Roger Ascham

Roger Ascham

Roger Ascham (c. 1515 - 23 December 1568), English scholar and didactic writer, famous for his prose style, his promotion of the vernacular, and his theories of education. He acted as Princess Elizabeth's tutor in Greek and Latin between 1548-50, and served in the administrations of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.

The name Ascham could be more properly spelt Askham, being derived from Askham near York. He was born at Kirby Wiske, a village in the North Riding of Yorkshire, near Northallerton, the third son of John Ascham, steward to Lord Scrope of Bolton. The family name of his mother Margaret is unknown, but she is said to have been well connected. The authority for this statement, as for most here concerning Ascham's early life, is Edward Grant, headmaster of Westminster, who collected and edited his letters and delivered a panegyrical oration on his life in 1576.


Ascham was educated not at school, but in the house of Sir Humphry Wingfield, a barrister, and in 1533 Speaker of the House of Commons, as Ascham himself tells us, in the "Toxophilus" where they were under a tutor named R. Bond. Their sport was archery, and Sir Humphry "himself would at term times bring down from London both bows and shafts and go with them himself to see them shoot". Hence Ascham's earliest English work, the "Toxophilus", the importance which he attributed to archery in educational establishments, and probably the reason for archery in the statutes of St Albans, Harrow and other Elizabethan schools.

From this private tuition Ascham was sent "about 1530," at the age, it is said, of fifteen, to St John's College, Cambridge, then the largest and most learned college in either university, where he devoted himself specially to the study of Greek, then newly revived. Here he fell under the influence of Sir John Cheke, who was admitted a fellow in Ascham's first year, and Sir Thomas Smith. His guide and friend was Robert Pember, "a man of the greatest learning and with an admirable ability in the Greek tongue".

He became B.A. on 18 February 1534/5. Dr Nicholas Metcalfe was then master of the college, "a papist, indeed, and if any young man given to the new learning as they termed or went beyond his fellows," he "lacked neither open praise, nor private exhibition." He procured Ascham's election to a fellowship, "though being a new bachelor of arts, I chanced among my companions to speak against the Pope ... after serious rebuke and some punishment, open warning was given to all the fellows, none to be so hardy, as to give me his voice at election." The day of election Ascham regarded as his birthday," and "the whole foundation of the poor learning I have and of all the furtherance that hitherto elsewhere I have been tamed." He took his M.A. degree on 3 July 1537 and was elected a fellow of St. John's. He stayed for some time at Cambridge taking pupils, among whom was William Grindal, who in 1544 became tutor to Princess Elizabeth.

Royal service

In January 1548, Grindal, the princess Elizabeth's tutor, died. Ascham, one of the ablest Greek scholars in England, and public orator of the university, had already corresponded with the princess, and in one of his letters says that he returns her pen which he has mended. Through Cecil, and at the sixteen year old princess's own wish, he was selected as her tutor against another candidate pressed by Admiral Seymour and Queen Catherine. In 1548, Ascham began teaching the princess (afterwards Queen) Elizabeth in Greek and Latin chiefly at Cheshunt, which he did until 1550.

Of Elizabeth, he later wrote: "Yea, I believe, that beside her perfect readiness in Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, she readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day than some prebendary of this church doth read Latin in a whole week." His influence on Elizabeth is suggested by the fact that, for the remainder of her life, she remained an occasional writer of poems such as "On Monsieur’s Departure".

In a letter to Sturm, the Strassburg schoolmaster, he praises her "beauty, stature, wisdom and industry. She talks French and Italian as well as English: she has often talked to me readily and well in Latin and moderately so in Greek. When she writes Greek and Latin nothing is more beautiful than her handwriting . . . she read with me almost all Cicero and great part of Titus Livius: for she drew all her knowledge of Latin from those two authors. She used to give the morning to the Greek Testament and afterwards read select orations of Isocrates and the tragedies of Sophocles. To these I added St Cyprian and Melanchthon's Commonplaces."

