1902 Encyclopedia > Roger Ascham

Roger Ascham
English scholar
(1515-68)




ROGER ASCHAM, a very distinguished scholar and writer, was born at Kirby Wiske, a village in Yorkshire, near Northallerton, about the year 1515. John Ascham, his father, was house-steward in the family of Scroop, and by his wife Margaret was connected with several respectable families. A short time before his death, Sir Anthony Wingfield having conceived a predilection for his third son Roger, took him into his family, and extended his bounty so far as to give him the advantage of a private education along with his own sons. Under a domestic tutor he made a rapid progress in classical learning, and early discovered a great partiality for reading. The superiority of genius and docility of temper which he constantly displayed induced his patron to send him to St John's College, Cam-bridge, in the year 1530.

The revival of Greek and Roman literature at the period Ascham entered upon his studies was peculiarly favourable to the natural bent of his inclination. A desire of excel-ling uniformly influenced his conduct; and, adopting the maxim Qui docet discit, he began to teach boys the rudi-ments of the Greek language, as soon as he was acquainted with the elementary parts himself. His plan was approved by Pember, and under the direction of this valued friend he soon became acquainted with the best Greek and Latin authors. He devoted himself particularly to Cicero and Csesar, and from his constant study of these writers acquired the elegant Latin style which proved so honourable and so advantageous in the after part of his life. Ascham took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in his 18th year, and was chosen fellow of the college about a month afterwards. The favourable disposition, however, which he manifested towards the reformed religion was no small obstacle in the way of his preferment. He was admitted Master of Arts in the year 1537, and about this period he began to act in the capacity of a tutor.

His reputation for Greek learning soon brought him many pupils, several of whom afterwards rose to considerable eminence. Of these one of the most distinguished was William Grindall, who obtained the station of master of languages to the Lady Elizabeth, upon the recommendation of Sir John Cheke. The reason why Ascham himself was not appointed to that honourable office is not known; but his partiality for the university seems, from a hint in one of his letters, to have been the cause. At that period there was no particular chair appropriated to the Greek language, but Ascham was appointed by the university to read lectures upon that language in the schools. A dis-pute arose in the university at that time about the pronun-ciation of the Greek language, in which Ascham first opposed the method observed by Sir John Cheke and Sir Thomas Smith; but, upon more mature deliberation, he adopted that method, which has ever since been practised in the English schools. Both on account of the beauty of his handwriting, and the purity and elegance of his Latin, he was employed to write the public letters of the univer-sity. In 1544, on the resignation of Cheke, he obtained the appointment of university orator, an office which he retained with great reputation during the period he was connected with the university.

By the advice of his friend Pember, he turned his atten-tion to the study of instrumental music, and thereby enlivened his leisure hours, and prepared his mind for re-newed exertion. In his study he also amused himself with embellishing the pages of his manuscripts with beautiful drawings, and in the field he took part in the diversion of archery. The learned Ascham did not deem his labour improperly bestowed in writing a book entitled Toxo-plidus, in an age when the proper use of the bow was of more importance than for mere amusement. This work was written in a more natural, easy, and truly English diction than had hitherto been in use; and it also abounds with beautiful allusions and curious fragments of English history. Ascham candidly acknowledges that, being anxious to make the tour of Italy, which was then the great re-public of letters, and particularly of Greek literature, he wished, by dedicating his book to the king, to obtain a pension to enable him to make that tour. It reflects credit on Henry VIII. that in the year 1545 he settled upon him an annual pension of £10, which Dr Johnson estimates at the value of £100. Upon the death of Henry this pension was renewed by Edward VI., to whom Ascham was afterwards appointed Latin secretary.





For some years he received an annual gratuity from Lee, archbishop of York, but the amount of it is not recorded; and, in 1548, upon the death of his pupil Grindall, pre-ceptor to the Lady Elizabeth, his pupils and writings had acquired him such celebrity, that he was appointed to direct the studies of that princess. He successfully ac-quitted himself in that honourable charge; but two years after, from some unknown cause of dissatisfaction, he returned to the university, having taken an abrupt leave of the princess. This conduct of his did not greatly affect his favour with royalty; for in the same year he was recalled to court, and appointed secretary to Sir Richard Morisine, ambassador to the Emperor Charles V. On his way to London he paid a visit to Lady Jane Grey, whom he found in her chamber reading Plato's Phcedo, in Greek, " and that," says he, " with as much delight as some gentlemen would read a merry tale in Boccace," while the duke and duchess, and the rest of the household, were hunting in the park.

In the character of secretary to Sir Richard, besides aid-ing him in the management of his public affairs, he also conducted his private studies. During the mornings of four days in the week, he read with him a portion of Herodotus or Demosthenes, and in the evenings some pages of Sophocles or Euripides; on the other mornings he wrote the letters of public business, and on the evenings he either wrote his own private letters, or continued his diary and remarks. While Ascham was on his travels, he made a short excursion to Italy, but was much disgusted with the manners of the people, especially of the Venetians. After his return from that tour, he published a curious tract, entitled A Report and Discourse of the Affairs and State of Germany, &c.

Upon the death of Edward VI., Morisine was recalled, and Ascham returned to the university. The accession of a Catholic queen held out little prospect of advancement to a Protestant; but his fortune soon took a favourable turn, through the interest of Bishop Gardiner, who ob-tained for him the office of Latin secretary to the queen, with a salary of £20 a year, and permission to retain his university emoluments. The prudence of Ascham enabled him to act a respectable part, both under the govern-ment of Mary, and also in the most perilous situations during the reign of Elizabeth; and the readiness and ele-gance of his Latin style rendered him a useful member at court. He is reported to have written, during the course of three days, 47 letters to persons in the highest ranks of life.

When the crown passed to Elizabeth, it made little alteration in the condition of Ascham, who still retained his station. He spent several hours every day in reading the learned languages with the queen. Her proficiency was equal to his pains; and it might have been expected that his services would have received some reward more ample than £20 per annum, together with the prebend of Westwang. The allegation that the queen kept him poor because he was extravagant and addicted to cock-fighting, is hardly satisfactory.
In consequence of a conversation which took place in the apartment of secretary Cecil, upon the subject of edu-cation, Sir Richard Sackville, who was present, requested Ascham to write a book on the general subject of educa-tion. This work is entitled The Scholemaster, and contains many excellent directions to the instructors of youth, par-ticularly with regard to teaching languages, where he recommends the method of double translation. It was published by his widow after his death. By too close application in composing a poem, which he intended to present to the queen on the New Year's day of 1569, he was seized with an illness which proved fatal. He died on the 23d of December 1568. His death was universally lamented, and the queen expressed her regret by saying, that "she would rather have lost £10,000 than her tutor Ascham." His epistles, which are valuable both on ac-count of their style and historical information, were published after his death, and dedicated to the queen ; the best edition is that of Elstob, published at Oxford in 1703. His English works were published in 4to, with a life by Dr Johnson, in 1771. This edition has been reprinted in 8vo. The whole works have been edited by Dr Giles, London, 1864-5. Of the Toxophilus and Scholemaster there are several reprints.







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