That Sir Thomas Smith was available just at the time that it was necessary to find a safe place for the Oxford heir must have seemed most fortunate to those concerned with the boy’s welfare. Smith’s teaching credentials from Cambridge and Eton, his mastery of Latin, of Protestant theology and Civil Law, and in fact, of most of the subjects deemed appropriate for a noble child to study, would have been on a par with his reputation for loyalty, sobriety, and “uprightness of dealing.” Equally important at the moment perhaps was the fact that his home was close to Windsor Castle, the most heavily fortified and so the safest of all the royal palaces. Of utmost importance was the fact that, unlike most other qualified Protestants, Smith was on the good side of the Marian regime.
While four-and-a-half might seem to us too young to be taken from home and family and placed with strangers, it would not have seemed at all unusual to de Vere’s contemporaries. That emotional “bonding” between parents and children or between siblings was a good or necessary thing would not be a factor in anyone’s thinking for many generations, in fact, the opposite was the case (Stone Family 106-12). More often than not throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, noble children were raised outside the home, whether by other family members, trusted retainers, patrons, or tutors. Most children weren’t sent out until seven or eight, but there is evidence that the children of peers were sometimes boarded out as young as three or even two (McFarlane 245).
The best clue to what Oxford learned during his eight years with Smith comes from Smith’s library list, which includes most of the works noted by T.W. Baldwin in his classic work on the Erasmus curriculum. As a renowned scholar of Greek and Civil Law, we can be certain that these were subjects that Smith, who had little else to do during the years that he was tutoring de Vere, was happy to pass on to his student, who, having no siblings or any children of Smith’s to play with, had little else to do but learn what his tutor had to teach.
As for method, Smith himself is the best resource, since he commented on teaching techniques in several places (Dewar 16, 188). Renowned for his teaching at Cambridge (13), his own method is perhaps best explained in the book that would have been his own guide in his early years as a teaching fellow at Cambridge, The Boke of the Gouvernor, by Thomas Elyot (1536), whom he may well have known personally, Elyot having lived a short distance from Cambridge during the years that Smith was at the university.
Unlike Ascham, whose book The Scholemaster seems aimed directly at the “little academy” Cecil organized when Oxford first arrived at Cecil House in the early 1560s, in which he spoke in more general terms, Elyot’s was focussed on teaching the nobility, it being a maxim of the early reformers that to change society it was going to be necessary to train these influential social leaders while they were young and pliable. This meant immersing them in the Greek and Latin classics, to which end Elyot urges an early beginning, as early as four years old, which is how old Oxford was when he came to Smith. It’s also the age when Smith himself, suffering from some kind of illness, had begun to focus on books and learning (Dewar 11).
The point made by both Elyot and Vives was that, unlike the Greeks and Romans, who learned their languages from the cradle, English students had to start early so that they would be sufficiently fluent by their teens that they could read the ancient philosophers and poets without having to take time to peruse a lexicon. They argued that it was more logical to begin with Greek, the foundation of Latin, which then made learning Latin easier, rather than beginning with Latin and working backwards to the more difficult Greek.
There were others in Smith’s time who were teaching Greek and Latin to youngsters as young as four, but not many. One would have been Anne Bacon, whose teaching had begun with tutoring the young King Edward VI in the 1540s. In any case, knowing this helps us to understand where Shakespeare got his style. Had he begun with Latin it might have taken a very different turn, as it did with Bacon. But Smith’s enthusiasm plus the soaring poetry of Pindar and the power of Homer (both in Smith’s library in Greek) entering his mind at such an absorbent age that it sent him in a unique direction, one that would dominate his thinking and his self-expression ever after.
Some of the most important clues to Oxford’s adult role as Shakespeare are to be found in the eight years he spent with Smith, in Smith’s interests, and in the nature of the times, perhaps the most intense period in the entire history of English education. When at age 12 he was sent to live with William Cecil in London, Oxford probably already had all the basics well in mind, so well in mind that he had little need in later years to do any research. It may be that Shakespeare is the the proof of the pudding that, over the eight years they were together, Smith created in de Vere, as he followed the recipe created by Erasmus, Elyot, and Vives.
- For more about Smith, read Eight years with Sir Thomas and “That noble Theseus of learning.”
- For other teachers and thinkers who may have influenced de Vere during his years with Smith, read Smith, Digges, and Dee.
- For Oxford’s studies with William Cecil, read Life at Cecil House.
- For Oxford and the universities, read Oxford’s College years.
- For connections between Shakespeare and Oxford’s education read Shakespeare’s learning.
One thought on “HIS EDUCATION”
On Dec 9, 2009, at 5:36 PM, Carl Caruso wrote:
Yes, the Author of the plays was very well-eduicated in the ancient classics, and so of course was Oxford. I don’t know how much documentation to this effect would convince the average reader, but it is an important pillar of my own conviction that Oxford is the man. His statement abour Truth not changing was apparently inspired by Seneca. The original quotation in Latin surfaced just last night on The Apostle of Common Sense, (ie. G. K. Chersterton) the weekly series on ewtn, probably into its fourth or fifth season.