The Schoolmaster

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The Schoolmaster

Excerpt from The Schoolmaster

    By Roger Ascham

    Reprinted in The Schoolmaster (1570) By Roger Ascham

    Published by Cornell University Press, 1967

Very few children in sixteenth-century England attended formal school, but interest in education was growing. Literacy, or the ability to read and write, was an important skill for merchants and businessmen, and it was also the mark of a gentleman. Wealthy families, therefore, expected their children to study at school or with a private tutor. Middle-class families, too, were increasingly interested in providing basic schooling for their children.

"I assure you, there is no such whetstone to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning as is praise."

Though there was no national system of public education, different types of independent schools existed. Children who received formal education generally started their studies at the age of six at an institution known as a petty school. Here, boys and sometimes girls learned the alphabet, basic writing, and the fundamentals of arithmetic. In addition, children learned to read prayers and to memorize the catechism, a question-and-answer text about Christianity and the church. Because printed books and paper were quite expensive, children memorized the alphabet from a horn book—a wooden tablet onto which the printed text was pasted and then covered with a thin layer of animal horn. The horn protected the text as would plastic lamination today. Petty school teachers had no specific training. According to some estimates, about one third of these teachers may have had university degrees; others were less educated. Schools run by women were sometimes known as dame schools.

Students memorized their lessons by rote learning, repeating the text over and over until they could recite it without mistakes. Children who acted up or stumbled over the lesson could expect a thrashing from the schoolmaster, who beat unruly or slow students with a stick of birch wood.

After completing petty school, children from privileged families might continue their education at a grammar school. Unlike petty schools, these institutions were only for boys. The grammar-school curriculum was a demanding course of study that focused on Latin grammar and literature, including philosophy, history, poetry, and drama; sometimes Greek was taught as well, with perhaps some lessons in French. Latin was not just an ancient language; it was the traditional language of scholarship in the sixteenth century. Those who knew Latin could converse with educated men from around Europe and read the works of contemporary scholars.

As with petty schools, instruction at grammar schools was generally by rote. Boys were expected to memorize Latin texts, write poems and plays in Latin, and speak Latin at all times, even during their free hours. Academic failure or violation of school rules resulted in a beating. Discipline could be so harsh that students sometimes ran away from school to avoid it.

Most grammar school students came from wealthy families, but academically talented boys from humbler backgrounds were sometimes sent to grammar school on scholarship. In fact, some of the most outstanding Elizabethan writers were able to attend school with this kind of financial help. Playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), for example, was a scholarship student at the King's School, a grammar school associated with Canterbury Cathedral. The poet Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), whose father was a London cloth worker, attended the Merchant Taylors' School on scholarship. He went on to attend university, where he earned two degrees before establishing his literary reputation with The Shepheard's Calendar and The Faerie Queene.

The Merchant Taylors' School, founded in 1561, was one of several new grammar schools that opened in the 1500s. Before the reign of Henry VIII (1491–1547), the primary centers of education in England had been monasteries, where monks and priests had spent their lives in prayer and study. These monasteries ran schools that educated the sons of the wealthy. But after Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, he shut down the monasteries and confiscated church property. With the monastery schools thus closed, Henry founded several new grammar schools, including the King's School in Canterbury that Marlowe attended. Henry's heir, Edward VI (1537–1553), chartered many more schools. In addition, charitable organizations supported education by opening new schools and sponsoring scholarships. The Merchant Taylors' School, for example, was created and supported by an organization of businessmen, the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors. This company also founded the Wolverhampton Grammar School in 1512 and a school in Macclesfield.

With more people gaining access to education, debates arose regarding curriculum and methods of teaching. Though strict instruction and beatings were the norm, a few influential educators began to argue in favor of a more lenient approach that, they believed, would inspire their students to love learning. Richard Mulcaster (c. 1531–1611), for example, the first headmaster of the Merchant Taylors' School, developed an educational philosophy that acknowledged children's different abilities, emphasized the importance of exercise and sports, recommended greater respect for the English language, and supported education for girls.

