John Cheke, the son of Peter Cheke and Agnes Duffield Cheke, was born in Cambridge in 1514. It is believed that it was through the influence of Sir Richard Empson, that his father found work as an administrator at University of Cambridge. This gave him an income of £35 per annum.
As a boy he was taught grammar by John Morgan. In autumn 1526 he entered St John's College. He was admitted a fellow of his college on 26th March 1529, proceeded BA on 31st March 1530, and commenced MA on 8 July 1533. It is claimed by Alan Bryson that he became a Protestant during this period. (1)
John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was largely responsible for making St. John's such a centre for modern scholarship. (2) Cheke was recruited as a tutor at the college. One of his first students was Roger Ascham, who was deeply influenced by the teaching of John Cheke who lectured on Euripides, Herodotus, Homer, and Sophocles. Another student he influenced was William Cecil.
He also introduced improved teaching methods at the college. Ascham claiming that he laid new foundations for study there by encouraging his students to answer all questions by appeal to scripture and by teaching the best rhetorical methods. Ascham claims that Cheke was "an inspirational tutor, able to impart his learning and enthusiasm to his students". (3)
In 1542 he came into conflict with Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, the chancellor of the university, who objected to his progressive teaching methods. He issued a decree laying down serious punishments for those who did not comply with his orders. "Gardiner feared such innovation would instill restlessness and resistance to authority, dangerous things in the religious climate of the 1530s and 1540s". (4)
John Cheke was a close associate of Catherine Parr and in July 1544 she arranged for him to become tutor to Prince Edward. (5) John Guy has argued the "reformed cause" was revived at Court after Henry VIII married his sixth wife: "Catherine used her influence to mitigate the Act of Six Articles in several cases. Her immediate circle was centred on the royal nursery, where John Cheke, Richard Cox, Anthony Cooke, and other 'reforming' humanists were appointed tutors to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth." (6) It has been suggested that Cheke was an humanist scholar in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus but it was possible that he was a supporter of Martin Luther and this could explain Edward's support for religious reform. (7)
Towards the end of 1546, and following representations from Roger Ascham, Cheke was able to suggest William Grindal for the post of tutor to Princess Elizabeth, the eleven-year-old daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (8) "Grindal turned up at the court of the royal children with a letter of introduction from Ascham which recommended his appointment as Elizabeth's tutor. With such backing, the deal was as good as done and he took up the post immediately." (9)
John Cheke was promoted to gentleman of the privy chamber between 20th May, 1547. Later that year he was returned as MP for Bletchingley. Cheke benefited from the goodwill of the lord protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. He taught their children and was seen as part of the "evangelical establishment". His biographer, Alan Bryson, was argued he was rewarded for his support for religious reform: "He received an annuity of £66 13s. 4d. from August 1547. On 21 October 1548 he bought for £738 the site of the college of Stoke by Clare, Suffolk, and other property valued at £21 15s. 8d. per annum." (10)
According to John Strype, Cheke was "always at his elbow, both in his closet and in his chapel, and wherever else he went, to inform and teach him". (11) He also worked closely with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. During autumn 1552 he and William Cecil played an important consultative role in the formulation and composition of the forty-two articles of religion, the doctrinal basis of the church. Cheke also began translating the New Testament into English. His main objective was to purify the language by using words whose etymology was Saxon rather than Latin or French. In 1557 he wrote to Sir Thomas Hoby that "our own tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixed and uncongealed with borrowing of other tongues". (12)
King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Later that month Queen Mary ordered Cheke to be placed under house arrest before being sent to the Tower of London on 28th July. (13) On 12 August, he was indicted and found guilty of treason. It was claimed that he had given support to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick in his attempts to make Lady Jane Grey queen. Warwick was executed on 22nd August, 1553. (14)
John Cheke was released in the early months of and pardoned on 28th April 1554, and was given permission to go abroad. He spent time in Strasbourg, Basel, Padua and Emden, where in 1555 he published work in defence of the Reformation. On 15th May 1556 he was arrested on his way to Antwerp and brought back to England and by 2nd June he was back in the Tower of London. After being threatened with being burnt at the stake by Cardinal Reginald Pole he promised to obey her law and to practise Catholicism. He was forced to make a humiliating recantation before the court on 4th October, providing the Marian regime with a great propaganda coup. (15)
John Cheke died in London on 13th September 1557.
Cheke excelled at languages, particularly Latin and Greek. He was admitted a fellow of his college on 26 March 1529, proceeded BA on 31 March 1530, and commenced MA on 8 July 1533. He probably became a protestant during his early years at the university...
Cheke lectured on Euripides, Herodotus, Homer, and Sophocles. He introduced improved teaching methods at St John's, Roger Ascham claiming that he laid new foundations for study there by encouraging his students to answer all questions by appeal to scripture and by teaching the best rhetorical methods. His bond with his student was very close but Ascham (whose writing did most to ensure Cheke's reputation as a great tutor) was always dependent on his goodwill and somewhat in awe of him.
However, other accounts confirm that Cheke was an inspirational tutor, able to impart his learning and enthusiasm to his students, who felt bound to him by strong ties. Other notable students included William Bill, William Cecil (1520/21–1598), Thomas Chaloner, Edwin Sandys, and Thomas Wilson. They were taught to read mainly Aristotle and Plato, both to acquire greater proficiency in languages and to learn dialectic. Cheke believed in studying in their own language then imitating the great classical authors, leaving more informal reading to lesser Greek and Roman writings, and emphasizing mathematics as the basis for philosophy. His broad range of interests surprised even his highly educated peers.
In 1544 her brother Edward entered his sixth year and... his education was put on a formal footing with the appointment of male tutors. The most important was John Cheke of St John's College, Cambridge... Cheke's star pupil at St John's was Roger Ascham and Ascham in turn had a favourite student in William Grindal. Soon Grindal turned up at the court of the royal children with a letter of introduction from Ascham which recommended his appointment as Elizabeth's tutor. With such backing, the deal was as good as done and he took up the post immediately.
The reformed cause revived at Court when Henry married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr (12 July 1543)... Catherine used her influence to mitigate the Act of Six Articles in several cases. Her immediate circle was centred on the royal nursery, where John Cheke, Richard Cox, Anthony Cooke, and other 'reforming' humanists were appointed tutors to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth.