Renaissance and Reformation Roger Ascham
Jonathan Arnold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0167


Roger Ascham (b. 1514/15–d. 1568) is best known as a humanist scholar and author, who was royal tutor to the young Elizabeth I from 1548 to 1550. The Yorkshire-born man of letters became a significant figure in English intellectual circles, mainly due to his work on educational theory. The Scholemaster (published posthumously), which pioneered the double translation method, argued against corporal punishment and advocated learning through moral and mental discipline. Although he was often in financial and professional difficulties, particularly surrounding his checkered career in Cambridge University, his work on the art of archery, Toxophilus (1545), is an important work in the history of English prose. An extremely accomplished archer himself, the work, which demonstrates how the English language could rival Latin in eloquence, advocated the benefits of the sport for those engaged in scholarly pursuits, and it received royal favor, from Henry VIII, and gained Ascham an annual income. After encouraging Elizabeth in her interest for classical literature and Greek, Ascham spent several years on the Continent in diplomatic service, from which emerged an early form of travel writing on Germany. Upon his return, in 1553, he was appointed Latin secretary to Queen Mary, a position he held until Mary’s death, after which he continued as private tutor and Latin secretary to Elizabeth I. When Ascham died, Queen Elizabeth grieved and declared that she would have rather lost ten thousand pounds than to have lost “her” Ascham (Ryan 1963, cited under Biographies, p. 1). Indeed, he was a royal favorite of at least three of the monarchs whom he served with devotion. From Samuel Johnson we might reflect that “his philological learning would have gained him honour in any country, and among us it may justly call for that reverence which all nations owe to those who first rouse them from ignorance, and kindle among them the light of literature.” (Johnson c. 1761–1767?, p. xv, cited under Biographies). Most scholars of late see Ascham as a bridge between the early Tudor humanists and later Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, although not crediting him with the humanist greatness of Thomas More or Desiderius Erasmus, nor with the poetic qualities of Spenser or Shakespeare. Ryan 1963 (cited under Biographies) places Ascham closest to Elyot as Tudor “scholar-courtiers,” who both possessed the same aspiration of making English a language for “serious conversation” and make Englishmen into “pious and patriotic servants to God and Prince” (p. 272). Ascham’s legacy will always abide in his three great works, which made important developments in English prose and travel writing as well as educational theory. Add to this is service as royal tutor and secretary and his adeptness at surviving financial penury as well as religious and political change and we have a portrait of a most remarkable man.

Bibliographies and Reference Guides

The best general introduction to Ascham is O’Day 2004 in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The online Bibliography of British and Irish History provides a very helpful guide to further reading, and Trapp 2009 gives a brief paragraph as a basic introduction in the Oxford Companion to British History. Apart from the online options there are two useful volumes in print, though neither of them is comprehensive: Tannenbaum and Tannenbaum 1946 and Dees 1981.

  • Dees, Jerome S., ed. Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

    A useful guide to the life and works of Elyot and Ascham, especially Ascham’s English prose.

  • Institute of Historical Research. Bibliography of British and Irish History.

    A subscription-only website with access to a partner website covering specifically London history. A useful facility updated three times a year. There are currently twenty-one references to articles and books on Ascham. You can also access the information by going directly to Brepolis, which requires personal subscription or institutional affiliation.

  • O’Day, Rosemary. “Ascham, Roger (1514/15–1568).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/732

    Based largely upon Ryan 1963 (cited under Biographies), which includes a biography and primary sources, this is an excellent introduction to Ascham’s life, character, work, connections, achievements, and legacy. It assesses his education, search for patronage, his Toxophilus and Scholemaster, religious controversy, his role as tutor to Elizabeth and Mary, his travels to and writing on Germany, and his financial predicaments. It would be useful for undergraduate study or anyone who requires an authoritative introduction.

  • Tannenbaum, Samuel A., and D. R. Tannenbaum. Elizabethan Bibliographies. Vol. 1, Roger Ascham, Beaumont and Fletcher, Nicholas Breton, George Chapman. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1946.

    The first twenty pages give a list of 356 works that are either by Ascham, relate to him, or make reference to him, followed by an index of names.

  • Trapp, J. B. “Ascham, Roger.” In The Oxford Companion to British History. Edited by John Cannon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A brief paragraph in this reference work providing Ascham’s main publications and achievements, including his royal connections and allegiances. A useful starting point. Available online by subscription.

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