The Early Education of Queen Elizabeth I


Her Later Translation of Boethiusí»s

De Consolatione Philosophiae

                                           John Morris Jackson

                                          Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr.


Popular biographies of Elizabeth I, such as one recently published by Alison Weir often dwell too heavily upon the theatrics of Elizabeth on the stage of her reign, paying attention to her elaborate costuming, her flamboyant spectacles, and her flirtatiousness among the cast of her court. These are elements of her being which should not be ignored. After all, Elizabeth, too, is that stuff that dreams are made on. Yet, too often an appreciation of the appearance the queen projected fails to appreciate the intellectual substance that lay beneath the gowns.

For this reason, the tour de force of her translation of the Consolation of Philosophy beginning at the last decade of her life is usually dismissed as though it were but a memo dashed off casually in the work of her day. In the paragraphs that follow, I would like to examine aspects of that translation in the context of the queen's early education. This context may permit that translation to appear as more than a bagatelle to fill her idle loneliness.

Early Education

Admiration can be lavished upon Katherine Champernowne, first tutor of the future Queen Elizabeth who laid the foundation for the young princessí»s education in Latin and accustomed her to the í░elaborate code of politeness and subservience to her eldersí▒ that fostered the education she enjoyed (Plowden 68). Elizabeth herself praises Katherineí»s early devotion to her studies by stating that Kate, as she was commonly called, took í░great labor and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honestyí▒ (qtd. in Starkey 28).

According to Roger Ascham, there was nothing more revealing of proper breeding than appropriate table manners (Ascham 48‐9). It can be assumed that the children of the sixteenth century aristocracy, those blessed with substantial early tutorage, were quickly introduced to the formalities of the adult world around them. One writer of the day observed that children í░seemed to be born wise, and have gray hairs in their youthí▒ (qtd. in Erickson 42). It is likely that Tudor children, were brought up as miniatures of their future adult selves. The future Queen most likely experienced this sort of molding beginning with the instruction under Kate.

In December of 1539, Thomas Wriothley, the up‐and‐coming royal Secretary, traveled to Hatfield on business particular to Mary. In order to convey a Christmas greeting from the king, Wriothley also made a courtesy call to Elizabeth. Despite Wriothleyí»s patronizing tone, Elizabeth responded assuredly, and í░though she was only six years old,í▒ she spoke í░with as much assurance as a woman over forty. If she be no more educated than she now appeareth to me, she will prove of no less honor and womanhood that shall beseem her fatherí»s daughterí▒ (qtd. in Starkey 26).

The precociousness that Elizabeth seems to have inherited from her father quickly challenged Kateí»s level of instruction (26): the princess rapidly progressed in reading and writing and evidently by the age of either five or six, she had a confident grasp of the English language. It was at this time that she began her studies in Latin. The í░quick intelligence and a good memoryí▒ required for a humanist education was cultivated in Elizabeth from an early age (Erickson 47).

Thanks to the tutors provided for the education of the future King Edward VI who also lived at Hatfield, Elizabeth never lacked in fountains of knowledge from which to draw instruction in languages; and she was never hesitant to do so. Elizabeth often called upon Edwardí»s tutors for assistance, and the French tutor Jean Belmain, for example, helped her to perfect her already extremely competent grasp of the French language (Starkey 27).

Elizabethí»s Hatfield has been humorously considered by some scholars to be a satellite of Cambridge University. The tight web of relatively young tutors at Cambridge, some of the sharpest minds in England, were devoted to promoting a purity of life for Tudor children through long hours of sermons, periods of private meditation, and volumes of improved reading in order that they might í░fortifyí▒ themselves against the troubles of the outside world (Erickson  56). This theory probably prevailed in the atmosphere of nascent Protestantism that was assumed at Hatfield by King Henryí»s political persuasions.

In 1544, the clergyman Richard Cox, the provost of Eton, was appointed private tutor to Edward, who was now approaching the age of seven (55). Cox, who taught Edward the conjugation of verbs and parts of speech in Greek and Latin, challenged him and Elizabeth to í░conquer the captains of ignoranceí▒ in much the same way that their father was conquering the French (qtd. in Erickson 55). His method added a touch of historical relevance to language instruction, turning it into a game for the children under his charge.

