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Episode 102: Education in Tudor England

Episode 102 is about Education in Tudor England. Listen here, or keep going down for the transcript.


Learn more about John Skelton here:

Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster
Roger Ascham

Richard Cox

The Education of Mary Tudor

Edward VI’s education

Edward’s Diary

Medieval Schools: Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme

William Caxton Episode
Printing in England Episode


(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy some awesome Tudor Swag (Anne Boleyn leggings, anyone??) at the Tudor Fair Shop)

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 102, and it’s about the Tudor Tutors. Who were the teachers who brought up our illustrious Tudor princes and princesses?

But first, I need to thank my patrons who help keep this show independent. I have amazing patrons – thank you to Elizabeth, Kathy, Cynthia, Juergen. Also Sarah, Megan, Melissa, Lady Anne – Jessica – Olivia, Al, Ashleigh, Kendra, Cynthia, Judith, Berta, Renee, Katie, Maura, Emily, Celayne, Laura, Ian, Barbara, Char, Keeva, Amy, Allison, Joanne, Kathy, Kristine, Annetta, Susan, Andrea, Katherine, Rebecca from Tudors Dynasty, Sandor, Philip, and John.  Thank you, you guys. If you want to be part of this group of very intelligent people with exceptional taste, please go to patreon.com/englandcast to sign up.

I also need to mention the Agora Podcast of the Month for April which is The History of England by the illustrious David Crowther, who likely needs no introduction to those of you who listen to this show. 

One final thing – if you like treats – and who doesn’t, really, I invite you to check out the Treasures from Bess Subscription Box that I’ve recently launched. It’s a monthly box filled with Tudor treats like books, jewelry, and special spa-like items, all inspired by Tudor history. $39.99/month including free shipping in the continental US. Check out TreasuresfromBess.com for more information, to see sample boxes, and learn more.

First thing I want to talk about is education during this period, which was quickly changing. Education was expanding rapidly. Before the Tudor period, education was mostly vocational or technical, with people being taught very specific trades. Medieval England was a place where children were taught specific trades, but very few children – less than 10% – attended any kind of formal school. All this began to change during the Tudor period.

There were two types of schools – the petty school which taught children how to read and write, and the grammar school which was for older children, and taught latin and more advanced studies. There was also university education, but this was only in Oxford and Cambridge.  Cambridge was growing with the founding of Christ’s College and St. Johns – Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, was the person responsible for that by funding them both. The church funded most education, with priests as teachers. Henry VII encouraged education and the arts, and was influenced by humanists. He brought writers, musicians and artists to England, including inviting Polydore Vergil to come write a history of England.

The printing press changed everything with education as well – Caxton brought the printing press to England in the late 1470s (I did do a few episodes on Caxton and printing, which I’ll link to in the show notes) and at first it was used solely to print literary works, but as the new century dawned, Caxton began to print more humanist works and textbooks, and literacy grew popularly at a dramatic rate through this period.

This is a period where the rise of humanism – not necessarily secular the way we think of it today, but what people at the time called The New Learning – was on the rise. In England it was advanced by Erasmus, John Collett  (dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral) and Thomas More. The idea was to recover the previously lost texts of antiquity, and use them, combined with the teachings of Christian morality, to create educated citizens.

In 1537 Sir Thomas Elliot, a member of Henry VIII’s secretariat, published a book called The Governor, which laid out the perfect humanist education as he saw it. Children should be taught Latin by 7. Between 7 and 14 they would read Latin classics, and begin Greek. After that, until age 17 they would learn logic, rhetoric, history, and poetry. Between 17-21 they would study philosophy, ethics, and the works of Plato. At 21 they would begin studying law. They would also learn horsemanship, dancing, the the military arts.

In 1570 Roger Ascham, who had been Elizabeth’s tutor, wrote The Schoolmaster, which was inspired by a discussion he had about education with William Cecil. Ascham wrote it all down – it was, he said, specially purposed for the bringing up of youth in gentlemens’ and noblemens’ households.

