The Tudors lived in a world that was at least several generations ahead of the Enlightenment. But the seeds of that revolution in scientific thought were being sown in the Renaissance when society started to value classical and secular learning for the first time in a millennium. The Renaissance became firmly established in England when Henry Tudor took the throne in 1485 at Bosworth Field, and England was primed to leave the medieval world behind and enter a new phase where the importance of learning and philosophy would grow.
Here are 5 scholars who were part of that movement, and shaped English Renaissance thought:
Sir/Saint Thomas More
(A Saint in the Catholic church – the Patron Saint of politicians and lawyers – no joke – thanks to his martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII.)
He was born in 1478 and from the time he was 12 he served as a page to John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. Morton was enthusiastic about the new humanist learning and saw potential in More, so he nominated him for a place at Oxford. More was at Oxford for 2 years, and then studied at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court, where he trained to be a lawyer.
Through the teens he rose in political prominence, in part through his famous Utopia (1516), a book about a fictional ideal country, until he was one of the inner-circle around Henry. He vehemently opposed the Protestant Reformation, and at first, he and his monarch stood as one in their opposition. But as Henry fell more deeply in love with Anne Boleyn and became more desperate to find a way out of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry used the Reformation to justify calling himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and dissolving his marriage. More refused to accept this, refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, and so Henry VIII wound up beheading one of his most important and famous scholar/philosophers. But now More is a Saint and Henry is remembered as a bloated old tyrant, so, you know, historical karma can be a bitch.
Sir John Cheke
Here’s a title you don’t hear every day. Sir John Cheke – born in 1514 – was the first Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University. He was also the tutor to Edward VI. He was educated at St. John’s College in Cambridge and became a fellow at age 15 in 1529. When Henry VIII founded regius professorships – a special type of professor unique to the British Isles in fields that are judged to be fundamental and for which there is a continuing significant need, and always endowed by the monarch – he was elected to be the Greek Regius. Among his pupils in Cambridge were William Cecil, who later became a famous advisor to Elizabeth I and married Cheke’s sister. Roger Ascham was also a tutor.
He introduced a new method of Greek pronunciation that lasted until the mid 19th century in England. It was strongly opposed in the University, and the chancellor, Bishop Gardiner, issued a degree against it in 1542, but Cheke’s method won.
In 1544 he became the tutor to Edward to teach him “of toungues, of the scripture, of philosophie and all liberal sciences” which continued even after Edward became King. Additionally, he was made provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and was appointed with seven others to draw up a body of laws for the governance of the church. Being a Protestant, he supported Lady Jane Grey for the 9 days that she was queen after Edward died, and as thanks for that, Edward’s older Catholic sister Mary threw him in the Tower when she beat the Protestants. He was released in 1554 and granted permission to travel abroad, and he became one of the Protestant exiles in Basel, and then Padua in Italy. In 1556 he was in Brussels, and between Brussels and Antwerp he and Sir Peter Carew were seized by Phillip II (who had married Mary I) and taken back to the Tower. He was visited by two priests, and was petrified of being burned at the stake, so he agreed to become a Catholic. He was incredibly ashamed of his recantation, and he soon died in London.
One of his most famous writings is Hurt of Sedition how greneous it is to a Communeweith (1549) written about Kett’s Rebellion.
Roger Ascham was born in Yorkshire in 1515, entering St. John’s Cambridge in 1530 where he focused on Greek. By 1537 he became a master of arts and began tutoring the younger students. He wasn’t only an academic, though. He published a treatise on shooting as a defense of archery against those who found the sport as being below what should interest a scholar. The work was dedicated to Henry VIII who enjoyed it so much that he granted Ascham a pension of £10/year. He was then given the additional honor of being assigned as one of Prince Edward’s tutors.
In 1548 Princess Elizabeth’s tutor died, and he was appointed to the post of teaching the future (though no one knew it at the time) Queen. He later left his position and went to Germany and Italy without Elizabeth’s permission, and then in 1553 when Edward died, he was called back to Cambridge. Somehow he survived the reign of Mary, and when she died and Elizabeth became Queen, he was appointed a secretary to her. In 1568 he became ill with an unidentified disease and died at age 53. Queen Elizabeth’s response to his death: “I would rather have cast ten thousand pounds in the sea than be parted from my Ascham.”
