The Ancient Tabard Inn

by Edwin Watts Chubb

The picture we see here is that of an inn whose fame is as widespread as the love of English poetry, for it is at the Tabard Inn that Chaucer more than five hundred years ago assembled his nine and twenty pilgrims who were preparing to visit the tomb of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. The witchery of the springtime had stirred the blood of these Londoners who, perhaps, were enticed from home more by the soft April showers and the melody of the birds than by their need of spiritual consolation. This, at least, is the impression we receive as in imagination we join these immortal pilgrims at the Tabard. Our guide is

Dan Chaucer, the first warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts that fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still,—

and as he moves among his motley group, let us take a glance at the Tabard.

The picture we have is that of the typical old English inn. "As late as 1870 the ruins of the famous Tabard could be found. It was near St. Saviour in the Borough High Street. Turning from the street into one of those courtyards which abound in the east of London, the visitor comes upon the ruins of the once famous inn the very name of which has been transformed by time. It is now known as the 'Talbot,' but the inscription above the doorway contradicts the modern signboard and proclaims the house to be 'The Ancient Tabard Inn.' The whole yard is redolent of dilapidation. Facing the visitor on entering is an interesting block of old buildings, forming part of the left side, and the bottom of what once was an ample courtyard. This part of the building contains not improbably the shell of the corresponding portion of the original inn. The doors of the first floor all open into one of the wide balustraded galleries or verandas so common in the genuine old English hostelry. Until recently the landlord of the Talbot, then a small public-house, and still forming part of the modern mass of brick building that blocks up the right side and part of the center of the courtyard, rented the rooms by which this balustraded gallery was, and still is, surrounded. They were then let as bedrooms, and kept in good repair; and are supposed to occupy the site of the very rooms once tenanted by the Canterbury pilgrims; the gallery probably differing but little in appearance from what it was when Chaucer frequented it in search of good wine. The landlord eventually became insolvent; the paltry tavern was shut up, and the bedrooms were dismantled. In that plight they might be seen some years ago, may still possibly be seen—empty, dusty, dreary—ranged above ground-floor premises which do duty as a parcels' conveyance office, and abutting on a mean, ill-kept yard. Until within the last few years the coigne of the old balustraded gallery was connected on the right with the modern brick mass by an ancient wood-work bridge, coeval at least with the oldest portion of the building as it stands. But the bridge is gone, and the lust of gold and the pride of life have so destroyed that spirit of reverence and refined superstitious love for the venerable which should characterize an advanced civilization, that it is greatly to be feared the rest of the structure will soon follow. Yet it was in this courtyard, and before this very inn, that Chaucer and his nine-and-twenty pilgrims stood in picturesque confusion in the early dawn of that spring morning, long, long ago; and agreed for their common amusement on the road each one of them should tell at least one tale in going to, and another in returning from Canterbury; the best story teller to be treated to a supper by his fellow travelers on their return to the Tabard Inn. The company comprises representatives from all classes of society except the two extremes; there is neither a prince nor a beggar. The characters are taken from middle-class life, of which they may be accepted as fair and truthful types; being described with a vigorous fidelity which has never been surpassed in the whole range of art. Every figure stands out from the canvas sharp and clear like pictures seen through a stereoscope. Not a touch, not a line is wanting; each trick of speech and peculiarity of feature or of dress, is photographed with Preraphaelite fidelity."

The Old Tabard Inn

From a drawing by Herbert Railton