It’s important also to remember that the Protestant Reformation led to an increase in literacy and education, because reformers wanted everyone to have access to the Bible in order to have this personal relationship with God. This led to a push for greater education for everyone, not just the elite.

The 16th century saw a huge rise in education for the masses, with more students in schools than we would see again until the 19th century. This changed the composition of people in the colleges – by the late 16th century, for example, King’s College Cambridge had 58% of its students of gentry birth, rather than all nobles. This was the growing middle and gentry class that we see in this period.

So how did this play out with our Tudor monarchs, and what can we learn about how they were taught. I’m going to now look at the education of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward.

Arthur had two known tutors: schoolmaster John Rede, beginning when Arthur
was five or six and already started learning to read, and the “poet-orator” Bernard Andre,
who taught Arthur from the time he was ten until he was almost fifteen. A broad list of the classics were already important in Arthur’s education. Andre wrote that Arthur read and partially memorized the works of many Greek and Roman poets, orators, and historians and many works when he was just fifteen. The curriculum was almost experimental as several of the classical texts had just recently been discovered by Western Europe. While mostly focused on the pre-Christian Greeks, there was also religious study; Bernard Andre wrote a commentary on writings of St. Augustine specifically for Arthur.

The first Tudor Tutor I want to talk about is John Skelton, who was Henry VIII’s tutor when he was young. Henry had a humanist education, with lessons in the morning and the afternoon. Erasmus described Henry VIII as “a lively mentality which reached for the stars, and he was able beyond measure to bring to perfection whichever task he undertook.” Thomas More said, “He is in every respect a most accomplished prince”.

His education would have been largely directed by his mother, and some experts and historians believe that she actually was the person who taught him how to write, because their handwriting was so similar.

He would have been taught languages – Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish, grammar, theology (especially the history and tenets of the church), history, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, arithmetic, logic, literature, geometry, and music. He also studied astronomy, navigation and map making.

The main tutor who was responsible for this education of Henry early on in his life was John Skelton. Born in 1463, he was likely from Norfolk, and educated at Oxford and Cambridge, he was already a scholar in 1490 when the printer William Caxton published an early title mentioning him as an expert in Virgil. He had degrees in rhetoric, and Lady Margaret Beaufort was actually his patron early on, when he was still writing poetry in the 1490’s.

Skelton was the young Prince Henry’s tutor when his brother Prince Arthur was still alive, and Erasmus himself would write an ode to Prince Henry in which he spoke of Skelton as “unum Britannicarum literarum lumen ac decus.” This Latin phrase roughly translates as “the one light and glory of British letters.”

Somehow Skelton managed to get himself imprisoned in 1502, though there is no record as to why. Two years later he retired from court to become a rector.  He caused a bit of a stir there, though – people thought he was more at home on a stage, or reading his poetry, than in a pew. He was secretly married to a woman who lived in his house, and satirized the Dominican monks. He consequently came under the formal censure of Richard Nix, the bishop of the diocese, and appears to have been temporarily suspended.

One person in particular whose ire her earned was Cardinal Wolsey.  Early on in his career, Skelton was supported by Wolsey. But in 1522, Wolsey, as Papal legate dissolved convocation at St Paul’s, Skelton circulated the short poem:

Gentle Paul, laie doune thy sweard
For Peter of Westminster hath shaven thy beard.

When you first start to read about John Skelton, you see a lot about how he likely fled to sanctuary in Westminster where he was supported by the Abbott, and continued writing attacks against Wolsey. But a lot of that can’t be verified, so I’m not going to state it as fact. Just know that there are a lot of rumours and stories that Skelton likely spent time in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey for writing satirical poems like this one about Wolsey, which I’m going to read now”

Why come ye not to court?
To which court?
To the King’s court,
Or to Hampton Court?