John Leland was born in 1503 and is remembered as being the “father of English Local History and Bibliography.” He wrote a book called Itinerary which was the go-to textbook for further antiquaries, and introduced the county as the basic unit for studying local history in England.
He was orphaned young and attended St. Paul’s School where he met some of his future benefactors, including William Paget. He was sent to Christ College, Cambridge, graduating in 1522. He ran into some trouble when he accused a knight of collaborating with Richard de la Pole, the Yorkist claimant to the throne (who had employed the double agent and musician Petrus Alamire to spy on Henry VIII) and spent some time in prison. It all seemed to blow over because he was next in London serving Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, as a tutor to his son Thomas. When the duke died in 1524, King Henry VIII sent Leland to Oxford where he became a fellow at All Soul’s College.
He then surfaces in Paris studying with English and German expats, and became involved in the local humanist community. In 1529 he came back to England, and when Wolsey fell from grace for being unable to obtain a divorce for Henry, Leland sought the patronage of Thomas Cromwell. His fortunes rose over the next few years, and he gained the support and attention of Anne Boleyn for verses he wrote when she arrived in London as Queen. Between 1533 and 1536 he was asked by Henry VIII to visit the libraries of all the religious houses in England, and he spent those years visiting the monasteries before they were dissolved, compiling lists of significant or unusual books in their libraries. As the monasteries were being dissolved he wrote to Cromwell to ask for help rescuing the books, which led to the reorganization of the royal library to accommodate the hundreds of books that had previously been in monastic houses.
After his official library tour he went on several more visits to libraries throughout the country, keeping a journal along the way which focused on the topography and uniqueness of each place. The notebooks he kept have become known as his Itinerary and makes up five print volumes in the 1906-10 edition. Sadly, in 1550 he was declared insane and died shortly thereafter, still considered mad.
John Bale was the Bishop of Ossory, born in 1495. He was sent to a Carmelite convent in Norwich at the age of twelve, and it was there that he was educated, ending up in Jesus College, Cambridge. He became a converted Protestant, renounced his monastic vows, and took a wife, which caused a huge scandal. He only escaped punishment by the intervention of Thomas Cromwell. He became known for writing dramas – moralities or scriptural plays that attacked Roman Catholics. His earliest plays were written in 1538, and it’s title isn’t an example of brevity: ‘A Brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes Preachynge in the Wyldernesse; openynge the craftye Assaults of the Hypocrytes (i.e. the friars) with the glorious Baptyme of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
After Cromwell’s fall, Bale lost his protection, and he fled with his wife and children to Germany where he continued writing controversial plays. In 1547 in Germany he published the Examination of Anne Askew which detailed the torture of England’s most famous female Protestant martyr. After Henry died and the Protestant Edward VI ascended, Bale returned to England and joined in the triumph of the Protestants, and kept up his uncompromising Protestant views. After Edward died, Bale supported Jane Grey, but after Mary won, he preached a sermon the duty of obedience. But the Catholics were out for revenge on the Protestants, and so Bale left for Holland via Dublin. He was taken prisoner by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war which was driven to St. Ives in Cornwall, and there Bale was apprehended on a charge of high treason, but was released. The same thing happened at Dover. Seriously. What a freaking trip. Finally he arrived in Holland, and was again imprisoned, escaping by paying £300. From Holland he made his way to Basel, surely counting himself lucky to be with the other Marian exiles, and he stayed quiet until Elizabeth took the throne. He returned to England, but was feeling old and worn out, and took a position in Canterbury where he died in 1563 where he remained known as “Bilous Bale” for the bitterness that he showed in his writings.
Like scholars today, most of these men traveled, and were interested in ideas and thought beyond their own world, even if they disagreed with it. They devoured knowledge, and I can only imagine what they would have done with the internet!