Authors: David Starkey
ENRY’S EDUCATION STARTED EARLY
. On 2 November 1495, when the boy was not yet four and half, his father paid
1 ‘for a book bought for my lord of York’.
Perhaps this was the book from which Henry first learned to read. Perhaps he had just acquired the skill. But who had taught him? Not a tutor, as there is no trace of a formally appointed teacher for some time. Instead, I would guess that Henry learned from his mother. There is also the strong possibility that she taught him to write as well.
Henry’s own handwriting has always been a bit of a mystery. Its bold, square, rather laboured forms are quite unlike the hands of his known teachers, like John Skelton, and intellectual compeers like Thomas More. On the other hand, it is very like his sisters’ writing. His is more ‘masculine’ and
better-formed. It is also the hand of someone who wrote regularly, if (as we know) rather painfully and reluctantly.
His sisters’, in contrast, are typical women’s hands: loose and unpractised, if only because they wrote little. But the resemblance is still striking. It is weaker in the case of Margaret, Henry’s elder sister.
But it is much closer in the case of the younger sister, Mary.
Indeed, her hand at first sight would pass for Henry’s own – especially when he was scribbling rough notes or making corrections. The size, rhythm and letter forms are identical; only the pressure is different. Henry’s massive fist leans heavily on the page; Mary’s little hand flutters.
The reason for the resemblance is obviously a common teacher. Henry and Mary did, as we shall see, share a tutor, William Hone. But he joined their service long after they were literate and had formed their hands.
The common teacher, instead, I would suggest, was someone who really had been with them from the beginning: their mother.
Elizabeth of York had been unusually well educated for a fifteenth-century woman – that is, if we believe the account given in the ballad of Elizabeth’s life known as ‘The Song of the Lady Bessy’. This claims that her father, Edward IV, had appointed a scrivener, ‘the very best in the City’, as tutor to Elizabeth and her sister Cecily, the next eldest. He had taught them ‘both to write and read full soon … /Both English and also French,/And also Spanish, if you had need’.
Only a few fragments of her handwriting seem to survive. The most substantial is her inscription of ownership in a book of devotion: ‘Thys boke ys myn Elysabeth the kyngys dawghtyr.’ It consists of only eight words and thirty-nine letters. But it is characteristic enough – in weight, in letter forms and in rhythm – to point to her role in inducting her second son and his sisters into literacy.
Henry’s encounter with formal education came a year or two later, with the appointment of his first tutor, the poet John Skelton.
Skelton’s poetry is extraordinary: helter-skelter rhymes, rhythms and alliterations tumble down the page; brisk and brutal English alternates with polysyllabic Latin and sententious French. One of his principal subjects was himself, and he felt it a worthy one: he must be the only poet to have written, in
The Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell
, sixteen hundred lines of verse in praise of himself and his own works.
The title of Skelton’s autobiographical poem comes from the practice in the ancient world of crowning poets with a ‘garland’ or wreath of laurel. The custom was revived in the renaissance, and Skelton himself received the honour on several occasions: from the universities of Oxford in 1488, Louvain in 1492 and Cambridge, where he had studied, in 1493. In 1488 Henry VII also bestowed the title of poet laureate on Skelton and gave him a gown of green and white (the Tudor livery colours) inscribed in gold with the name ‘Calliope’, the muse of epic verse.
But among the proudest achievements to be listed in
was the fact that Skelton had been ‘creancer’ or tutor to ‘The Duke of York … Now Henry the viij, Kyng of Englonde’.
The date of Skelton’s appointment as tutor is unknown. But it was certainly early – say in 1496 or ’97. Years later, in a poem commissioned by Henry VIII himself, Skelton boasts that ‘The honor of England I learnyd to spell’, and that Henry had called him ‘master … In hys lernyng primordiall’. Equally, it is important to note the rather precise limitations of this: Skelton claims to have taught Henry to spell; he does not claim to have taught him to read or write.
That distinction instead, as we have seen, almost certainly belongs to Henry’s mother.
Skelton’s principal job as Henry’s tutor was different. It was to consolidate Henry’s skills in English and to use them as a foundation for a second, then much more highly regarded, literacy in Latin. Fluency in Latin was an end in itself; it was also the key to most other knowledge, since Latin was the universal language of intellectual expression.
But why appoint a poet, of all people, to do this? Here it is important to understand the real meaning of Skelton’s repeated laureations. Skelton himself – understandably preoccupied with his identity and reputation as a poet – writes as though they were a seamless tribute to his poetic genius. In fact, his laureations at Oxford, Louvain and Cambridge were primarily university degrees, conferred for
his conspicuous achievement in the field of Latin and rhetoric. Facility in the composition of Latin verse was the summit of such distinction. But it was only a part of it.
Skelton himself gives only the briefest account of how he tried to share something of this knowledge with Henry.
I yave hym drynke of the sugryd welle
Of Eliconys waters crystallyne,
Aqueintyng hym with the Musys nyne.
The phrases are, of course, commonplaces. This makes it difficult to be sure what is meant. Probably Skelton would have given Henry a good grounding in the basics of Latin grammar and vocabulary, and introduced him to examples of the principal literary forms of the ancient world.
This, certainly, was the approach adopted by Skelton’s fellow laureate and tutor, the blind French poet Bernard André, whom we have earlier encountered as Henry VII’s official biographer. André had been appointed royal laureate in 1485, three years earlier than Skelton, and was manifestly senior to him. He was also given the senior royal teaching post as well, with his appointment in 1496 as tutor to Henry’s elder brother Arthur. By this time Arthur, who was in his tenth year, had already completed his ‘secondary’ instruction at the hands of a professional schoolmaster, John Rede; now it was André’s job to give the prince’s education a final, ‘tertiary’ polish.
