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Ascham, Rogerlocked

  • Rosemary O'Day

Ascham, Roger (1514/15–1568), author and royal tutor, was born at Kirby Wiske, near Northallerton in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the third of the four sons of John Ascham (d. 1544), steward to Henry, seventh Lord Scrope of Bolton, and his wife, Margaret, who was probably of the Conyers family. His older brothers were Thomas and John, and his younger was Anthony Askham or Ascham (d. 1559).


Ascham received his first education in the school at Kirby Wiske, and was perhaps taught there by its vicar, Robert Wensley. In his early teens he was placed by his parents in the household of Humphrey Wingfield, a Suffolk lawyer and royal commissioner who later became a member of parliament, who had a distant connection with the Scropes. 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. He also read the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory and developed an abiding interest in archery.

In 1530, at fifteen, Ascham matriculated at the University of Cambridge and became a student at St John's College. St John's had a northern bias and Ascham's family already had a connection. His brother Thomas had been there as an undergraduate and then as a fellow from 1516 until 1527, and his younger brother Anthony was to follow him there in 1532. The master of St John's at that time was Nicholas Metcalfe, archdeacon of Rochester. Roger's official tutor, Hugh Fitzherbert (d. 1537), encouraged in him a love of Greek, calligraphy, drawing, and music. Ascham developed a long friendship with a fellow student, Robert Pember, with whom he shared a love of numismatics and of antiquity, and who has been credited with first discovering Ascham's flair for Greek. Pember encouraged him to take pupils in Greek, and his abilities came to the notice of the master and fellows who gave his teaching official approval. Ascham came under the influence of the Greek scholars Thomas Smith (of Queens' College) and John Redman, but it was John Cheke whom Ascham later acknowledged as responsible for his proficiency in Greek.

In autumn 1533 Roger Ascham became a questionist and on 18 February 1534 he was admitted BA and nominated for a fellowship. He had criticized the pope, and Metcalfe felt bound to speak publicly against his election to a fellowship; yet Metcalfe personally supported Ascham's candidacy and manoeuvred behind the scenes to ensure that he was elected. Ascham's prospects improved with the appointment of the more reformist Thomas Cromwell as chancellor of the university in 1535. In an atmosphere more congenial to humanism Ascham studied Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and classical drama, and was tutor to several students. On 3 July 1537 he became an MA. 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. According to Sir Thomas Smith his Greek lectures focused on Isocrates, who was a major influence on Ascham. Lecturing was an important source of revenue for an impoverished fellow and Ascham received 26s. 8d. each term in 1539–40 for the mathematical lecture alone.

Despite his apparent early preference for protestant doctrines, Ascham numbered many Catholics among his friends at Cambridge. These included John Seton, Thomas Watson, and Richard Brandisby. From Seton he learned much about the effective organization of subject matter. From Watson he developed a love for and knowledge of Greek and Latin drama. He discussed with Cheke and Watson the idea that English poetry might also be written in classical metre.

His early biographer, Edward Grant, described Ascham at this time as:

gentle in character, frank and ingenuous in spirit … mild and placid, affable in company, most faithful to his friends: honourable in his life, a man born for making fast friendships with good and learned persons, and especially adapted to winning over and conquering the affections of men.