In July of that year, the regius professor of Greek at St. Johní»s College, Cambridge, John Cheke was summoned to replaced Richard Cox (55). Known as a skilled classical linguist, Cheke, according to Roger Ascham, emphasized first and foremost, the reading of Holy Scriptures, followed by readings of Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Isocrates, and Demosthenes (Ascham 154). Under Cheke, Edward was producing acceptable Latin prose by the age of seven  (Plowden 74).

It was not long before John Cheke noticed the aforementioned precocity of Elizabeth, and he suggested that she be given a private tutor (Erickson 55). Through a letter of recommendation by Roger Ascham‐‐ which basically sealed the deal‐‐ William Grindal, a young Cambridge student and Aschamí»s star pupil, was assigned to Lady Elizabeth, who had reached the age of eleven (Starkey 27). Elizabeth benefited from Grindalí»s  í░scrupulous, attentive training,í▒ which was infused with a í░world view of English Protestant humanismí▒ that focused on learning Latin and Greek (Erickson 56). Ascham, who occasionally visited his protégé, notes that he did not know í░whether to admire more the wit of her [Elizabeth] who learnt, or the diligence of him who taughtí▒ (Giles 272‐3). The model of the tutorial, of course, lies behind such antique texts as Boethiusí»s Consolation of Philosophy, in which the prisoner Boethius benefits from the dialectical instruction of his Lady Philosophy.

Roger Ascham

Grindal died of the plague in early 1548 and was replaced in February without either delay or difficulty by Roger Ascham himself (Ascham 229). Ascham was a Yorkshireman from the village of Kirby Wiske and a graduate of Cambridge (Giles III 342). His intellectual stance is described as í░opinionated but unassertiveí▒ (Erickson 75). His own works lack in originality but, then, he never encouraged an imaginative or creative style; he much preferred studying and rereading what he called his í░old masters,í▒ such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. There was nothing more enjoyable for Roger Ascham than to read his beloved authors with a í░quick‐wittedí▒ student by his side, and to elucidate their secrets of style and substance (75). He proposed three goals for his teaching: (1) it should instill moral principles, (2) it should provide an intellectual guard against adversity, and (3) is should set an example for style (Starkey 81). From these principles, it is easy to understand how Boethiusí»s Consolation of Philosophy, which the Queen would translate in 1593, might appeal to Ascham as a text worthy of Elizabethí»s attention.

Roger Ascham‐ The Humanist Influence

According to Carolly Erickson, author of The First Elizabeth, John Cheke, Richard Cox, William Grindal, Roger Ascham, and other Cambridge scholars í░formed an intellectual bridge between the internationalist, Catholic humanism of Erasmus and Thomas More, with its distaste for fine points of doctrine [...] and the radical, Protestant learning that was aggressively nationalisticí▒ (56). The universities emphasized reading of the Bible above all, but they also stressed mastery of Demosthenes, Plato, Virgil, and Cicero. In order to read these great works, as well as those of the Church Fathers, students were taught Latin and Greek‐‐ and Hebrew, for more advanced scholars (56).

The standard curriculum for students at Cambridge during Roger Aschamí»s time included grammar, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, and music. Based on the statutes at Christí»s College, Aschamí»s St. Johní»s College also required that scholars attend four daily lectures: one on dialectic, one on logic, one on philosophy, and one on í░the poets and oratorsí▒ (qtd. in Ryan 21). The texts commonly expounded upon included: Priscian for gammar; Boethius, Cicero, and Aristotle for rhetoric; and the Parva Logicalia of Petrus Hispanus for logic (21).

Along with Thomas More and Erasmus, Ascham stood for the ideal an í░education in virtue and piety for the service of the commonwealí▒ (262). Disturbed by the idea of commoners of unusual talent taking over offices originally reserved for the nobility, Ascham attempted to instruct aristocratic England in the Boethian í░verray gentillesseí▒ that embodied í░virtue and wisdomí▒ (262). Boethius stood as a source of medieval Humanism in much the way that Augustine stood as a source of medieval Christianity. It is, therefore, understandable that Roger Ascham, a Cambridge Humanist, would cite ideas of Boethius as a touchstone for his own values.

