Melita Thomas Talks To Bookbag About The King's Pearl: Henry VIII and his Daughter Mary

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Melita Thomas Talks To Bookbag About The King's Pearl: Henry VIII and his Daughter Mary

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Summary: A Renaissance Princess by Melita Thomas
Date: 25 October 2017

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External links: Author's website



Mary Tudor, the first queen-regnant of England, was, like all of us, a product of her education - and that education was exceptional. She was the first English princess to be taught in accordance with the humanist ideas about female education that were circulating in the decade she was born. Contrary to prevalent notions about female intellectual inferiority, the humanist scholars were advocating that women were capable of the same level of learning as men. But before we rejoice in this proto-feminism, there is a caveat; the purpose of a woman's learning was to make her a better wife and mother, and to protect her from the worst sin of all – lack of chastity. If a woman were learned, the theory was, she would be far less likely to succumb to feminine weaknesses of idleness, gossiping, gadding about the streets, taking lovers and neglecting her duty to her husband.

Since Mary, as a princess, was unlikely to be roaming the streets, and slandering her neighbours, and would have had few opportunities to be unchaste, we can think about the more positive aspects of her education. Both her parents, Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon were exceptionally well-educated, and surrounded as they were by the leading English and continental humanists, Sir Thomas More, Dr Thomas Linacre, John Colet, Erasmus, and others, it is not surprising that this is the circle they turned to for advice and practical delivery.

Sixty years later, Mary's relative, James VI of Scotland, was to say that he had been taught to speak Latin before he had learnt Scots, and Mary may have had a similar early immersion in both Latin and French. Her first Latin teacher was probably Katharine herself. Mary's tutor for French was Giles Duwes, the Royal Librarian. His book An Introductorie for to learne to rede, to pronounce, and to speake Frenche trewly was published in 1533, according to Duwes, because Mary had 'commanded' him to record how he had taught her and it opens with a dedication to her. The book is in two parts – the first covers grammar and the second concentrates on the repetition of question and answer still used in language teaching, with French text and English translation, using Mary herself as an example. The subjects range from thank you letters (no doubt Tudor parents had the same difficulties persuading their reluctant offspring to write thank you letters as modern ones do), to conversations about the perpetual peace between England and France and even controversial subjects such as the Mass.

Another scholar involved in Mary's education was Dr Thomas Linacre. One of the first Western scholars to learn Ancient Greek, he studied under the humanist Poliziano in Florence, possibly alongside Lorenzo the Magnificent, and read for his degree in medicine at Padua. On returning to England, he became tutor to Arthur, Prince of Wales. He published Rudimenta Grammatices, which was based on Latin lessons he designed for Mary and dedicated to her in a full page Latin inscription. In the preface, he wrote that he had been employed by Mary's 'illustrious' father to look after both her physical health and her learning, but that as bodily weakness inhibited him fulfilling all his duties he hoped to be of service to her 'noble and instinctive' genius for learning by producing the instruction manual.

The second great humanist of international renown co-opted to ensure that Mary had access to every scholastic opportunity, was Juan Luis Vives. After Vives had been hounded out of his native Valencia, when members of his family were executed as 'secret Jews', he studied at the University of Paris and then took a post at the University of Leuven. While in Brussels, Vives worked with Erasmus on a commentary on St Augustine's hugely influential The City of God, which Erasmus encouraged him to dedicate to Henry VIII. Shortly after, Vives was invited to England, where he secured a post as Reader in Greek, Latin and Rhetoric at Wolsey's new Cardinal College, Oxford. With these scholastic credentials, it is not surprising that Katharine considered Vives the right man to advise on Mary's education. Whether Vives taught Mary himself has been debated, but his recent biographer, Enrique Garcia Hernàn, has shown that he wrote in a 1528 letter to Wolsey that he had taught the princess Latin, and been her 'instructor in wisdom'.

Vives wrote three books that influenced Mary's education. The first, commissioned by Katharine, was a general treatise on the role of women and how they should be educated, with a prefatory letter to the queen, and a dedication to Mary herself. De Institutione Feminae Christiane (The Instruction of a Christian Woman) was a work in three parts, dealing with young, unmarried women, then wives, then widows – concentrating, of course, on the importance of chastity, but also advocating the study of Greek and Latin. Unlike most scholars, Vives encouraged the study of the vernacular, as well as the classical languages and Mary understood both Italian and Spanish, as well as being fluent in French. There was also a good deal of Bible study and Mary read from both the Old and New Testaments every day. Amid this heavy academic course, there was little room for entertainment; dolls and romantic stories were rejected, and the pleasures of dancing frowned upon. We can safely assume this latter injunction was ignored; there are numerous records of Mary dancing, all of which praise her considerable skill in the art, and since Katharine is known to have had dolls in her childhood, perhaps she countenanced them for her daughter. Whilst the curriculum was strong on classical philosophy, occasional improving tales were permitted – a prime example being the Tale of Patient Griselda, a story that later came to be closely associated with Katharine, lauding as it does the patience of a wife humiliated by her husband. Vives' book became enormously popular, and Katharine funded an English translation The Education of Christian Woman by Richard Hyrde. This version advocated a broader range of authors for women to read for pleasure, including mediaeval romances. The translation was not printed until 1540, but it is probable Katharine saw the manuscript version – hopefully she added the lighter reading to Mary's curriculum.

Katharine commissioned a second work from Vives: De Rationi Studiis Puerilis (On a Plan of Study for Children). Published in 1524, it consisted of two letters, the first prepared for Mary, and the second being for Charles Blount. In this briefer work, Vives listed additional reading, perhaps to fit Mary for the role of queen-regnant, which eventuality was becoming more likely as time passed. Recommended works included Plato's Dialogues, Cato's Distichs, Horace, Seneca and Lucca and more modern fare of an improving nature – More's Utopia and Erasmus' Education of Christian Princes. Study was through the method of translation from Latin into English and memorisation of vast quantities of text – a technique still practised well into the twentieth century. Vives wrote a third work, also dedicated to Mary. This was a collection of 213 mottoes and sayings – Satellitum Sive Symbola. We can be sure Mary read this with some pleasure as she selected one of the mottoes - Veritas temporis filia (truth, the daughter of time) - as her own.

Although there is no record of it, Mary may have been taught from Bishop Tunstall's mathematical work, De arte supputandi libri quattuor, published in 1522, and dedicated to Sir Thomas More - she was certainly proficient enough in arithmetic to check and correct her household accounts.

Music was a primary component of Mary's education. Henry was an extremely accomplished performer on a variety of instruments, a composer of some talent, and he employed numerous musicians. Mary shared this interest from an early age, learning to play the lute, the rebec and several variants within the harpsichord family. She was considered very talented at both virginals and lute and later descriptions of her emphasise these musical skills as well as her dancing. Even after she was grown up, Mary continued to have monthly lessons on both keyboards and lute.

All this study paid off well. Mary became a very accomplished Latinist. The earliest record of her prowess dates from when she was eleven – a translation of a prayer of St Thomas Aquinas from Latin into English. In the 1540s she translated most of Erasmus' Paraphrase on the Gospel of St John for the publication sponsored by Queen Katherine Parr.

Fluent in languages, accomplished in music and well-read in the classical authors, Mary was a true daughter of the Renaissance.