But the record suggests a less halcyon period and a rather different aspect to his character which Grant neglected to mention (Ascham, Works, 3.313–14). Ascham became embroiled in college politics. In 1540 he tried hard to win a fellowship for his student John Thompson in competition with a candidate supported by his friends Seton, Watson, and Redman, writing to the master, John Taylor, and several of the fellows as well as soliciting outside help. Ascham succeeded in securing Thompson's election but he thereby strained Redman's friendship. Ascham was also made very unhappy by developments in the university itself. The protestant master, John Taylor (later bishop of Lincoln), whom Ascham respected, expelled three fellows including Seton and Watson. This fuelled an appeal by these men to Bishop Thomas Goodrich of Ely to visit (that is inspect) St John's. Goodrich did so in May 1542, and brought about a truce whereby Taylor remained as master until he resigned in 1547. There was also an acrimonious debate regarding the new pronunciation of Greek that had been introduced into the university by Erasmus, Cheke, and Smith to make spoken classical Greek recognizable; in May 1542 the chancellor, now Stephen Gardiner, forbade its use and Ascham was seriously alarmed, for he was by now in the words of Smith 'a most vehement defender' of the reformed usage (Smith, 42). In 1543 he was making himself ill with worry and he wrote to John Cheke in 1544 reporting that the dying wish of his father, John Ascham, had been that he should leave contentious Cambridge. Ascham wrote that he had promised his father to leave Cambridge if peace was not restored quickly.

Ascham's search for patronage

Ascham was not in Cambridge for all of this period, and this absence created problems of its own. In the winter of 1540–41 he made the journey to Yorkshire to visit his parents, with whom he appears to have kept in regular correspondence. While he was with them he fell dangerously ill; this removed him from college life and politics and also placed him in dire financial straits. He therefore attempted to gain the patronage of Edward Lee, archbishop of York, and was successful in obtaining a pension of 40s. a year from Lee, which he used to pay for his return trip to Cambridge. Such an eminent patron was worth cultivating, and Ascham dedicated a Latin translation of Oecumenius's commentary on St Paul's epistle to Titus to the archbishop. Unfortunately the inclusion of a quotation of Chrysostom supporting clerical marriage alienated Lee, and Ascham found it more difficult to collect even his original pension. Early in 1544 he wrote to John Redman asking for his assistance in persuading Thomas Cranmer to put pressure on Lee to pay the pension.

Ascham received but little on the death of his father early in 1544, and remained dependent upon his college and university income and the pension. Early in 1544 John Redman conveyed to him an offer from Charles Blount, fifth Lord Mountjoy, of the post of tutor and secretary in his household. Ascham was tempted by the prospect of working in a household which had had under Mountjoy's father a reputation for learning but, as he told Redman, the stipend was too low, given the increased responsibilities of the post, and he declined. Given his later reputation and his position as tutor to Elizabeth I, it is surprising that he also claimed that he was unfit to teach grammar. In the same year Giles Arlington interviewed him for the position of tutor to Thomas More's grandchildren, the children of Margaret Roper, but Ascham again refused the post. He hoped instead to go abroad, perhaps as secretary to an ambassador, and asked for Redman's help.

When this failed, Ascham again fastened his hopes on a career at Cambridge. When his mentor John Cheke became tutor to Prince Edward on 10 July 1544 Ascham saw his chance in the vacant regius chair; he appealed to William Paget to intercede for him with Henry VIII. He was passed over. To add to his sense of injury, the fellows of St John's refused to give him John Cheke's vacated college rooms, despite a recommendation from the university chancellor that he be granted this improved accommodation. His position in college was increasingly isolated. Ascham tried hard to win the Greek readership at St John's for his pupil, close friend, and chamber-fellow, William Grindal, in 1544. This caused contention among the fellows. Grindal was not elected. He departed to become tutor to the Princess Elizabeth on Ascham's own recommendation. A kinsman, Thomas Conyers, became Ascham's new chamber-fellow.

To make matters worse, Archbishop Lee died on 13 September 1544, leaving Ascham with no pension and wholly dependent on his income as a university teacher. He then wrote two Latin poems of little literary merit seeking crown patronage. One of these was a birthday poem for Prince Edward based on the vernacular lullaby 'My Little Pretty One' and the other, a poem characterized by its protestant and nationalistic sentiments, was dedicated to Henry VIII. He also approached Stephen Gardiner and, early in 1545, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer gave him a handsome gift of money.


Ascham was still suffering from recurrent bad health—probably bouts of malaria—and during his convalescence from one such attack he took up archery again. (He had become skilful in this military art during his time in Wingfield's household.) He came under some criticism in Cambridge from those who scorned the leisure pursuits so popular among undergraduates and who questioned his reputation as a scholar, and so Ascham felt compelled to defend this accomplishment. His book, Toxophilus (1545), took the form of a Ciceronian dialogue between Philologus (lover of study) and Toxophilus (lover of the bow), who was none the less an irreproachable scholar who had put his learning at the disposal of the commonweal. It is remembered specifically as the standard authority on physical training as an essential part of a gentleman's education, but it became a model for his contemporaries and near contemporaries in several respects: as the first learned defence of a pastime, and as a model of English vernacular prose writing in terms of both style and organization of subject matter. Characteristically Ascham achieved this by applying his understanding of classical literary theory to the English case. In the preface he wrote that to write well an author must:

follow this counsel of Aristotle, to speak as the common people do, to think as wise men do, and so should every man understand him, and the judgement of wise men allow him. Many English writers have not done so, but using strange words, as Latin, French, and Italian, do make all things dark and hard.

Ascham, Works, 2.7

So, unlike Thomas Elyot and John Cheke, he avoided coining too many words and borrowing from other languages, and succeeded in making his English work as a vehicle of wide communication. While the conversation between the two men is in a plain style, enlivened by homely metaphors, colloquial speech, and accurate observations, the discussion, dedication, and preface are presented in a much more formal style. Some of the passages describing the environment (for example, the way in which the wind could interfere with the aim of an expert archer) were vivid and at the time unparalleled in English writing. He also achieved a sense of interaction between the two speakers, whom he made both likeable and full of vitality.

Ascham dedicated Toxophilus to Henry VIII, knowing his interest in the revival of archery. Eager for patronage from any source, he simultaneously sent copies of the book to the prince of Wales, to Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, and to Sir Anthony Denny; to bishops Day, Gardiner, and Heath; to William Parr, brother of Katherine; and probably to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, William Paget, and Prince Edward's Irish companion, Barnaby Fitzpatrick. When Ascham wrote to Gardiner he explicitly mentioned that he had written the book either to secure a patron to replace Lee or to obtain a royal pension.

Ascham achieved his aim. The privy council received the book favourably, and Henry VIII invited him to Greenwich. A royal pension of £10 doubled Ascham's university and college income at one stroke. Then Ascham was elected public orator of the university in Cheke's stead in 1546 at a fee of 40s. a year. It was a position he held until 1554. Since 1532 he had on occasion transcribed letters written by the senate to the king and other important people, and from 1534 he had received payment for such services. Now part of his official role was to write letters on the university's behalf. His feet were on the rungs of the ladder to a university career. He was, however, restless and depressed. Late in 1547 he wrote to Gardiner of his dismay about a recent order that would deprive the colleges of the right to elect their own fellows, and he bewailed the deterioration of scholarship and the poor living conditions of fellows. He also busied himself in writing letters to bishops and privy councillors trying to protect lands held by his college in Sedbergh, Yorkshire, which supported eight undergraduates and two fellows and a schoolmaster. He was profoundly unhappy, although his efforts were ultimately successful.

Religious controversy

Renewed tension at Cambridge in 1547 both drew Ascham further into university and college affairs, and encouraged him to adopt a religious position. Unsurprisingly, given his royal patronage, he supported cautious religious reform. Within St John's there were controversial, if informal, discussions about the mass and transubstantiation. In September 1547 Lord Robert Stafford, resident at the college, cut down the pyx for the eucharistic host in the college chapel. The master, William Bill, handed him over to Cranmer, hoping to avoid scandal. Throughout that autumn Thomas Lever led the reform party in the college: in September Fawden began to teach reformed doctrines discreetly; in November Lever and Roger Hutchinson discussed openly the question of whether the mass and the Lord's supper were the same. Bill condemned the actions of the fellows in writing.

Ascham, president of the fellows and responsible as acting master for keeping peace among their number, was dismayed. He excused Lever and his disciples as 'grave, learned and good men' engaged in reverent and unquarrelsome discussion, and supported the need to sow the truth of God's word (Ascham, Works, 1.154). The debate was transferred to the forum of the university schools at Ascham's instigation. Cranmer and the duke of Somerset were highly displeased and the vice-chancellor, William Madew, suspended the talks. Ascham himself wrote a treatise Apologia … pro caena Dominica, which attempted to sway by rhetoric rather than reasoned theological argument, but probably wisely did not publish it. At about the same time he wrote his eleven Themata theologica. These also were not published during his lifetime and, according to L. V. Ryan, author of the most authoritative modern biography, are significant largely because they place Ascham, who has been painted by some as a radical in religion, as a rather conservative protestant. The tone of the work is anti-papal. He upheld the new teachings about the mass but intimated that salvation comes through living a righteous life as well as through God's grace; that the church militant on earth included papists and heretics as well as reformers; that all, including reformers, must obey the civil magistrate; and that some matters of religion were things indifferent. He was no theologian.

Tutor to Princess Elizabeth

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 Katherine 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' (Ascham, Works, 1.86). 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' (Ascham, Works, 3.3), 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.

This seemingly congenial situation was interrupted when the Seymour household was rocked by scandal at Whitsun 1548, resulting in the removal of the princess to the care of Sir Anthony Denny at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. In July Ascham was expressing a wish to return to Cambridge, a desire reinforced by the death of his friend John Whitney in August. Some lines of Ascham's poetry survive from this period in which he mourns Whitney, and some others in which he deplores the ways of the ambitious:

To laugh, to lie, to flatter, to face,Four ways in court to win men grace …

Ascham, Works, 3.127The death of Queen Katherine Parr in September 1548, and the attempts by Elizabeth's steward Thomas Parry and Katherine Astley to help Thomas Seymour marry Princess Elizabeth, made Hatfield, where the princess now was, a dangerous place to be. Wisely Ascham sought and received permission to be at St John's for the entire Christmas season. He returned to find Seymour committed to the Tower (17 January 1549) and Elizabeth in partial disgrace. No correspondence survives for this period. Ryan suggests that this could have been 'tactfully removed' by Edward Grant, Ascham's first biographer (Ryan, 112). There is a hint that Ascham fell out with Thomas Parry, thus ruining his chances within Elizabeth's entourage. Certainly on 28 January 1550 Ascham wrote to Cheke that he had been badly affected by 'recent violence and injury at court' (Ascham, Works, 1.174–6). He resigned.


Despite Ascham's hankering after Cambridge, and his praise of that university to Johann Sturm, there is every sign that he had now turned his face determinedly away from the life of an academic. First of all he flirted with Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting. Then he proposed to marry a widow with children, and to enable this petitioned in 1550 for a dispensation from the celibacy demanded of a fellow of St John's. This marriage did not happen, but Ascham's intention was clear. Third he made himself available as secretary to Sir Richard Morison, ambassador to the court of the emperor Charles V in September 1550. In a sequence of six unusual letters he described his trip through England (visiting Lady Jane Grey en route) to Germany, providing a fine example of early travel writing. He described his interest in numismatics and how he purchased Roman coins at Bingen. He explained how he had been afraid he would miss English beer but was now a convert to the fine wines of the Rhine. He wrote of his friendship with Charles V's physician, Vesalius, and Hieronymus Wolf the humanist; of his studying Greek with Morison; of his study of the histories of Herodotus, Machiavelli, Polybius, and Paolo Giovio; of his lessons in Italian from Morison; and of his own slow progress in learning German. The indications are that he was still very much the scholar. His letters reveal that he was engaged in a lively debate about the pronunciation of Greek with Hubert Leodius and Nicholas Cisner of Heidelberg in 1553, and that he corresponded with Strasbourg humanists Johannes Sleiden, historian of the Reformation and delegate at the Council of Trent, Michael Toxites, and Johann Sturm. His correspondence with Sturm was friendly and learned. The two debated the importance of style and content, the ideas of Pierre de Ramée (Peter Ramus), critic of Aristotle, the possibility of collaborating on a preface to Martin Bucer's De regno Christi, the education of Elizabeth, and so on. In late 1552 he was living a miserable and impoverished existence in Augsburg and wanted badly to return home. He wrote to William Cecil on 28 November about his disappointment that his appointment as Latin secretary to Edward VI was being delayed. He began to envisage a return to Cambridge.

In mid-May 1552 Ascham commenced a detailed journal of events with Charles V's flight from Innsbruck. The journal comments on attitudes to the Council of Trent. It seems that John Astley (and perhaps others) asked Ascham for news of the great events that he was witnessing. Despite Ascham's declaration that he was ill-fitted to the task, from this small beginning of journal and newsletters came a larger project: a history. On 7 July 1553 Ascham informed Cheke that he was writing a narrative of what occurred day by day in the imperial court. On 22 July Sturm appealed to him, as one who understood the principles of historiography, to compile a history of those events in Germany that he had observed, read about, or heard reported, not knowing that his friend already had the project well in hand. A fragment of the resulting history covering events down to February 1553 has survived in published form. Possibly, as Ryan argues, it was seen by Ascham as a work for Edward VI's council, predicting the course of Emperor Charles V's affairs and indicating how best to handle the emperor. Ascham had transcribed the correspondence between the privy council and the English ambassador at Brussels about the duke of Northumberland's proposed changes in foreign policy, and was therefore well aware of the relevance of his interpretation of the course of events and view of Charles V as a man fatally flawed and unreliable as an ally. This supposed political purpose in producing the Report could explain why Ascham discontinued the project after Edward's death, but internal evidence suggests that he intended to complete the work. It has been lauded by historians as a pioneering essay in pragmatic political history in which the subject matter was ordered not chronologically but according to the author's understanding of its importance judged in terms of cause and effect, and which certainly provided instructive lessons. Ascham appears to have used Machiavelli's History of Florence and Discourses as models.

Reign of Mary I

While Ascham remained in royal employ when Mary I ascended the throne, he ceased actively transcribing letters for the privy council. Instead he lingered, ill, in Brussels, only returning to England in August 1553 when matters were more settled. Because his former patrons Gardiner and Paget were in favour he was reasonably secure. In September he returned to Cambridge for Thomas Watson's induction as master of St John's but, impoverished, he left shortly afterwards. Morison helped him financially but he was soon desperately in debt, asking Gardiner in October for a pension to support him in scholarly activity but, failing that, for another diplomatic duty. Later he determined never to return to live in penury at Cambridge but instead to find another career. Gardiner wanted him to come to court and Ascham himself declared to Sir William Petre on 25 December 1553 'I shape myself to be a courtier' (Ascham, Works, 1.396). Possibly he resided at Middle Temple for a while. A flood of letters seeking patronage and place followed. He put himself forward as tutor to Petre's children and also to Mary Clarke, lady-in-waiting to Mary. Simultaneously he asked Petre to gain him a place in a bishop's or a dean's household. Almost anything would do, although not quite anything: he refused a prebend because he was a layman and intended to remain so. Much later, in 1566, he would explain to the earl of Leicester that, although he had retained the favour of Paget, Gardiner, Heath, and Pole, some courtiers, especially Sir Francis Englefield, objected to him on religious grounds, and that this had delayed his progress at court. Whatever the opposition, by 7 May 1554 objections were overcome and he was confirmed as Mary's new Latin secretary at a salary of 40 marks a year; Mary also doubled his pension for Toxophilus to £20 a year for the rest of his life.