Nay, to the king’s court!
The King’s court
Should have excellence
But Hampton Court

Hath the pre-eminence,
And York’s Place,
With my Lord’s Grace!
To whose magnificence

Is all the confluence,
Suits and supplications,
Embassades of all nations.”


Remember this was written when Hampton Court was still owned by Wolsey. Skelton died in Westminster in June of 1529, actually on the same day when Catherine of Aragon was pleading with Henry to honor their marriage in the legatine court.

So let’s move on now to his daughter Mary.

During her lifetime, many people acknowledged that Mary had a substantial education. In her own lifetime and at its end, certainly, it received occasional flattery from those without a grievance against ‘Bloody Mary,’ as evidenced by such things as the Bishop of Winchester’s funeral sermon. One biographer, Beatrice White, wrote: “Over-education was one of the penalties Tudor children had to pay for their royal birth,” and considered too much studying a contributing factor in Mary’s poor health.

Mary’s education was organized largely by her mother, again, just like Henry’s. By the time she was old enough to start school, Mary was still the only legitimate heir for her father. So she needed to be brought up with a prince’s education. Normally women would be taught privately in more domestic sorts of studies. Universities at this time were closed to women, so in general women were not given any kind of classical education, even noble women. They would go serve in the households of other noblewmen, and learn the skills they needed there.

But Mary, who was the heir to the throne, needed a more classical education. After all, her grandmother, Isabella of Castile, ruled her own kingdom in her own right, and so Katherine arranged for her daughter to have an education that was much deeper and fuller than normal.

Katherine arranged for the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives to write a manual for the education of Mary. He had written an earlier version encouraging girls to be educated solely for the work of raising children, and to be good partners and companions for their husbands. But when Mary was seven, Vives wrote On a Plan of Study for Children, which emphasized Greek and Latin, and recommended books by Erasmus, Thomas More, and Plato. He specifically recommended Plato’s dialoges that “demonstrate the government of the commonwealth.” Mary was not allowed to read popular romance because her tutors believed that they would give young girls immoral thoughts.

By the time she was nine, Mary could write a letter in Latin, She also could understand Spanish, could speak Greek, French, and some Italian.  She also played music. It was said that as a teenager she “sings excellently, plays on several musical instruments, so that she combines every accomplishment.” She also learned dancing, which again was thought to give people poise and grace – an important set of attributes to have according to the humanists – and she went hunting and learned horsemanship.

Elizabeth, her half sister, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was a very bright and percocious girl. Her first tutor was her lifelong friend Kat Ashley. A well-educated woman, Katherine was appointed governess to Elizabeth in the autumn of 1536 and led the foundation for her education. She taught Elizabeth to read and write, English and grammar. In addition, Elizabeth also learned etiquettes, how to behave, and needlework.

Elizabeth had grasped English by the time she was five or six, and then began to study foreign languages. Kat taught her the rudiments of Latin but pretty soon she outgrew Kat’s skills. She was allowed to share her brother Edward’s tutors: Jean Belmain, who taught French; Richard Cox, Provost of Eton who taught Greek and Latin, and John Cheke, regius professor of Greek at St. John’s College and a classic linguist who focused on readings of the Holy Scriptures, Cicero, Aristotle and Plato. Cheke quickly noticed how intelligent Elizabeth was, and brought it up to her stepmother Katherine Parr, that she should have her own private tutor.

The tutor she received was William Grindal, a twenty-something Cambridge student and the aforementioned Roger Ascham’s pupil. In the mornings, he would teach Elizabeth Greek, focusing on readings of the New Testament and Greek classics. In the afternoons she studied Latin, with particular emphasis on the works of Cicero. She also studied theology, philosophy, math, geometry, history and literature. She was particularly good at foreign languages and by the time she was eleven she was fluent in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French.

In 1548, Grindal died and was replaced by Roger Ascham, a Yorkshireman who studied at Cambridge. Asham loved reading and discussing the old Greek and Roman classics with his bright students. Asham followed the daily routine set by Grindal, choosing texts that “best adapted to supply her tongue with the purest diction, her mind with the most excellent precepts, and her exalted station with a defense against the utmost power of fortune”*.