Among the leading teachers of the 1500s was Roger Ascham (c. 1515–1568), who in 1548 began serving as tutor to Henry VIII's daughter, the future Elizabeth I (1533–1603). He taught the princess Latin and Greek, and she impressed him with her intellectual abilities. Ascham later became Latin Secretary to Elizabeth's half-brother, Edward VI. He kept this position under Edward's successors, Mary I (1515–1558) and Elizabeth. Ascham himself never attended grammar school; instead, he was tutored privately before entering St. John's College, Cambridge University, where he earned a B.A. in 1535 and an M.A. in 1537.

Ascham became most famous for The Schoolmaster, which he began writing in 1563. As he explained in the book's introduction, he was inspired by a conversation that took place one evening that year at Windsor Palace, where he was dining with Queen Elizabeth's chief advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598), and other ministers. Cecil commented that there had been several reports of students running away from Eton, a grammar school founded in 1440 by Henry VI (1421–1471), because they feared beatings from their teachers. Cecil's remarks started a discussion about educational methods. Several ministers approved of "the rod" and stated that schoolmasters should be allowed to use it as they saw fit. Cecil, though, said that he wished teachers would use better judgment in deciding how to discipline students. Beatings, he thought, as paraphrased in Ascham's introduction, punished "rather the weakenes of nature, than the fault of the Scholer."

After this dinner, the queen's treasurer, Sir Richard Sackville (died 1566), met privately with Ascham to seek advice on how to educate his young grandson. The treasurer confided that he agreed wholeheartedly with Cecil, and that his own terror of his violent teacher had caused him to hate school. "Now," he told Ascham, "when I know, what difference it is, to have learninge, and to have litle, or none at all, I feele it my greatest greife, and find it my greatest hurte, that ever came to me, that it was my so ill chance, to light upon so lewde a Scholemaster." Hoping to save his grandson from the same bitter experience, Sackville hoped that Ascham could recommend a better course of education for the boy.

What Ascham came up with, which was published as The Schoolmaster in 1570 after his death, was a method of study based on the idea that the teacher's role was to encourage the student's natural love of learning. Like the standard curriculum of the time, it recommended a thorough knowledge of Latin. Unlike other programs, though, Ascham's curriculum would not encourage students to speak Latin. This, he felt, contributed to error, for they would speak without understanding proper grammar. Instead, Ascham recommended that students learn to read Latin and to translate it into English before starting to speak in Latin. By following this method, students would "speak so as it may well appeaer that the brain doth govern the tongue and that reason leadeth forth the talk."

Ascham fully believed in giving students a firm foundation in the rules of grammar. He expected students to spend long hours memorizing texts and mastering their lessons. But he also emphasized the importance of sympathy and understanding on the teacher's part. When a pupil made a mistake, he wrote, the teacher should not respond with a frown or a negative comment so long as the child had tried his best. Furthermore, the schoolmaster should praise the student for good work. "For I assure you," wrote Ascham, "there is no such whetstone to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning as is praise."

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Schoolmaster:

  • Formal education, formerly available only to the wealthy, was becoming increasingly available to the middle class in sixteenth-century England.
  • Most instruction was by rote learning, with students memorizing lessons. Teachers often beat students who made mistakes or broke school rules.
  • Around the mid-1500s, some teachers began to advocate for changes that recognized students' developmental needs and questioned the practice of beating students.
  • Ascham was greatly influenced by the writings of Cicero (106–43 bce), a Roman statesman, public speaker, and philosopher.

The Schoolmaster The First Book for the Youth

… There is a way, touched in the first book of Cicero Deoratore, which, wisely brought into schools, truly taught, and constantly used, would not only take wholly away this butcherly fear in making of Latins but would also, with ease and pleasure and in short time, as I know by good experience, work a true choice and placing of words, a right ordering of sentences, an easy understanding of the tongue, a readiness to speak, a facility to write a true judgment both of his own and other men's doings, what tongue [language] soever he doth use.