Ascham hoped to marry Margaret Howe of South Ockenden, Essex, the daughter of Sir Clement Harleston and, according to Ascham, Margaret had freely acquiesced. In January 1554 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' (Ascham, Works, 1.413). Another suitor, one J. B., attempted to kidnap Margaret, however, and the case went to court. Ascham won and on 1 June 1554 the marriage took place. A letter from 1555 survives in which Roger comforts his 'sweet wife' 'Mine own good Margaret' on the death of their first-born and describes their nightly prayers and their discussions of how to bring up their child in virtue and learning (ibid., 2.170–73). Over the next years Margaret had at least four sons and three daughters.

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 (BL, Add. MS 35840). Ascham it was who drafted the announcements to Pope Paul IV and others of the birth of a royal heir from Hampton Court in May 1555 during the queen's phantom pregnancy. In addition to official duties he wrote letters for individuals such as Paget, Sir John Bourne, and Lord Lumley and drew up petitions. Two of these, from Lady Elizabeth Dudley, wife of Lord Ambrose, could help explain Ascham's later good relations with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester.

Ascham dined with Pole, discussed the whereabouts of Cicero's lost De republica, debated Sturm's work with him, and lent him books. He even inspected the Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione, which had occasioned Pole's attainder in 1536 and which was published in Strasbourg in 1555. He continued his interest in Sturm's work and in the activities of his friends in Europe, including Sleiden and Toxites. There is, however, little other information regarding Ascham's intellectual pursuits during these years and, apart from his displeasure at Mary's treatment of Elizabeth, no evidence of his reaction to the events of the reign. Some apparently suggested that he accommodated his views to suit the times, but his biographer Grant rejected this idea. Certainly Ascham's annotation of a book he studied at Christmas 1555 (when staying with Margaret at her parents' house in Whittlesford) suggests his religious conviction and his approval of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He was also extremely dismayed when Cheke recanted his protestant beliefs before his death.

Ascham maintained his connection with Elizabeth throughout her sister's reign. From August to October 1555 Elizabeth returned to court from Woodstock Palace. Ascham studied with her and, as he recounted to Sturm, was amazed by her erudition, linguistic skills, and political understanding. By October, however, Elizabeth was banished once more, appearing briefly at court only in summer 1557. Mary allowed Ascham occasional visits to Hatfield when they briefly resumed their relationship of tutor and pupil.


Busy Ascham might be, rich he was not. When he married he was forced to resign both his college Greek readership and his university public oratorship. Margaret brought with her little dowry and, as Ascham said, he 'did choose her to live withal, not hers to live upon' (Ascham, Works, 1.413). Nevertheless he had to find some way of supporting his growing family and Margaret's poverty-stricken relatives. His close connection with Reginald, Cardinal Pole, probably helped him to secure from the queen on 22 January 1557 the reversion to a lease of the manor of Salisbury Hall, Walthamstow, Essex (a manor once owned by Pole's family) with its 200 acres of farmland, its fishery, and its osiery.

The return from exile of many of Ascham's friends which began following Queen Mary's death late in 1558 must have seemed to bode well for him. Although some of his former friends, notably Watson and Seton, were imprisoned, others such as Thomas Lever and James Pilkington were given place, and two men who looked upon him with favour, William Cecil and Robert Dudley, were in positions of power. The queen read with him after dinner each evening from favourite Greek and Latin works. It was after one such session studying Demosthenes that Ascham determined to write The Scholemaster. He continued his work as Latin secretary and was in the earl of Leicester's confidence. In 1563 he even found time to become member of parliament for Preston, Lancashire.