Like her sister, Elizabeth was also taught all those activities that ladies needed to know, including embroidery, sewing, dancing and music. In addition, she also learned how to ride, hunt and even practiced archery.

Edward of course never knew his own mother, and his nursery was in the charge of Lady Margaret Bryan, who had also cared for his sisters.  In March 1539 Henry personally issued obsessively detailed instructions for the care of his “most precious joy”. Dr Richard Cox, headmaster of Eton was the prince’s tutor from 1540.

Edward’s lessons with Cox were interrupted in October and November 1541 when he caught malaria at Hampton Court. According to the French ambassador, Henry hurriedly summoned “all the doctors in the country”

In July 1544 Catherine Parr arranged for John Cheke to become tutor to Edward. Her immediate circle was centred on the royal nursery, where John Cheke, Richard Cox, Anthony Cooke, and other ‘reforming’ humanists were appointed tutors to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth.” It has been suggested that Cheke was an humanist scholar in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus but it was possible that he was a supporter of Martin Luther and this could explain Edward’s support for religious reform. Cheke also arranged for Elizabeth’s tutors.

The most striking thing about Edward that I want to talk about is his diary. He was likely given the task of writing a diary from one of his tutors, and it’s the first time we see a glimpse into the day to day life of a monarch in his own words like this. It begins with a description of his childhood until 1547. For the years 1547 to 1549 the ‘diary’ is a chronicle of past events that mostly refers to Edward in the third person. From March 1550 until November 1552, when it ends, it is more like a diary, with entries for individual days.

He talks about fascinating things like when he and his sister Elizabeth found out about their father King Henry VIII’s death from his uncle Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, at Elizabeth’s Enfield residence on 30 January 1547.

Although he writes that it caused great grief in London, he reveals nothing of his personal feelings. He describes the Privy Council’s choice of Edward Seymour as Protector and Governor of the King’s Person and mentions how his father’s officers broke their staffs of office and threw them into Henry VIII’s grave at his burial.

Edward sometimes called his diary a chronicle. Initially it had the appearance of an assignment from his tutors, but he appears to have found keeping such a record personally satisfying. Unlike a true diary, he actually says little about his own daily activities or his personal feelings or opinions. It has been pointed out that none of Edward VI’s supposed piety appears in this work. Instead, he comes across as cold, detached, and secular. It is possible that this reflects the limitations of the type of document more than the boy-king’s personality. Jousting and wars take up a disproportionate amount of the entries. Basically the young king recorded what others told him about events and one of his most significant informants was the French ambassador. Here is an entry from 1551, where we learn of his berating his sister Mary for practicing the Mass.

The lady Mary, my sister, came to me to Westminster, where after greetings she was called with my council into a chamber where it was declared how long I had suffered her mass, in hope of her reconciliation, and how now, there being no hope as I saw by her letters, unless I saw some speedy amendment I could not bear it. She answered that her soul was God’s and her faith she would not change, nor hide her opinion with dissembled doings. It was said I did not constrain her faith but willed her only as a subject to obey. And that her example might lead to too much inconvenience. On 19 March the emperor’s ambassador came with a short message from his master of threatened war, if I would not allow his cousin the princess to use her mass. No answer was given to this at the time. The following day the bishops of Canterbury, London and Rochester, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and John Scory, concluded that to give licence to sin was sin; to allow and wink at it for a time might be born as long as all possible haste was used.

So I’m going to leave it there for this week – The book recommendation is Medieval Schools: Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme

. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. Thank you so much for making it possible for me to do 100 episodes, and for being with me through this journey! I’ll be back in about 2 weeks with another Tudor Times person of the month, Francis Walsingham. Don’t forget to check out TreasuresfromBess.com for your Tudor Treat fix. Talk to you soon!

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy some awesome Tudor Swag (Anne Boleyn leggings, anyone??) at the Tudor Fair Shop)