Birthplace: Kirby Wiske, Yorkshire, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Sepulchre without Newgate Churchyard, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: The Scholemaster
English scholar and writer, was born at Kirby Wiske, a village in the North Riding of Yorkshire, near Northallerton, about the year 1515. His name would be more properly spelled Askham, being derived, doubtless, from Askham in the West Riding. He was 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 others 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, p. 120 (not, as by a mistake which originated with Grant and has been repeated ever since, Sir Anthony Wingfield, who was nephew of the speaker). Sir Humphry "ever loved and used to have many children brought up in his house", 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 the field and see them shoot." Hence Ascham's earliest English work, the Toxophilus, the importance which he attributed to archery in educational establishments, and probably the provision 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. Here he fell under the influence of 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 facility in the Greek tongue." On his advice he practiced seriously the precept embodied in the saying, "I know nothing about the subject, I have not even lectured on it", and "to learn Greek more quickly, while still a boy, taught Greek to boys." In Latin he specially studied Cicero and Caesar. He became B.A. on the 18th of February 1534/5. Dr. Nicholas Metcalfe was then master of the college, "a papist, indeed, and yet if any young man given to the new learning as they termed it, 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 grievous rebuke and some punishment, open warning was given to all the fellows, none to be so hardy, as to give me his voice at that 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 obtained." He took his M.A. degree on the 3rd of July 1537. He stayed for some time at Cambridge taking pupils, among whom was William Grindal, who in 1544 became tutor to Princess Elizabeth. Ascham himself cultivated music, acquired fame for 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. He was on safer ground in writing in 1542-43 a book, which he told Sir William Paget in the summer of 1544 was in the press, "on the art of Shooting." This was no doubt suggested partly by the act of parliament 33 Henry VIII c. 9, "an acte for mayntenaunce of Artyllarie and debarringe of unlawful games", requiring every one under sixty, of good health, the clergy, judges, etc., excepted, "to use shooting in the long bow", and fixing the price at which bows were to be sold. Under the title of Toxophilus he presented it to King 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 of the book was 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." It 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 Act. In 1546 Ascham was elected public orator by the university on Sir John Cheke's retirement.
Shortly after the beginning of the reign of King 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 January 1548, Grindal, the princess Elizabeth's tutor, died. Ascham 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 princess's own wish he was selected as her tutor against another candidate pressed by Admiral Seymour and Queen Katherine. Ascham taught Elizabeth -- then sixteen years old -- for two years, chiefly at Cheshunt. In a letter to Sturm, the Strasbourg 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 quarreled with Elizabeth's steward and returned to Cambridge. Cheke then procured him the secretaryship 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.
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. Through Bishop Stephen Gardiner he was appointed Latin secretary to Queen Mary with a pension of £20 a year. His Protestantism he must have quietly sunk, though he told Sturm that "some endeavored 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 the 1st of June 1554 he married Margaret Howe, whom he described as niece of Sir R. 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 the 5th of October 1559, he was given, though a layman, the canonry and prebend of Wetwang in York minster. In 1563 he began the work which has made him famous, The Scholemaster. The occasion of it was, he tells us (though he is perhaps merely imitating Giovanni Boccaccio), that during the "great plague" at London in 1563 the court was at Windsor, and there on the 10th of 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 to have been taken from Cicero. Nor was the famous plea for the substitution of gentleness and persuasion for coercion and flogging in schools, which has been one of the main attractions of the book, novel. It was being practiced and preached at that very time by Christopher Jonson (c. 1536-1597) at Winchester; it had been enforced at length by Thomas 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 in 1400. But Ascham's was the first definite demonstration in favor of humanity in the vulgar tongue and in an easy style by a well-known "educationist", though not one who had any actual 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 criticisms of various authors, and a spirited defense of English as a vehicle of thought and literature, of which it was itself an excellent example. The book was not published until after Ascham's death, which took place on the 23rd of December 1568, owing to a chill caught by sitting up all night to finish a New Year's poem to the queen.
Father: John Ascham
University: BA, St. John's College, Cambridge University (1534/5)
University: MA, St. John's College, Cambridge University (1537)
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