Roger Ascham‐ Double Translation

Roger Aschamí»s most widely known and accepted educational device, the art of double translation, is described in his book, The Scholemaster, and adapted from the first book of Ciceroí»s De Oratore, í░if wiselie brought into school, truely taught and constantly used,í▒  Aschamí»s method of instruction would not only assist in increasing a studentí»s admiration and enjoyment of Latin but also í░worke a true choice and placing of wordes, a right ordering of sentences, an easie understandyng of the tonge, a readines to speak, a facilitie to write, a true judgement, both of his owne, and other mens doinges...í▒ (Ascham 2).

The procedure used in double translation is explained in this way: Beginning with the first three concordances of De Oratore and the Epistles of Cicero, the child is instructed to turn these works into English by logging the translation in Notebook 1; the tutor and child then study the translation until the child is firm in his understanding of the text; the notebook is set aside for an hour (at the least) to avoid memorization (and to hinder true translation), after which time, the student is instructed to render the English back into Latin and log the translation in Notebook 2 (4). This method promotes a studentí»s tendency to search for cognates, however, in order to facilitate a reverse translation, from the target language back into the original. It promotes a literal translation of the words, but sometimes at the expense of the spirit of the text.

When the procedure is completed, the teacher will compare the studentí»s Latin to the original text, focusing on praise of the studentí»s success. If the child errs, the teacher gently corrects him by saying í░[the author] would have used such a worde, not this: [he] would have placed this worde here, not here: would have used this case, this number, this person, this degree, this genderíŽí▒ (4). According to Lawrence V. Ryan, author of the biography, Roger Ascham, í░historians of pedagogy almost invariably turn to The Scholemaster for illustrations of the Elizabethan attitude on educationí▒ (251). They can turn to The Scholemaster also, to explain some of the idiosyncracies of Elizabethí»s translations from the Latin, such as those formed in the Boethius translation that she made at Windsor at the age of sixty.

Roger Ascham‐ Tutor to Elizabeth

Ascham, who is distinguished as the í░principle witness to Elizabethí»s life and developmentí▒ in the central years of her tutorage, represents for modern historians a unique source of information (Starkey 80). His delight in gossip and his book, The Scholemaster (published 1570), offers a window of singular importance onto the early life of Elizabeth. Ascham, who repeatedly mentions Her Majesty in his book, describes how the queení»s style was established. After all, for Elizabeth, style was everything. (80)

Ascham states that Elizabeth developed a style that

grows out of the subject; chaste because it is suitable, and beautiful because it is clear [...] Her ears are so well practised in discriminating all these things and her judgement is so good, that in all Greek, Latin, and English compositions there is nothing so loose on the one hand or so concise on the other which she does not immediately attend to, and either reject with disgust or receive with pleasure as the case may be. (Giles I lxiv )

This style of í░chasteí▒ simplicity of Elizabethí»s youth would, of course, evolve over the decades into the more complex and convoluted Elizabethan prose of her later years. What began as clarity of statement would end in a calculated ambiguity that would allow her to delay political and matrimonial commitment for decades at a time. But this ambiguity, too, is essential to Elizabethí»s style.

The daily routine set by Ascham for Elizabeth, which was probably quite similar to her routine with Grindal, consisted of two daily sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The mornings were usually devoted to readings of the Greek New Testament, after which Ascham chose readings from the orations of Isocrates , the tragedies of Sophocles, and the works of Demosthenes to complete the lessons of the day (I  lxiii).

Non‐scriptural readings were carefully selected by Ascham to instruct Elizabeth in areas that í░would be of value to her to meet every contingency of lifeí▒ (I lxiii). Furthermore, as Ascham notes, the texts chosen were of those í░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 fortuneí▒ (qtd. in Erickson 76). Other works that Elizabeth is known to have studied include those texts by St. Cyprian and the Commonplaces of Melanchthon, Lutherí»s disciple. These would have influence the development of her religious concepts.

Elizabethí»s afternoons were devoted almost entirely to the reading and studying the entire repertoire of Cicero and a significant part of Livy. In fact, Elizabethí»s exceptional command of Latin can be attributed primarily to the latter two authors (Giles I lxiii). Additional study time was divided between French and Italian, which she spoke as well as she spoke English. By the age of 11, Princess Elizabethí»s fluency in languages was evidenced by her í░decorous letters addressed to the queení▒ (Erickson 57). Concerning one occasion later in her life, Ascham notes that Elizabeth responded to three ambassadors in Italian, French, and Latin respectively (Ascham 221).

