Roger Ascham, Serving Four Monarchs

220px-roger_ascham_-_project_gutenberg_etext_12788 Born in Kirby Wiske (a village in the North Riding), Yorkshire, in 1515, Roger Ascham was the third son of John and Margaret Ascham. Ascham was the steward to Baron Scrope of Bolton. Roger Ascham was a scholar and didactic writer, famous for his prose style, his promotion of the vernacular, and his theories of education. In 1530, Ascham entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he studied Greek among other challenging subjects. He received his degree at the age of eighteen on 18 February 1534 and became a fellow of the college in March. At the age of twenty-one, Ascham became master of arts and began tutoring younger students. Ascham became reader in Greek around 1538 until Henry VII founded a lecture to take his place.

00ascham.jpg Ascham was educated at the house of Sir Humphrey Wingfield, a barrister, Ascham tells us, in the Toxophilus under a tutor named R. Bond. His preferred sport was archery, and Sir Humphrey “would at term times bring down from London both bows and shafts and go with them himself to see them shoot.”  In 1545 Ascham published the treatise Toxophilus or the Schole or Partitions of Shooting partly in defense of archery against those who found the sport unbefitting a scholar. The work was dedicated to Henry VIII, who enjoyed the treatise so much that he granted Ascham a pension: ten pounds a year. Ascham was further honored by being assigned to tutor Prince Edward.  

In 1548, after the death of Princess Elizabeth’s tutor, Ascham was appointed to the post of teaching the young woman who would become Queen Elizabeth I. He held the post until 1550 when he left the post without her consent. He was appointed secretary to Sir Richard Morisine and accompanied him to Germany later the same year. During his journey, Ascham wrote his Report and Discourse of the Affairs in Germany containing his impressions on the people and culture of Germany. Ascham also visited Italy, later recounting “the vices of Venice” in The Scholemaster.  Morisine was recalled to England at the death of Edward in 1553, and Ascham returned to Cambridge.

During Ascham’s absence he had been appointed Latin secretary to King Edward, a post he was instated in also under Queen Mary I. In 1554 Ascham married Margaret Howe. Upon Queen Mary’s death in 1558, he was appointed secretary to Queen Elizabeth, and in 1559 he was given the prebend of Westwang in Yorkshire.


Roger Ascham and Princess Elizabeth. Engraving by Michael Burghers, 17th-c. (via Luminarium)

In 1563 Ascham was invited by Sir Edward Sackville to write a treatise on education. This became The Scholemaster, published posthumously in 1570. Ascham took ill in 1568 with an unidentified disease and died at the age of fifty-three. Hearing of his death Queen Elizabeth is said to have exclaimed: “I would rather have cast ten thousand pounds in the sea than parted from my Ascham.” 

Ascham’s first published work, Toxophilus (“Lover of the Bow”) in 1545, was dedicated to Henry VIII.  “Toxophilus” is a Greek word meaning “the lover of archery.” It is a treatise on the sport of archery. The objects of the book were twofold, to commend the practice of shooting with the long bow, and to set the example of a higher style of composition than had yet been attempted in English. Ascham presented the book to Henry VIII at Greenwich  soon after his return from the capture of Boulogne. Toxophilus was the first book on archery in English. The work is a Platonic dialogue between Toxophilus and Philologus. Editions were published in 1571, 1589 and 1788, and by Edward Arber in 1868 and 1902.

Preface to Toxophilus tells us: To all Gentlemen and Yeomen of England. Croesus, the king famed for his riches, left the world an example: to give most regard to that at which nature has made us most apt. Thus, Englishmen should shoot with the long bow. This weapon should be used in peace as practise for war, and the author advocates that this is an honest and wholesome exercise, says the author. 

At this point, he digresses to discuss the superiority of the classic languages over the English; but he, he adds, that he will follow Aristotle’s counsel, and speak as the common people do. Now, he digresses again to discuss the old chivalric literature, declaring it to have been produced by a “blind kind of living” in the monasteries. Further, he apologizes for not being a perfect archer, but emphasizes that even if the practise is not perfect, one may preach. 

Book I of the piece has Ascham expressing the following ideas: (1) His pleasure that children are taught singing; (2) Even the Bible praises singing; (3) Singing is especially important to preachers and lawyers, for a fine voice moves the passions and singing helps the development of such a voice.

After that, Ascham returns to shooting. All English, he says, love shooting. The practise of shooting will draw young men away from vicious pastimes. It also prepares people for war. 

In Book II, Ascham describes winds – hot, cold; an up-and-down wind or a side wind. When he was traveling once over snow covered fields, the snow was blown in many directions. Thus, he came to know of its variability, which affects the shooting of men. 

In 1563 Ascham began the work The Scholemaster, published posthumously in 1570, which ensured his later reputation. Richard Sackville,  Ascham states in the book’s preface, 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.

As a former school teacher, I was most interesting in this piece. Book I of The Scholemaster claims a child should just learn grammar, but he should be taught cheerfully. In learning Latin, all should be carefully explained; rules should be learned by examples. Slow students should be treated sympathetically. Sometimes these prove to be the greater men whereas many a bright youth dies unheard of. “Hard wits be hard to receive, but sure to keep.” We should choose carefully those youngsters who are to be sent to the university. They should be sound in body and mind, should have good memories, love learning and labor, should be bold to ask questions. Then, at school, he should be taught “a good order of living” and discipline. 

Ascham goes on to explain that because of the deficiencies in the present methods of teaching, innocence and modesty were rare virtues. Nor can the English depend upon experience to teach a right way of living, for it is a costly way. “Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty.”  He cautions those who live in court to be especially careful to live properly, for others shall imitate them. Then he warns that the young Englishman should be very careful not to follow the way of the Italians for the Italians are subtle and cunning and immoral. They often live in lechery and their religion is a sin. Ascham claims that England should remember that “an Englishman Italianate is the devil incarnate.” The essay closes as follows: “And thus far have I wandered from my first purpose of teaching a child, yet not altogether out of the way, because this whole talk hath tended to the only advancement of truth in religion and honesty of living….” 

There is some criticism of Ascham’s works, including the fact that much of his writing is inspired by the spirit of nationalism. What would ordinarily be a technical treatise, whether on shooting or on education, colored with Ascham’s ardent nationalistic sentiment, becomes a glowing piece of literature. He loved the long simile to draw comparisons, and drew upon nature frequently to fill out these comparisons. He also loved the epigrammatic manner of expression which give a homely quality to the writing of this man who was one of the greatest classical scholars of his are and whose works are full of classical allusions. It was natural for Ascham to fill his writing with Latin and Greek phraseology, but it must be said to his credit, that he explains fully to his reader whatever might be obscure. In general, he wrote with a high degree of clarity. 


“Ascham, Roger” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago. 15th edn., 1992, Vol. 1, p. 617.

History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon through Milton. Hymarx Outline Series, Student Outlines Company. Boston, MA.

“Roger Ascham,” Luminarium

“Roger Ascham,” Spartacus Educational 

“Roger Ascham,” Wikipedia 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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