The way is this. After the three concordances learned, as I touched before, let the master read unto him the epistles of Cicero gathered together and chosen out by Sturmius for the capacity of children.

First let him teach the child, cheerfully and plainly, the cause and matter of the letter; then, let him construe [interpret] into English so oft as the child may easily carry away the understanding of it; lastly, parse it over perfectly. This done thus, let the child, by and by, both construe and parse it over again so that it may appear that the child doubteth in nothing that his master taught him before. After this, the child must take a paper book and, sitting in some place where no man shall prompt him, by himself, let him translate into English his former lesson. Then, showing it to his master, let the master take from him his Latin book, and, pausing an hour at the least, then let the child translate his own English into Latin again in another paper book. When the child bringeth it turned into Latin, the master must compare it with Tully 's book and lay them both together, and where the child doth well, either in choosing or true placing of Tully's words, let the master praise him and say, "Here ye do well." For I assure you, there is no such whetstone to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning as is praise.

But if the child miss, either in forgetting a word, or in changing a good with a worse, or misordering the sentence, I would not have the master either frown or chide [scold] with him, if the child have done his diligence and used no truantship therein. For I know by good experience that a child shall take more profit of two faults gently warned of than of four things rightly hit….

And therefore we do not contemn rules, but we gladly teach rules, and teach them more plainly, sensibly, and orderly than they be commonly taught in common schools. For when the master shall compare Tully's book with his scholar's translation, let the master at the first lead and teach his scholar to join the rules of his grammar book with the examples of his present lesson, until the scholar by himself be able to fetch out of his grammar every rule for every example, so as the grammar book be ever in the scholar's hand and also used of him, as a dictionary, for every present use. This is a lively and perfect way of teaching of rules, where the common way, used in common schools, to read the grammar alone by itself, is tedious for the master, hard for the scholar, cold and uncomfortable for them both.

Let your scholar be never afraid to ask you any doubt, but use discreetly the best allurements ye can to encourage him to the same, lest his overmuch fearing of you drive him to some misorderly shift, as to seek to be helped by some other book, or to be prompted by some other scholar, and so go about to beguile you much and himself more.

With this way—of good understanding the matter, plain construing, diligent parsing, daily translating, cheerful admonishing, and heedful amending of faults, never leaving behind just praise for well-doing—I would have the scholar brought up withal, till he had read and translated over the first book of epistles chosen out by Sturmius, with a good piece of a comedy of Terence also.

All this while, by mine advice, the child shall use to speak no Latin, for, as Cicero saith in like matter, with like words, loquendo, male loqui discunt [By speaking, they learn to speak badly]….

In very deed, if children were brought up in such a house, or such a school, where the Latin tongue were properly and perfectly spoken … surely then the daily use of speaking were the best and readiest way to learn the Latin tongue. But now commonly, in the best schools in England, for words, right choice is smally regarded, true propriety wholly neglected; confusion is brought in, barbarousness is bred up so in young wits as afterward they be not only marred for speaking but also corrupted in judgment, as with much ado, or never at all, they be brought to right frame again.

Yet all men covet to have their children speak Latin, and so do I very earnestly too. We both have one purpose; we agree in desire, we wish one end; but we differ somewhat in order and way that leadeth rightly to that end. Other would have them speak at all adventures and, so they be speaking, to speak, the master careth not, the scholar knoweth not, what. This is to seem and not to be, except it be to be bold without shame, rash without skill, full of words without wit. I wish to have them speak so as it may well appear that the brain doth govern the tongue and that reason leadeth forth the talk….

