Roger Ascham
Or: A Straight Arrow

Roger Ascham, tutor to Queen Elizabeth I, author, gentleman, humanist, and something of a lark of a travelogue writer.

From his earliest days in Yorkshire to his job at the side of the Queen herself, Ascham served as an excellent example of the well-educated aristocrat that roamed the halls of England's castles in the 16th century. Many of his years were spent in Italy and Germany, where he wrote some of his most famous literature on the peoples of those great nations. Plus Samuel Johnson wrote about him! So you know he's worth knowing about ...

When I Was Fourteen, It Was A Very Good Year

Roger Ascham was born in Kirby Wiske, Yorkshire, in 1515, the youngest son of John and Margaret Ascham. His parents both worked in the manors of lords in the area. Apparently his parents were so busy taking care of other people's houses that they decided it would be best to put young Rog in the hands of somebody else, namely Antony Wingfield, an old wealthy patron.

Mr. Wingfield set about to educate the boy, and at the age of 14, young Ascham was invited to attend St. John's College in Cambridge. By comparison, at 14 I was primarily concerned with masturbation. While at Cambridge, Roger took a particularly engaging interest in the Greek language. By the time he was 18, he had mastered the language and graduated to become a fellow at the University. By comparison, at 18 I was primarily concerned with masturbation.

Ascham's fellowship gave him lots of free time: he learned to play several musical instruments and became an expert in calligraphy, a rare talent in those days, and rarer still today. Add in the fact that Ascham's marriage was something of a farce, and - well, I won't stoop to wild tabloid accusations.

You Can Ascham Anything

At 21, Roger earned his master's degree in languages and became a tutor to the young gentlemen of England. King Henry VIII paid Ascham's bills to travel all of England as a lecturer on Greek. He also served (somewhat less glamorously) as the head letter-writer for the university, primarily for his penmanship. All of that education to become a secretary!

Roger continued to tutor at the school, but he soon developed another riveting hobby in archery. He often spent hours at the range, so much so that he was soon asked to write a book about his methods by the university. And so, in 1544, Toxophilus was produced, which had the lasting impact of causing Queen Elizabeth to favor longbows over muskets during the war against her half-sister Mary I. His book is still considered the definitive book on archery. Roger also used the book to get a ten pound yearly pension from Henry VIII. Try getting that kind of advance down at Random House these days ...

Put Your Bess Foot Forward

Ascham's tutoring had put him in good with the well-to-do of England: from the King himself to the Dukes of Suffolk, Windsor, and York, he was considered the premiere tutor in the land of Tudor. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) In 1546, Henry VIII passed away, and King Edward came to power. England was currently just beginning to feel the repercussion of the Anglican reformation, and Ascham was looking for a way out. He began getting buddy buddy with several of his foreign-born students, hoping they might be his ticket out of Cambridge. Unfortunately, in 1548 he was called upon by the princess Elizabeth herself to serve as her tutor. Not wishing to make a big scene, Ascham agreed.

Evidently, two years of educating the future queen took its toll on the 32 year old Ascham: one day he just up and left the palace and returned to Cambridge. Needless to say, Ascham never really lived this one down. Although Elizabeth publicly forgave him many times for the seemingly minor incident, Johnson writes that Ascham "felt the effects of his imprudence to his death." Chill out, R-dawg! She's the future world leader - you're just a glorified governess.

Holy Roman Emperor, Batman!

Back at Cambridge U., Roger began doing preliminary research into the various ways to teach Latin. Before he got very far, though, he received a letter from Sir Richard Moryson, the British ambassador to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the Hapsburg empire centered in Germany. The letter asked Ascham to serve as Moryson's traveling secretary, and Ascham quickly agreed.

Traveling with Moryson (and teaching him Greek and Latin), Ascham wrote tons of letters - writing letters was the extreme sport of 1551 - to his friends, although they all had this weird teacher/student motif going on, full of pithy questions about whether they were studying their Greek or if they had read the newest translation of Homer or if they had brushed their teeth that night, DON'T MAKE ME COME CHECK. Ascham also kept a ready journal, which he later published under the title of Report and Discourse of the Affairs in Germany, a regional Top Ten bestseller for months to come.

Unfortunately, 1553 brought the death of young Edward and the end of the Reformation. Moryson was recalled, and Roger returned to Cambridge broke, lonely, and in need of a job.

Saving The Bess For Last

Ascham somehow managed to finagle a job as tutor with Philip & Mary, despite his Protestant faith. In late 1554, he met and married Margaret Howe, with whom he had no children, which just might go to show you how much he loved teaching. Still, four years later, Mary was dead, and replaced by her archnemesis ... Elizabeth I!

Now, you might be thinking, "What a delightful twist! Now Ascham's earlier impudence will come back to bite him in the ass, Twilight Zone-style!" Well, you'd be wrong. Elizabeth kept him on as his main secretary. She didn't particular favor him, but she also didn't particularly go out of her way to make his life miserable - I guess with the whole "imminent danger of being overthrown" conundrum, there wasn't a lot of time left to debate the future of some jerk from 20 years before.

So Roger kept at the job, writing really pretty letters for the queen and in general keeping to his quiet bookish self. He had a love for dice and cockfighting, and spent many nights translating Greek works for posterity. In 1563, he was approached by one Sir Edward Sackville, who asked the eminent teacher if he might write a treatise on education. Ascham sat to it, and he finished his masterpiece, titled The Scholemaster (or Schoolmaster). Beyond its potent analysis of teaching in schools, it offered excellent insight into the psychology, sociology, and econometrics of education during the Elizabethan era. Unfortunately for Ascham, nobody wanted to publish it. That is, until Ascham died. (Collector's item!)

Roger, Over And Out

Ascham took sick in November of 1568. He sat in his bed for a month, suffering from extreme bouts of insomnia - so much so that he had a man-sized cradle built especially to help him sleep. It didn't help, though, and he succumbed to his disease December 9 of that year. Upon hearing of his death, Queen Elizabeth is said to have remarked: "I would rather have cast ten thousand pounds in the sea than parted from my Ascham." With this kind of economic policy, it boggles to mind to think this lady ruled the most powerful civilization in the world for 60 years.

In 1570, his widow Margaret got The Scholemaster published, and it was a meager success. Only in the early 19th century, with the publication of Samuel Johnson's Works, which contained a short biography of the man, did Ascham begin receiving credit for his rather varied life.

So, to sum up: Ascham taught, Ascham shot, Ascham jot, Ascham sought, Ascham thought, Ascham not. And remember, kids: stay true and fly right!

Sources

  • http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/aschbio.htm
  • http://newark.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/ascham.html
  • http://mvilliers.tripod.com/ascham.html

With honors to my friend Imprecation, who would've made this ten times funnier.

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