* * *
He joined the prince’s household in the Welsh Marches, and both teacher and pupil went to it with a will. ‘Before he reached his sixteenth year,’ André writes, ‘[Arthur] had either committed to memory or read with his own eyes and leafed with his own fingers, in grammar: Guarinus, Perottus, Pomponius, Sulpitius, Aulus Gellius and Valla; in poetry: Homer, Vergil, Lucan, Ovid, Silius, Plautus and Terence; in oratory: the
of Cicero, and Quintilian; in history: Thucidides, Livy, the
of Caesar, Suetonius, Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny, Valerius Maximus, Sullust and Eusebius.’
As Skelton was responsible for Henry until the age of eleven or twelve at the most, the boy cannot have got nearly so far under his tuition. But his reading would have been a scaled-down version of his elder brother’s curriculum.
All this, of course, was in Latin. But Skelton had a magpie mind, stuffed with curious learning of all sorts. It may be that he kept it to himself. But, given the irrepressible zest of his poetry, it does not seem very likely. Instead, he seems to have communicated many of his enthusiasms to Henry: his love of obscure astronomical and mathematical lore; his fierce patriotism and fiercer xenophobia; and, above all, something of his own sense of language and skill in English verse composition.
This last would have been regarded as a leisure activity. But as the adult Henry wrote verse and enjoyed Skelton’s
poetry, it is fairly safe to imagine the boy and his tutor whiling away the odd hour in writing doggerel. Something of Skelton is also present in Henry’s prose: in its pungency at best and its prolixity at worst. Even his vocabulary sometimes has a Skeltonic ring, and when, in his great speech to parliament in 1545, the king enjoined the clergy to follow his own middle way in religion, inclining neither to the ‘old Mumpsimus’, on the one extreme, nor the ‘new Sumpsimus’ on the other, we seem to hear the old macaronic rhymester himself.
Skelton, like André and other fashionable teachers of the day, also wrote didactic works and aids to study of various sorts. One that André composed specially for Arthur survives. It is an index to André’s own commentary on St Augustine’s
, which is dated 17 June 1500 ‘in bello loco’ – this latter phrase being a latinization of the name of Bewdley near Kidderminster, which was Arthur’s usual residence at this time.
The Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell
lists several of Skelton’s own contributions to the genre:
‘Item New gramer in Englysshe compylyd.’
‘Of Tullys Familiars the translacyoun.’
‘Item the Boke to Speke Well or be Styll.’
the Boke of Honorous Astate.’
‘Item Royall Demenaunce Worshyp to Wynne.’
The first was a Latin grammar, though written in English; the second, a translation of one of the standard rhetorical works, Cicero’s
; the third was probably an English version of the
Tractatus de doctrina dociendi et tacendi
, a popular rhetorical treatise written by Albertano of Brescia; while the fourth and fifth sound like variations on the ever popular themes of courtesy books or mirrors for princes, which dealt with the principles of proper etiquette and good conduct.
None has survived; nor is it possible to say which, if any, were written specifically for Henry. But these questions can be answered for another work, of which Skelton was very proud. This was his
Speculum Principis. The Garlande or
Chapelet of Laurell
describes the circumstances of its composition:
The Duke of Yorkis creancer whan Skelton was,
Now Henry the viij, Kyng of Englonde,
A tratyse he devysid and browght it to pas
, to bere in his honde,
Therin to rede, and to understande
All the demenour of princely astate.
To be our kyng, of God preordinate.
The treatise was originally dated ‘at Eltham, 28 August, in the year of Grace, 1501’; what survives is a later copy, made by Skelton for presentation to Henry when the little duke of York had become King of England.
* * *
Posterity has not shared Skelton’s own regard for the work: even its first modern editor dismisses it as a flimsy piece ‘whose composition … occupied probably not more than a day’.
Actually, like its author (and like, too, the boy to whom it was addressed), the treatise is the strangest mixture of commonplace leavened with originality and insight.
The beginning is lost; the surviving text plunges straight into the assertion that virtue is more important to a ruler than wealth or nobility. The assertion is supported by a variety of examples drawn from approved authorities. Therefore, ‘if you wish to excel the rest in majesty and are eager for glory’, Skelton tells his little prince, ‘you must exceed everybody in virtue and learning’. So far, so commonplace. The next step in the well-worn argument would have been to explain that the prince must choose similarly virtuous and learned councillors to help him in his task. But here Skelton breaks sharply with convention. For he has a low opinion of councillors. ‘You will have councillors: either learned or ignorant, the ones irresolute, the others weak’ – and all useless. Instead you must trust to yourself alone: you must be as firm as a rock, as solid as a stone. The lessons are driven home with a set of counter-examples of wicked rulers. There follows another sharp touch of reality, in which, as we have seen, Skelton warns Henry (after a perfunctory apology for his bluntness) that the greatness of his family will not protect him against the miserable fates suffered by his ancestors.
Skelton then summarizes his advice in a series of pithy maxims which were intended to be memorable and which
Henry probably had to memorize. ‘Above all, loathe gluttony,’ the litany begins. ‘Hear the other side.’ ‘Do not be mean.’ ‘Love poets: athletes are two a penny but patrons of the arts are rare.’ Finally, turn to books and the past for wisdom: ‘Peruse the chronicles; direct yourself to histories; commit them to memory.’