Roger Ascham, the third of the four sons of John Ascham, steward to Henry Scrope, 7th Lord Scrope, and his wife, Margaret, was born in 1514. Ascham received his first education at the school in the village of Kirby Wiske.
In his early teens he was placed by his parents in the household of Humphrey Wingfield, a Suffolk lawyer. It has been claimed that Wingfield modelled his household on that of Sir Thomas More and already had a reputation for the upbringing of youth. While in his care Ascham was taught Latin and Greek by Robert Bond. (1)
In 1530 Ascham entered the University of Cambridge and became a student at St John's College. Roger's official tutor, Hugh Fitzherbert, encouraged in him a love of Greek, calligraphy, drawing, and music. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was largely responsible for making St. John's such a centre for modern scholarship. (2)
Ascham was deeply influenced by the teaching of John Cheke who lectured on Euripides, Herodotus, Homer, and Sophocles. 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 February 1534 Roger Ascham was nominated for a fellowship. Ascham had recently criticized Pope Clement VII and there was some opposition to his election to the post. Ascham's prospects improved with the appointment of the more reformist Thomas Cromwell as chancellor of the university in 1535. As a regent master he had given three courses of lectures by summer 1540. That in dialectic was probably the obligatory course, but he also lectured on mathematics and on Greek. (4)
In 1542 William Grindal became one of his students. An excellent Greek scholar, he developed a close friendship with Ascham. Grindal was finding it difficult to subsist on his fellowship, and Ascham was for a time unable to find a position for him. However, in July 1544 John Cheke left the college to become tutor to Prince Edward. Towards the end of 1546, and following representations from Ascham, Cheke was able to secure for Grindal the post of tutor to Princess Elizabeth. (5)
Grindal taught the 13-year-old Elizabeth, Greek and Latin. He relied heavily on the advice given to him by Ascham. It also seems that Grindal introduced him to Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey. It seems that Grindal was a good tutor but his career was cut short by his death from plague in January 1548. Ascham later recalled that the loss of Grindal affected him as keenly as that of his parents. (6)
Princess Elizabeth was living with Thomas Seymour and his recent bride, Catherine Parr at their house in Chelsea. She suggested that Ascham should become her new tutor. At first the couple rejected the idea but eventually they agreed and Ascham joined the household. (7) Ascham was impressed with what Grindal achieved and admitted he did not know "whether to admire more the wit of her who learned, or the diligence of him who taught". (8)
Roger Ascham developed a curriculum for the princess that would allow her to play an important political role in the future. He taught her history, geography, mathematics, the elements of architecture and astronomy and six languages: Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish and Flemish. He also taught calligraphy to Elizabeth and her brother, Prince Edward. (9) Another of his pupils was Robert Dudley. (10)
Ascham was very impressed with Princess Elizabeth precocious intellect "with a masculine power of application". She became a skilled translator and linguist, speaking French and Italian fluently, and developed interests in science, philosophy and history. (11) He later commented: "Her mind has no womanly weakness, her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up." (12)
Roger Ascham held very progressive views on education: "Fond of the open air, of physical exercise, games and sports, Ascham transmitted those likings to his young pupil, who always found it easy to alternate between intellectual pleasures and the more worldly delights of riding, dancing and the chase." (13)
Princess Elizabeth began to have problems living in the same house as Thomas Seymour. According to Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958) claims that the evidence suggested that the "Queen Dowager took to coming with her husband on his morning visits and one morning they both tickled the Princess as she lay in her bed. In the garden one day there was some startling horse-play, in which Seymour indulged in a practice often heard of in police courts; the Queen Dowager held Elizabeth so that she could not run away, while Seymour cut her black cloth gown into a hundred pieces. The cowering under bedclothes, the struggling and running away culminated in a scene of classical nightmare, that of helplessness in the power of a smiling ogre... The Queen Dowager, who was undergoing an uncomfortable pregnancy, could not bring herself to make her husband angry by protesting about his conduct, but she began to realize that he and Elizabeth were very often together." (14)
Sir Thomas Parry, the head of Elizabeth's household, later testified that Seymour loved Elizabeth and had done so for a long time and that Catherine Parr was jealous of the fact. In May 1548 Catherine "came suddenly upon them, where they were all alone, he having her (Elizabeth) in his arms, wherefore the Queen fell out, both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also... and as I remember, this was the cause why she was sent from the Queen." (15) Later that month Elizabeth was sent away to stay with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife, at Cheshunt. It has been suggested that this was done not as punishment but as a means of protecting the young girl. Philippa Jones, the author of Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) has suggested that Elizabeth was pregnant with Seymour's child. (16)
Roger Ascham joined the Denny household but he was now caught up in the conflict over the control of Princess Elizabeth. It seems he also fell out with Parry over this issue and on 28th January, 1550, he wrote to John Cheke that he had been badly affected by "recent violence and injury at court". Soon afterwards he resigned his post as tutor. (17)
In September 1550 Ascham took up the appointment of secretary to Sir Richard Morison, ambassador to the court of the Emperor Charles V. While he was in Europe he developed friendships Hieronymus Wolf and Johann Sturm. He was also in correspondence with William Cecil and asked if their was any possibility of a post as Latin secretary to Edward VI.
Ascham returned to England in August 1553. With the help of an old friend, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, he was appointed as Latin secretary to Mary at a salary of 40 marks a year. As Rosemary O'Day has pointed out: "The position of Latin secretary was no sinecure. In one period of three days Ascham wrote no fewer than forty-seven letters to princes and cardinals. Ascham it was who drafted the announcements to Pope Paul IV and others of the birth of a royal heir from Hampton Court... during the queen's phantom pregnancy." (18)
During this period Roger Ascham fell in love with Margaret Howe of South Ockendon. He wrote to Sir William Petre that he had chosen his wife because of her good qualities: "the more sorry am I that hitherto she hath found rather a loving than a lucky husband unto her". (19) They married on 1st June, 1554, and over the next few years they had at least four sons and three daughters. (20)
Queen Mary died on 17th November 1558. Ascham now resumed his friendship with Elizabeth and once again he acted as her tutor. He later recalled: "I believe that, besides 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." (21)
In 1563 Ascham began work on his book entitled Schoolmaster. It consisted of two sections: the first gives the character of the ideal tutor and scholar; the second treats the method of instruction by double translation using proper imitation of classical models. He discussed how best to judge the aptitude of a pupil, how best to encourage a student, how best to inculcate a love of learning. (22)
Ascham pointed out that children preferred to be in the open air than reading books inside. He admitted that "the young gentleman of England go so unwillingly to school and run so fast to the stable". (23) However, he insisted that young people needed both physical and intellectual activities. (24)
Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958) argue that the book shows that he was a teacher so enlightened that he would be considered progressive even today. He vehemently denounced the brutal flogging by which "children are driven to hate learning before they know what learning means". Jenkins goes on to state that the "amount of work he expected would now be looked at askance, but within the framework of sixteenth-century usage, his sympathy with the childish mind was that of a first-rate teacher." (25)
Roger Ascham died on 30th December 1568. Schoolmaster was published posthumously in 1570.
Elizabeth... requested the services of Roger Ascham, Grindal's teacher and Cheke's favourite pupil. She got her way, and Ascham exerted a decisive influence on her. He complained of never being able to go to Cambridge because she refused to let him absent himself, even for a few days. He taught her a great deal more than Latin and Greek, in fact he was so successful that, at the age of sixteen, Elizabeth could express herself as fluently in the classical tongues as in French and Italian, the language that was replacing Latin in diplomatic circles. Fond of the open air, of physical exercise, games and sports, Ascham transmitted those likings to his young pupil, who always found it easy to alternate between intellectual pleasures and the more worldly delights of riding, dancing and the chase.
In January 1548 William Grindal, tutor to Princess Elizabeth and Ascham's dear friend, died of plague. Ascham comforted Elizabeth in a letter of 22 January 1548 and recommended a kinsman of Grindal as replacement.
Elizabeth, despite the opposition of her stepmother Catherine Parr and of Thomas Seymour, insisted that the vacant tutor's place go to Ascham. She had her way and Ascham immediately joined the household at Chelsea. He contrived a classical and Christian curriculum for the princess that was designed to equip her for a leading role in the state. In the morning they studied Greek (the New Testament as well as classical authors such as Sophocles, Isocrates, and Demosthenes), and in the afternoon Cicero and Livy and the early fathers such as St Cyprian. With her he pioneered his method of teaching languages by double translation, which he was to make famous in The Scholemaster. He also taught calligraphy to Elizabeth, her brother, Edward, and Henry and Charles Brandon; it is possible that Lady Jane Grey shared this instruction. A letter of this time to Kate Astley (or Ashley), Elizabeth's governess, presages Ascham's later views on the need to approach the education of the precocious with care: "The younger, the more tender; the quicker, the easier to break… and so her grace… by little and little, may be increased in learning". Within the household Ascham had an easy and friendly relationship with the Astleys, with whom he had a connection through John Astley's brother Richard, who was a fellow of St John's College. Ascham's correspondence speaks of "free talk, always mingled with honest mirth", discussions about current affairs, and study (with John Astley) of Aristotle's Rhetoric and works by Livy and Cicero. He shared a room with one of the gentlemen-in-waiting, John Whitney, whom he taught Latin, again using the method of double translation with Cicero's De amicitia as its subject.
Whilst Roger Ascham, who became Elizabeth's schoolmaster in 1548, would extol Elizabeth's chaste, feminine virtues, he would also celebrate Elizabeth's more "unfeminine" accomplishments: her learning and scholarship "exempt from female weakness" and her precocious intellect "with a masculine power of application". She was a skilled translator and linguist, speaking French and Italian fluently, and developed interests in science, philosophy and history. In short, Elizabeth had a "manly wisdom" and intelligence encased in a body which was held to be physically inferior and morally weak and in need of the guidance of men. Regardless of her intellectual accomplishments, her standing would always be subject to her ability to preserve a chaste reputation.
Elizabeth's ability at her lessons was now generally recognized as something unusual; she was learning history, geography, mathematics, the elements of architecture and astronomy and four modem languages: French, Italian, Spanish and Flemish. Her Greek and Latin had been entrusted to a young Cambridge scholar, William Grindal; he was considered to have brought the Princess on very well, the more so as he had had the help and advice of his master, the celebrated Roger Ascham.