Roger Ascham‐ Praise of Elizabeth

Elizabethí»s tutor was exceptionally proud of his star pupil. In his Scholemaster, Ascham notes, í░they be fewe in nomber in both the universities or els where in England, that be tonges comparable with her Majestieí▒ (105). In a letter to Johann Sturm, the Rector of the University of Strasbourg, he states that Elizabeth was exempt from female weakness, í░her perseverance equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks upí▒ (Giles I lxiii),

However, one should not consider Aschamí»s praise to be wholly biased and, in turn, lessen oneí»s admiration for Elizabeth. After all, he did consider her confidence in Greek to outstretch her ability (Starkey 81). It should be noted that, unlike today, Latin was a living language in the sixteenth century and was taught in the universities in much the same way as French or German is taught now. Yet, it is without a doubt that Elizabeth was more intelligent than the average Englishman and possessed an í░enormous capacity for sheer, concentrated hard workí▒ (Plowden 74). Her early instruction by Roger Ascham and other teachers provided her with a lasting linguistic confidence that served her well, even up to the time of her death at seventy. It was during her last decades of life that she revisited such works as Boethiusí»s Consolation of Philosphy, that she first became acquainted with in her youth.

Handwriting of Elizabeth

In addition to Latin, Elizabeth was instructed in the art of writing in the italic hand. Ascham emphasized the italic over the gothic script, which was gradually fading in popularity. About the age of five or six, Elizabeth began to develop her handwriting, which is described as í░supremely elegant,í▒ especially in her Greek and Latin inscriptions (Starkey 81). Ascham notes that í░when she writes Greek and Latin nothing is more beautiful than her handwritingí▒ (Giles I lxiii).

According to Carolly Erickson, í░quill pens were made from the third or fourth feather of the wing of a goose, sharpened with a penknife, softened with spit and rubbed afterward on the underside of a piece of clothing, where the stain would be hiddení▒ (47). The concentration of the ink varied, depending on the speed and purposes of the user. Parchment paper was reserved for official documents, so children practiced their penmanship on ordinary paper, while using coarser paper to test their pens and to rid the tips of loose fibers. Common exercises in penmanship, often tedious, included writing the alphabet, drawing a cross, transcribing the Lordí»s Prayer, or the invocation í░in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amení▒ (48).

Elizabeth was forced to deal with many í«broken pens and frayed tempersí▒ on her path toward mastery in writing. On one occasion, Ascham requested that Elizabethí»s broken silver pen be sent to him for repair; eventually, he sent her a new pen, along with an Italian book, and a book of prayers (Starkey 27). Her journey toward the flourish in the signature of her twenties and thirties was difficult and it reached a climax in midlife. However, the handwriting of her sixties is described as í░spidery,í▒ and this adjective applies to the passages of the 1593 translation of Boethius that are in her own hand. Her writing is, at times, practically illegible.

Boethian Studies at Cambridge

Reading of Boethius at Cambridge was frequently required during the second and latter half of the fifteenth century. This fact is evidenced both by the statutes of Cambridge and the by books recording holdings in the libraries of the time. For example, fifteenth century marginal glosses inscribed in books held at Clare and Corpus Christi libraries and written in three or four different hands refer to Boethius (Leader 126‐7). Furthermore, personal libraries of graduates Gavin Blenkynshop (DTh, 1475) and Thomas Coyler (DTh 1504) included works by Boethius (182, 314).

At Cambridge, Boethiusí»s Divisiones was studied by students of Logic as an example of the í░old logicí▒ style (123). His Ars metrica was a standard introductory work for students of Arithmetic: the library at Peterhouse possessed two copies, Clare possessed one, and three known graduates owned personal copies (142). Boethiusí»s treatise on music, De musica, was found in most Cambridge libraries (144) and his De consolatione philosophiae, though a non‐statutory work, was widely known and accessible (163). Boethius was a figure of some importance at Cambridge when the Cambridge Humanists flourished there. For this reason, if for no other, we may assume that the Consolation of Philosophy would have entered the curriculum designed for Princess Elizabeth.