Ascham was in chronic poor health, however, and in summer and autumn 1560 was so incapacitated that Cecil transcribed letters into Ascham's copybook and composed the royal letters (BL, Royal MS 13 B.i, fol. 33v). He was also in deep financial trouble. In 1615 William Camden asserted that Ascham's poverty was caused by his addiction to dicing and cock-fighting: this may have been information gleaned from Edward Grant, the previous headmaster at Westminster, or it may simply be Camden's deduction from statements in Ascham's Scholemaster about a 'book of the cockpit' which has never been found. He did advise his brother-in-law against gambling and possibly he spoke with the voice of experience. Ryan, however, attributes Ascham's poverty mainly to his large family of seven or possibly eight children, his demanding relations, and his inability to enter on the manor of Salisbury Hall, the rectory of Whittlesford, and the prebend of Wetwang in York Minster. Giles, the second child and first surviving son, was born in 1560 or 1561, the second son, Sturm, appeared in October 1562, and the third, Dudley, in August 1564, while the fourth son, Thomas, was born posthumously in 1568. There were also at least three daughters whose names are unknown. From spring 1559 Ascham also helped his widowed mother-in-law with her younger children. This led him to mortgage his estate and to place one of her sons with Ralph Radcliffe, schoolmaster. In order to pay the fees Ascham taught Radcliffe's son calligraphy. At last, on 20 June 1566, the queen ordered the archbishop of York to admit him to Wetwang and allowed him to keep Whittlesford and Salisbury Hall which he had been forced to mortgage in order to repay a crown bond by 1561. He took a forty-year lease on a college property, Broomhall Manor near Windsor, at a rent of £7 6s. 8d., which property, unfortunately for the family, reverted to the college on death.

During his last years, racked as he was by poor health, Ascham continued a lively intellectual life and had friendly meetings with other scholars, notably George Buchanan (who thanked him for the gift of a book with Latin verses), Bartholomew Dodington, regius professor of Greek at Cambridge (to whom he gave a copy of Carlo Sigone, De republica Atheniensium libri III, Venice, 1565), Walter Haddon, Thomas Wilson, and Thomas Smith. Perhaps with the intention of writing a treatise on Elizabeth as a model for princes, he bought several political and historical works such as Claude de Seysell's De republica Galliae. His heart was still in the classics, however, and he is known to have read Cicero, Horace, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Euripides, and Xenophon in the original and used several recent translations including Arthur Golding's Ovid (1561) and Jasper Heywood's tragedies of Seneca (1559–66).

The Scholemaster

Ascham's principal project, and the most lasting memorial to him, was The Scholemaster. He saw it as showing his sons Giles and Dudley 'the right way to good learning' (Ascham, Works, 3.86). It consisted of two books: the first gives the character of the ideal tutor and scholar and draws heavily on Plato; the second treats the method of instruction by double translation using proper imitation of classical models, and draws equally heavily upon Cicero. 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. He wrote in it:

that the youth in England, specially gentlemen, and namely nobility, should be by good bringing-up so grounded in judgement of learning, so founded in love of honesty as, when they should be called forth to the execution of great affairs in service of their prince and country, they might be able to use and to order all experiences, were they good, were they bad, and that according to the square, rule, and line of wisdom, learning and virtue.

ibid., 3.138

In fact he gave more space in the book to moral excellence than to academic study. A manuscript version of book 1 survives in the British Library and appears to have been complete by 1563; the book could have been completed after the death in 1568 of the author's son Sturm, for it was then that Ascham wrote of its existence to the elder Sturm. The preface was apparently written shortly before Ascham's own death, for in it he thanked Cecil for giving him the hope that enabled him to finish the book.

