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date: 21 July 2024

Mulcaster, Richardfree


Mulcaster, Richardfree

  • William Barker

Mulcaster, Richard (1531/2–1611), schoolmaster and author, was born in or near Carlisle, the son of William Mulcaster, alderman and later MP for that city, and his wife, Margaret. There may have been other children: Robert Mulcaster, possibly a brother, was also returned as MP for Carlisle in 1572, but died after the first session. The family was well established in southern Cumberland. Richard went to Eton College, where he was a king's scholar, and matriculated at King's College, Cambridge, aged sixteen, on 15 August 1548. During his undergraduate years he transferred to Peterhouse, from where he commenced BA in 1554. He did not complete the MA at Cambridge, for in May 1556 he applied for admission to Christ Church, Oxford, and on 17 December he proceeded MA. Perhaps some time during the period 1554–6 he lived in London, for on 4 December 1555 a Richard Mulcaster was to be taken to the Tower and possibly tortured, 'vehemently suspect' of having stolen from his master Dr John Caius, the famous physician and later founder of Gonville and Caius College, who was in London in the 1550s (APC, 1554–6, 198). Mulcaster may have completed his degree at Oxford to escape the powerful influence of Caius in Cambridge.

By 1559 Mulcaster had settled in London. In that year he served in Elizabeth's first parliament as one of the two members from Carlisle. He also participated in the pageant welcoming Elizabeth into the city of London, and wrote out its narrative in a book that was then given to the queen; Mulcaster was paid 40s. for it. The book was probably the original of a pamphlet entitled The Quenes Maiesties Passage, which appeared in the same year under the imprint of Richard Tottel. Although the printed work is now attributed to Mulcaster by many scholars, he himself describes his Positions, published in 1581, as 'my first travell, that ever durst venture upon the print' (Mulcaster, 3).

Mulcaster probably started teaching about the same year as the pageant, and on 13 May 1560 he married Katherine Ashley at the parish church of St Michael Cornhill, London. Nevertheless, the first record of his teaching is his appointment in September 1561 as the first headmaster of Merchant Taylors' School in London, soon to become one of the largest schools in England. He remained there until 1586 when, after a dispute with the merchant taylors over salary, he quit the school. Thomas Fuller (whose son later studied under Mulcaster at St Paul's School) says his parting shot was the bitter 'Fidelis servus perpetuus asinus' ('a faithful servant is ever a beast of burden'; Fuller, 149–50). For the next ten years Mulcaster taught and served as a minister, although there is no record of his ordination. He had a school somewhere outside London and then in the city, on Milk Street, and preached in Lincoln's Inn. Although in 1584 he was given a lease of lands in Middlesex and Devon, he received no living until he was made vicar of Cranbrooke, Kent, on 1 April 1590 and prebendary of Yatesbury, Sarum, on 29 April 1594. In 1598 he was presented with the rectory of Stanford Rivers in Essex. In the record of the visitation of 1606, the parishioners reported 'our parson is not resident' and the church was in disrepair (Essex RO, Chelmsford archdeaconry reg. D/AEV.4, fol. 64v).

In 1596 the Mercers' Company, which governed St Paul's School, turned to Mulcaster for help in a crisis. John Harrison, the high-master, had been asked to leave the school, but refused. Mulcaster taught the boys in a temporary school a short way off and, when the old master was gone, was named as his replacement. He stayed at St Paul's until his retirement twelve years later, a venerable figure, perhaps terrifying to boys—the biographer Thomas Fuller describes him as 'plagosus Orbilius', a reference to Horace's cruel schoolmaster. Although Mulcaster had encouraged his boys at Merchant Taylors' in acting, the revival of the Children of Paul's was the work of Edward Pearce, the choirmaster. In 1608 he left St Paul's on a pension and moved to Stanford Rivers, where there is a brass memorial to his wife, Katherine, who died there on 6 August 1609. Mulcaster died on 15 April 1611 and on the 16th he was buried in the church, next to his wife. He left no will, but the administration of his estate, valued at £89 17s. 7d., was given to his son Peter (there were five other children: Margery, Silvan, Ann, Katherine, and Walter).

From the few accounts available, Mulcaster was a gifted teacher. Along with giving exceptional training in Greek and Latin, he encouraged acting; his boys appeared in performances at court at least five times. Many of his pupils at Merchant Taylors' went on to distinguished careers in the professions, principally in the church. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes especially admired him, and kept a portrait (now lost) of his old master over his study door. Andrewes also supported Mulcaster and his family, and there is a bequest to Peter Mulcaster, Richard's son, in Andrewes's will. The poet Edmund Spenser was, however, his best-known pupil (it has been ingeniously argued that old ‘Master Wrenock’ in The Shepheardes Calender is an anagram of Mulcaster, ‘Mast. Wrenock’ being ‘Mownckaster’).