In 1550 Ascham quarrelled with Elizabeth's steward and returned to Cambridge. Cheke then procured him a position as secretary to Sir Richard Morrison (Moryson), appointed ambassador to Charles V. It was on his way to join Morrison that he paid his celebrated morning call on Lady Jane Grey at Bradgate, where he found her reading Plato's "Phaedo", while every one else was out hunting.

He served in this position for several years, traveling widely on the European continent. The embassy went to Louvain, where he found the university very inferior to Cambridge, then to Innsbruck and Venice. Ascham read Greek with the ambassador four or five days a week. His letters during the embassy, which was recalled on Mary's accession, were published in English in 1553, as a "Report" on Germany.

Ascham was appointed Latin Secretary to Edward VI. Through the efforts of Bishop Gardiner on his return to England, this office he likewise discharged to Queen Mary with a pension of £20 a year, and then to Elizabeth — a testimony to his tact and caution in those changeful times.

His Protestantism he must have quietly sunk, though he told Sturm that "some endeavoured to hinder the flow of Gardiner's benevolence on account of his religion". Probably his never having been in orders tended to his safety.

On 1 June 1554 he married Margaret Howe, whom he described as niece of Sir R. (? J., certainly not, as has been said, Henry) Wallop. By her he had two sons. From his frequent complaints of his poverty then and later, he seems to have lived beyond his income, though, like most courtiers, he obtained divers lucrative leases of ecclesiastical and crown property.

In 1555 he resumed his studies with Princess Elizabeth, reading in Greek the orations of Aeschines and Demosthenes' "De Corona". Soon after Elizabeth's accession, on 5 October 1559, he was given, though a layman, the canonry and prebend of Wetwang in York Minster.

Publications and influence

Ascham himself cultivated music, acquired fame and a beautiful handwriting, and lectured on mathematics. Before 1540, when the Regius professorship of Greek was established, Ascham "was paid a handsome salary to profess the Greek tongue in public," and held also lectures in St John's College. He obtained from Edward Lee, then Archbishop of York, a pension of £2 a year, in return for which Ascham translated Oecumenius' "Commentaries on the Pauline Epistles". But the archbishop, scenting heresy in some passage relating to the marriage of the clergy, sent it back to him, with a present indeed, but with something like a reprimand, to which Ascham answered with an assurance that he was "no seeker after novelties", as his lectures showed.

Ascham's first published work, "Toxophilus" ("Lover of the Bow") in 1545, was dedicated to Henry VIII. In the summer of 1544, he told Sir William Paget a work was in the press, "on the art of Shooting". The topic was no doubt suggested partly by the act of parliament 33 Henry VIII. c. q, "an acte for mayntenaunce of Artyllarie and debarringe of unlawful games", requiring every one under sixty, of good health, the clergy, judges, &c., excepted", to use shooting in the long bow", and fixing the price at which bows were to be sold. The objects of the book are twofold, to commend the practice of shooting with the long bow as a manly sport and an aid to national defence, and to set the example of a higher style of composition than had yet been attempted in English. Ascham presented the book to Henry VIII at Greenwich soon after his triumphant return from the capture of Boulogne, and promptly received a grant of a pension of £10 a year.

A novelty in that the author had "written this Englishe matter in the Englishe tongue for Englishe men", though he thought it necessary to defend himself by the argument that what "the best of the realm think it honest to use" he "ought not to suppose it vile for him to write". "Toxophilus" was the first book on archery in English. The work is a Platonic dialogue between Toxophilus and Philologus, and nowadays its chief interest lies in its incidental remarks. It may probably claim to have been the model for Izaak Walton's "Compleat Angler".