This book, which popularized the educational views of Renaissance Englishmen, has made Ascham famous among educational theorists, and one of the most influential of their number. He was concerned to rear an élite capable of assuming what he considered their proper place in serving the commonweal, and he wrote in English to guarantee as wide an audience as possible, thus opening up ideas previously hidden from those who knew no classical languages. He has been singled out for bringing to an English audience the educational ideas of Johann Sturm. The Scholemaster was published in 1570 by John Daye at the request of Ascham's widow, Margaret, went through five editions between 1570 and 1590, and has been repeatedly republished and referred to both in English and in translation. Ascham's place as an English prose stylist—in the words of Ryan 'the indispensable link between the earlier Tudor writers and the great Elizabethan and Jacobean writers of English prose' (Ryan, 292)—has only relatively recently been recognized by scholars, although contemporaries had no doubts. In the sixteenth century Gabriel Harvey was to praise Buchanan's style for approaching that of 'our Ascham' (Harvey, Marginalia, ed. G. C. M. Smith, 1913, 158), Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique (1560) was markedly influenced by Ascham's approach to the use of language, and George Buchanan wrote a verse elegy (Ascham, Works, 1.cxii). In Toxophilus and his later work Ascham showed how classical forms and rules of organization could be applied intelligently and elegantly to the vernacular. His fragmentary history of Charles V's court represents a pioneering effort to escape mere chronicling of events and to explain their cause and effect. The survival of a great deal of his correspondence and the semi-autobiographical content of much of his published work also makes Ascham the source of valuable information about contemporary events and people (including Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Stephen Gardiner, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I, Cardinal Pole, and Robert Dudley).

Death and burial

Ascham did not live to experience fame. On 23 December 1568, shortly after completing (as an intended new year's gift for the queen) a Latin poem of thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed upon England by Elizabeth during the past decade, he was taken mortally ill, probably with malaria. During the last week of his life he received Dean Nowell and made his last confession to William Gravet, parish priest of St Sepulchre without Newgate, according to Grant saying simply 'I want to die and be with Christ' (Ryan, 248–50). He left no written will but made clear his wishes before four witnesses between 8 and 9 p.m. on 30 December 1568; he died shortly afterwards. This nuncupative will was sworn by his widow before his friend William Ireland on 3 January 1569. On 4 January Ascham was buried on the north side of St Sepulchre without Newgate, London, in St Stephen's chapel. The funeral oration was preached by Dean Nowell. His widow Margaret married Thomas Rampston, a gentleman, on 28 September 1569; they had a daughter, Anne. Margaret still needed to find support for her existing children and busied herself arranging for publication of Ascham's works. William Cecil petitioned the queen on behalf of Ascham's surviving sons. Giles, the eldest, became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1583 as a consequence of Cecil's patronage. He went on to graduate MA and BTh, to become senior fellow of Trinity, and to hold several ecclesiastical livings, including Trumpington and Duxford. Thomas, Ascham's posthumous son, had two sons between 1597 and 1600: in 1622 John was a grocer in Cheapside and Roger was a gentleman of the City of London. Margaret died between 1 August 1590 and 26 June 1592 and her son Giles died in April 1600.


  • L. V. Ryan, Roger Ascham (1963)
  • R. Ascham, The whole works of Roger Ascham, ed. J. A. Giles (1864)
  • R. Ascham, The schoolmaster, ed. L. V. Ryan [new edn] (1967)
  • R. Ascham, Toxophilus, ed. J. E. B. Mayor (1863)
  • G. B. Parks, ‘The first draft of Ascham's Scholemaster’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 1 (1937–8), 313–27
  • R. Ascham, Familiarium epistolarum libri tres, ed. E. Grant (1576)
  • M. A. Hatch, ‘The Ascham letters’, PhD diss., Cornell University, 1948
  • copybook, BL, Royal MS 13 Bi, fol. 33v
  • R. Ascham, ‘Ascham's institution for his chyld’, 1563, BL, Royal MS 18 Bxxiv, art 2, fols. 47r–48r
  • R. Ascham, ‘Letters’, BL, Add. MS 35840
  • T. Smith, De recta et emendata linguae Graecae pronuntiatione (1568)


  • NRA, corresp. and papers
  • BL, register of letters composed for Elizabeth I, Royal MS 13b i
  • BL, letter-book as Latin secretary to Mary I, Add. MS 35840


  • M. Burghers, engraving, repro. in W. Elstob, Correspondence of Roger Ascham (1703), frontispiece