Mulcaster was a good scholar in Latin and Greek. Hugh Broughton, the Hebraist, described him with a backhanded compliment as 'the best learned in the world in his owne conceit, reasonably in Heathen Greeks in deed' (Broughton, 40). Mulcaster is often said to have been a first-rate Hebraist, but there is no evidence for the claim, for it is certain that Broughton would have mentioned it. On at least one occasion the boys were examined in the Hebrew psalms, so it must have been a school subject. Sir James Whitelock describes having studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew at Merchant Taylors': he adds that he went to a special tutor for the Hebrew. Certainly Mulcaster kept company for a while with some of the most learned men in England and abroad. There was a letter from Mulcaster to Philip Sidney, dated 3 November 1571. He was especially close to Emmanuel van Meteren, the Dutch merchant and historian who lived in London, having written verses to him in his album amicorum (Bodl. Oxf., MS Douce 68). He was a correspondent with Abraham Ortelius, Janus Gruter mentions him in a poem to William Camden of 21 June 1590, and he was known to Carolus Utenhovius and to Janus Dousa. He wrote a Latin quatrain, dated 15 August 1584, in Dousa's Album amicorum. Mulcaster also wrote verses for the lord mayor's pageants of 1561 and 1568 and for the queen's reception at Kenilworth. In 1573 he wrote commendatory verses in Latin for J. Baret's polyglot Alvearie, or, Triple Dictionary, reprinted in 1580 in the Alvearie, or, Quadruple Dictionarie. He also wrote verses in 1575 for the Sacrae cantiones of Tallis and Byrd; in 1582 for C. Ocland, Anglorum praelia; in 1583 for Claude Holiband (Desainliens), Campo di fior or else the flourie field of foure languages; and in 1598 for Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations. The commendation for the work by V. Strigelius, translated by R. Robinson as A Third Proceeding in the Harmonie of King Davids Harp (1595), is in English prose; and in 1578 he wrote a distich in honour of Henry Dowe, one of his former pupils, who died while an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford (transcribed by Anthony Wood some time before 1694).

Mulcaster's two books on education, Positions Concerning the Training up of Children and The First Part of the Elementarie are the first two sections (an introduction and 'first part') of an ambitious and learned, though unfinished, analysis of the education of his time. Positions, dedicated to Elizabeth I, set out his basic principles of education, which, following Plato and Aristotle, was to be organized around the needs of the state, and which was to be open to all, rich and poor, male and female (though he did not approve of women continuing in school). Much of Positions is given over to an argument in favour of physical education (with medical information borrowed from H. Mercurialis, De arte gymnastica libri sex, 1569, but imaginatively reorganized for the English context). Although cautious in its recommendations, the work is remarkably open-minded. The First Part of the Elementarie, dedicated to the earl of Leicester, takes the reader through some of the grounding principles of the 'elements' (or beginning subjects) and then sets out an elaborate theory of spelling reform. Ben Jonson, who also owned a copy of Positions, relied heavily on parts of the book for his English Grammar. The 'Peroration' or concluding statement to the Elementarie is a defence of the general procedure of argument adopted in both treatises, and is Mulcaster's best sustained piece of writing. It is there that he defends his decision to write his books in English: 'I love Rome, but London better, I favor Italie, but England more, I honor the Latin, but I worship the English' (sig. Hh 1v). Mulcaster was read and remembered in the next century for his educational writings by Charles Hoole and John Aubrey, among others.

During his years at St Paul's, Mulcaster began writing again. Poemata, listed in the Bright sale at Sothebys, March–April 1845, item 4611, as a duodecimo of 1599, is a lost book. The first edition of Catechismus Paulinus was perhaps published in 1599 or early 1600 (what may be the first edition, in the St Paul's School Library, lacks a title-page). Cato Christianus, an elementary textbook in verse, appeared in 1600. This work has an important preface that recapitulates many of the themes of Positions. At the death of Elizabeth, Mulcaster wrote a long poem in Latin entitled In mortem serenissimae reginae Elizabethae, naenia consolans, and with it an English version, The Translation of Certaine Latine Verses, both published in 1603. It seems appropriate, if his first writing had indeed been for Elizabeth's entry into London in 1559, that his last might be a 'latine Oration' in the entry pageant for James, 'Viva voce delivered by one of maister Mulcasters Schollers, at the dore of the free-schole fownded by the Mercers' (Dekker, sigs. H1v–2v).


  • R. DeMolen, Richard Mulcaster (c. 1531–1611) and educational reform in the Renaissance (1991)
  • Fuller, Worthies (1662), under ‘Westmerland’, 3.149–50
  • Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 2.93–5
  • A. Wood, The history and antiquities of the colleges and halls in the University of Oxford, ed. J. Gutch, 3 vols. in 4 (1786–96), vol. 3, p. 484
  • [H. Ellis], ‘Biographical anecdotes of Richard Mulcaster’, GM, 1st ser., 70 (1800), 419–21, 511–12, 603–4
  • H. B. Wilson, The history of Merchant-Taylors' School, 2 vols. (1814), 85ff.
  • T. A. Walker, A biographical register of Peterhouse men, 1 (1927), 181
  • M. McDonnell, The annals of St Paul's School (privately printed, Cambridge, 1959), 164–82
  • F. W. M. Draper, Four centuries of Merchant Taylors' School, 1561–1961 (1962)
  • W. Barker and J. Chadwick, ‘Richard Mulcaster's preface to Cato Christianus (1600): a translation and commentary’, Humanistica Lovaniensia, 42 (1993), 32–67
  • R. Mulcaster, Positions concerning the training up of children, ed. W. Barker (1994)
  • C. B. Millican, ‘Notes on Mulcaster and Spenser’, ELH: a Journal of English Literary History, 6 (1939), 211–16
  • T. Dekker, The magnificent entertainment given to King James (1604)
  • Essex RO, Chelmsford archdeaconry reg. D/AEV.4, fol. 64v
  • H. Broughton, An explication (1605)
  • L. Forster, Janus Gruter's English years (1967)
  • L. Forster, ‘The translator of the Theatre for worldlings’, English Studies, 48 (1967), 27–34
  • J. A. van Dorsten, Poets, patrons, and professors (1962)
  • J. A. van Dorsten, The radical arts, 2nd edn (1973)
  • C. R. Baskervill, ‘Richard Mulcaster’, TLS (15 Aug 1935), 513
  • R. Mulcaster, The first part of the elementarie which entreateth chefelie of the right writing of our English tung (1582)

Wealth at Death

£89 17s. 7d.: DeMolen, Richard Mulcaster

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