From 1541, or earlier, Ascham acted as letter-writer to the university and also to his college. Perhaps the best specimen of his skill was the letter written to the protector Somerset in 1548 on behalf of Sedbergh School, which was attached to St John's College by the founder, Dr Lupton, in 1525, and the endowment of which had been confiscated under the Chantries Acts. In 1546 Ascham was elected public orator by the university on Sir John Cheke's retirement. Shortly after the beginning of the reign of Edward VI, Ascham made public profession of Protestant opinions in a disputation on the doctrine of the Mass, begun in his own college and then removed for greater publicity to the public schools of the university, where it was stopped by the vice-chancellor. Thereon Ascham wrote a letter of complaint to Sir William Cecil. This stood him in good stead.

In 1563 Ascham began the work "The Scholemaster", published posthumously in 1570, which has made him famous. The occasion of it was, he tells us (though he is perhaps merely imitating Boccaccio), that during the "great plague" at London in 1563 the court was at Windsor, and there on the 10 December he was dining with Sir William Cecil, secretary of state, and other ministers. Cecil said he had "strange news; that divers scholars of Eaton be run away from the schole for fear of beating"; and expressed his wish that "more discretion was used by schoolmasters in correction than commonly is". A debate took place, the party being pretty evenly divided between floggers and anti-floggers, with Ascham as the champion of the latter. Afterwards Sir Richard Sackville, the treasurer, came up to Ascham and told him that "a fond schoolmaster" had, by his brutality, made him hate learning, much to his loss, and as he had now a young son, whom he wished to be learned, he offered, if Ascham would name a tutor, to pay for the education of their respective sons under Ascham's orders, and invited Ascham to write a treatise on "the right order of teaching". "The Scholemaster" was the result.

It is not, as might be supposed, a general treatise on educational method, but "a plaine and perfite way of teachyng children to understand, write and speake in Latin tong"; and it was not intended for schools, but "specially prepared for the private brynging up of youth in gentlemen and noblemens houses.” The perfect way simply consisted in "the double translation of a model book"; the book recommended by this professional letter-writer being "Sturmius' Select Letters of Cicero." As a method of learning a language by a single pupil, this method might be useful; as a method of education in school nothing more deadening could be conceived. The method itself seems a have been taken from Cicero. Nor was the famous plea for the substitution of gentleness and persuasion for coercion in schools, which has been one of the main attractions of the book. It was being practised and preached at that very time by Christopher Jonson (c. 1536-1597) at Winchester; of had been enforced at length by Wolsey in his statutes for his Ipswich College in 1528, following Robert Sherborne, bishop of Chichester, in founding Rolleston school; and had been repeatedly urged by Erasmus and others, to say nothing of William of Wykeham himself in the statutes of Winchester College. But Ascham's was the first definite demonstration of humanity in the vulgar tongue and in an easy style and a well-known "educationist," though not one who had any experience as a schoolmaster. What largely contributed to its fame was its picture of Lady Jane Grey, whose love of learning was due to her finding her tutor a refuge from pinching, ear-boxing and bullying parents; some exceedingly good as criticisms of various authors, and a spirited defence of English as a vehicle of thought and literature, of which it was itself an excellent example. The book was not published till after Ascham's death, which took place on the 23rd of December of 1568, owing to a chill caught by sitting up all night to finish a New Year's poem to the queen.

His letters were collected and published in 1576, and went through several editions, the latest at Nuremberg in 1611; they were re-titled by William Elstob in 1703. His English works were edited by James Bennett with a life by Dr Johnson in 1771, reprinted in 1815. Dr Giles in 1864-1865 published in 4 vols. select letters from the "Toxophilus" and "Scholemaster" and the life by Edward Grant. The "Scholemaster" was reprinted in 1571 and 1589. It was edited by the Rev. J Upton in 1711 and in 1743, by Prof. JEB Mayor 1863, and by Prof. Edward Arber in 1870. The "Toxophilus" was published in 1571, 1589 and 1788, and by Prof. Edward Arber in 1868 and 1902.


*A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature

External links

*gutenberg author|id=Roger_Ascham|name=Roger Ascham

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