Queen Elizabeth I's amanuensis prefaces the Consolatio translation of 1593 with a telling statement of the queen's schedule of work. She began on the tenth day of October and ended on the fifth of November out of which may be subtracted four Sundays, three holy days, and six days set aside for riding, leaving a total of twelve days devoted to translation. Two hours per day were set aside for the text, thus Elizabeth translated the whole of Boethius's Consolatio in twenty four hours.

From this information we gain an idea of the degree of fluency in Latin the queen possessed at the age of sixty. From the observations made above on the queen's early, humanistic education, it is apparent that her majesty was not making a new acquaintance in this endeavor but was indeed revisiting an old friend.

Clues from within the text tell that Elizabeth may have the desire to translate the text as a political work. The text deals with treason, uses and abuses of the law, imprisonment, and deeply felt responses by a person of considerable intellect to the forces of fate that act upon him. By this thirty‐fifth year of her reign, Elizabeth herself had lain in prison under possible accusation of treason and she had imprisoned many accused of treachery against her person.

The opening passages of Book 1 of the Consolatio come to us in the queen's own hand, where, most prose passages are transcribed by the amanuensis. This might indicate particular interest in those lines that convey the political circumstances that precipitated the subsequent philosophical consideration of the work; the queen rarely articulated philosophical or theological ideas but she was a consummate politician.

It is probably as a politician, deeply moved by certain circumstances and decisions of her reign that she was drawn to translate the content of the Consolation of Philosphy. As mentioned earlier, the approach she took in the translation had been firmly fixed by Roger Ascham's dual translation method: literalness almost to a fault, the use of cognates wherever possible, and fidelity to the logic behind the rhetoric.

Elizabeth I's translation of the Consolatio remains as verifiable proof of her broad intellect and interest in intellectual endeavors. Perhaps, as more information is uncovered and interpreted over time, scholars and historians will modify their impressions of Elizabeth, drawing away from the overrated capriciousness of Her Majesty and, in turn, focusing more thoroughly on the depth of her intellectual capacity.

(Troy State University)

ó┬ Works Cited

Ascham, Roger. The Scholemaster. Ed. by John E.B. Mayor. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1967.

Erickson, Carolly. The First Elizabeth. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1983.

Giles, Rev. Dr. The Whole Works of Roger Ascham. London: John Russell Smith, 1865.

Leader, Damian Riehl. A History of the University of Cambridge, Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University     Press, 1988.

Plowden, Alison. Elizabeth: The Young Elizabeth. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2001.

Ryan, Lawrence V. Roger Ascham. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Stuggle for the Throne. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000.


The Early Education of Queen Elizabeth I


Her Later Translation of Boethiusí»s

De Consolatione Philosophiae

                                           John Morris Jackson

                                          Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr.

At Windsor, Queen Elizabeth I translated Boethiusí»s De Consolatione Philosophiae into English in 1593. She appears to have worked with great speed and relative accuracy, which attests to her command of Latin.  This paper considers her early education as informative, both on the classical authors in whose works she had long been steeped and on the methodology that is evident in the translation made in her sixtieth year.

Primarily under Roger Aschamí»s direction, Elizabeth was presented texts that would encourage her use of í░the purest diction,í▒ supply her with superior values and perspectives, and endow her with the moral fortitude required in a monarch. The selected texts included those by Cicero, Demonsthenes, Isocrates, Sophocles, Livy, and mostly likely Boethius, whom Ascham cited as a touchstone of his own educational values.

It was by instruction in Aschamí»s í░double translationí▒ method, which he described in his The Scholemaster, that Elizabeth acquired her profound command of written and spoken Latin. By his own description, this method entails translating a classical text first into English and then, after a time, translating that English back into the original language of the text. This practice cultivates a literalness in the rendering of a text into English and also a gravitation toward, wherever possible, the use of cognates.

An examination of Elizabethí»s 1593 translation of the Consolation of Philosophy indicates that the queen continued to benefit from her childhood instruction even to the end of her long and glorious reign.

Key Words: education, Elizabeth, Boethius, translation.