What happened next …

The Elizabethans' interest in education led to further developments in the 1600s. Advances in technology and trade contributed to the expansion of education. Improvements in printing technology, for example, helped lower the cost of producing books. Increased trade and higher incomes, meanwhile, fueled the growth of a relatively large middle class that desired, and could afford, schooling for its children. Formal education continued to become more accessible to children of less privileged families, and more advocates expressed support for the education of girls. Courses of study, which still focused on Latin, also expanded. New developments in science, a subject that received little attention in the 1500s, began to be included in school curricula. Modern European languages were also taught, and more time was given to the study of English. At the same time, however, Puritan reformers demanded that schools include more emphasis on Christian writings. (Puritans were a group of Protestants who followed strict religious standards.)

English educators in the 1600s were greatly influenced by the theories of a European teacher, John Amos Comenius (1592–1670), who was born in Moravia (now the Czech Republic). In contrast to earlier schoolmasters who forced their students to memorize lessons perfectly and beat them when they failed, Comenius believed that learning involved not just intellectual memory, but also spiritual and emotional growth. For Comenius, learning was a life-long activity. He believed that all children, regardless of income or gender, should be educated. His theories transformed education in seventeenth-century Europe; for example, he was asked to restructure the school system in Sweden. Comenius was asked to become the first president of Harvard College, but he declined.

Comenius was the first educator to create a textbook with pictures, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures, 1658). This book became extremely popular, and was used in schools all across Europe. Reform-minded educators in England adopted many ideas and methods from Comenius. In 1659 his Orbis Pictus was translated into English; the book, reprinted several times, was widely used.

Among English scholars who admired the ideals of Comenius was philosopher and poet John Milton (1608–1674). In his book Of Education, Milton advocated a course of education that would begin with direct experience, which young children could easily understand, and then move to the teaching of abstract concepts when children were sufficiently mature to grasp this material. This idea was inspired by Comenius. But, unlike Comenius, Milton emphasized that the purpose of education was to prepare individuals to serve God and become good citizens of the state.

Did you know …

  • In the mid-1500s about 20 percent of men and 5 percent of women in England could read and write. By 1600 literacy rates had risen to approximately 30 percent for men and 10 percent for women.
  • Literacy was higher in the cities than in rural areas. In the 1580s an estimated 60 percent of businessmen and merchants in London could read and write.
  • The school day for English students usually began at about six or seven in the morning, with a 15-minute break for breakfast and a two-hour break for the midday meal. Classes did not end until about five o'clock or five-thirty.
  • The Merchant Taylors' School and Wolverhampton Grammar School still operate among the top-ranked grammar schools in Britain.

Consider the following …

  • Elizabethan grammar schools differed from today's schools in many ways: they did not serve all children, they taught different subjects than are included in today's curricula, and they used different methods of instruction. Which of these differences do you find most interesting, and why?
  • If you were asked to create a whole new curriculum for your school, what subjects would you include? Which of these should be emphasized as core subjects and which should receive lesser attention? What would be the primary goal of this new course of study?

For More Information


Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Tudor England. New Haven, CT and London, England: Yale University Press, 2006.

Ryan, Lawrence V., ed. The Schoolmaster (1570) by Roger Ascham. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Singman, Jeffrey L. Daily Life in Elizabethan England. Westport, CT and London, England: Greenwood Press, 1995.


"About John Amos Comenius." (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Educating Shakespeare. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Mulcaster, Richard. "Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (1581)."∼wbarker/positions.html (accessed on July 24, 2006).

The Seventeenth Century and Education. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Shakespeare's Schooling." (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"What Every Schoolboy Knows." (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Concordances: Alphabetical indexes of words in a text.

Sturmius: Missionary priest in England (705-779).

Parse: Break down into parts.

Prompt: Provide the words of a forgotten passage.

Tully: Another name for Cicero.

Beguile: Deceive.

Terence: Publius Terentius Afer, Latin comic poet born in Carthage, North Africa (c. 190–159 bce).

Covet: Wish.

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The Schoolmaster

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