismissed in Hudson 1988 as tendentious and unhelpful.

  • Saul, Nigel. “Clanvow, Sir John (c. 1341–1391).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/37286

    Brief and authoritative summary of Clanvowe’s life: his origins as the son of a minor landowner on the Welsh marches and subsequent rise to a king’s knight and, later, to a knight of the King’s Chamber by means of his connections to and service for John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and others. Notes the uncertainty of whether Thomas Clanvowe, who inherited the large estates, was John’s brother or son. Available online by subscription.

  • Scattergood, V. J., ed. The Works of Sir John Clanvowe. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1975.

    An edition of the two works presumed to be written by John Clanvowe, The Book of Cupide and the prose treatise The Two Ways. In a brief but substantial introduction, includes much biographical information and quotation of life records (pp. 23–28).

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