Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Alfred Ainger
Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490–1546)
[Sir Thomas Elyot—born before 1490, died in 1546—son of Sir Richard Elyot, judge, by his first wife, Alice Fynderne. He had a home education, and was early instructed in Latin and Greek. There is no sufficient evidence that he was sent to either University. He read Medicine, but apparently only as an amateur, and never practised. On coming into possession of estates by the death of his father and of a relative of his mother’s, he settled at Combe, near Woodstock. In 1523 he was appointed by Wolsey to the post of Clerk of the Privy Council, which he held till 1530. In 1531 Elyot published his most important and best known work, The Boke called the Governor, dedicated to Henry VIII. The book was ostensibly a treatise on the proper training of statesmen, but it diverged widely into education generally and the ethical problems connected with it. It made Elyot’s reputation at Court, and led to his appointment as Ambassador at the Court of Charles V. He continued to be employed in diplomatic and other state negotiations at home and abroad for the remainder of his life. He was Member for Cambridge in 1542. He died 20th March 1546.  1
  A complete list of Sir Thomas Elyot’s works will be found in Mr. H. H. S. Croft’s exhaustive and valuable edition of the Governor (1883), and in the Dictionary of National Biography (Art. “Elyot,” vol. xvii). The Governor went through seven editions between 1531 and 1580. The Castel of Health (circa 1534), a list of remedies for various ailments, had also considerable vogue; and a Latin-English Dictionary (1538) remained the standard work of the kind, under the revision of succeeding scholars, for a century afterwards.]  2
SIR THOMAS ELYOT’S place in English prose seems to fall, in other respects than mere chronological order, between Sir Thomas More and Roger Ascham. In the English that he wrote, he is somewhat less archaic than the former, and less modern than the latter. If Elyot is less cumbrous than More, he never attains the vivacity of Ascham. Charm of style was hardly as yet a gift to which English prose had attained. Elyot has many virtues—clearness and precision among them—but if he seldom falls below a certain level, he as seldom rises above it. He is measured and monotonous, and the superabundance of quotation and allusion from Greek and Latin history and literature is not relieved by any versatility of manner. But his excellent good sense and sagacity make him very readable. His pedantry—the overweighting with ancient examples just referred to—is but the inevitable pedantry of the Renascence. And if he coins or imports many words of foreign origin that were not wanted and accordingly did not survive, this also was an epidemic of his day and is not to be charged to him personally. A complete list of such words is one of the many excellent features of Mr. Croft’s edition. But if Elyot is pedantic in matter, his style is free from the affectation which was so soon to possess English prose for a century to follow. The Euphuistic artificiality was not yet born, and Elyot is untouched by the spell of Guevara, the real founder of the Euphuistic manner, whose work, The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Lord Berners, appeared three years later than the Governor.  3
  In yet another sense Elyot proves a kind of connecting link between More and Ascham. The object with which he undertook the Governor—the only work it is necessary to consider here—bears a certain resemblance to the scheme of the Utopia. Both writers were bent on emphasising the conditions of a perfect commonwealth. More’s book was announced by his translator, Robynson, as setting forth the “best state of a public weale,” and Elyot in his dedication to Henry VIII., declares the same intention, namely, to describe in the vulgar tongue “the form of a just public weal.” It is true that Elyot finally concentrates his attention on a single aspect of national welfare—the fitting education of those who are to be its rulers,—but the aim of the two writers is one, and their noble effort to raise the standard of righteousness in public men and affairs was admirably seconded within a few years by Ascham and Lyly. Good sense and good morals applied to the earliest education of those destined to govern, was the starting point of Elyot’s work, but as he proceeded he evidently felt that the fit training for the statesman was also the best for any other christian gentleman, and the treatise resolves itself ultimately into one on the ethics of education generally. In his chapters on the school-room, Elyot covers much of the ground afterwards trodden by Ascham, and many of the more obvious blots or defects in the elementary teaching of their day are dealt with by the two writers. It is strange that Ascham nowhere refers to, or recognises the services of his predecessor. In the first of the three passages chosen for illustration (Book i. chap. x.), Elyot takes a line which has found ardent advocates with many educational reformers up to our own day—the advisability of allowing the young learner to acquire a general familiarity with the sense of an author before mastering the intricacies of grammatical analysis. It appears that already, so soon after the revival of learning, teachers were discovering the yet familiar truth that by the time the learner comes “to the most swete and pleasant redinge of olde authors, the sparkes of fervent desire of lernynge is extincte with the burden of grammar.” In the second extract given Elyot touches with agreeable sarcasm on another educational problem, still affording plentiful material for the satirist, the unwillingness of the parent to pay salaries to the tutor or the governess at all comparable to those he is content to afford for “groom or cook.”  4
  Our third extract reproduces what is, in substance, the most memorable episode in Elyot’s work, his account of the alleged fracas between Henry V., when Prince of Wales, and the Chief Justice, ending in the committal of the former to prison. The present is the earliest known version of the story. It was adopted by Hall and Holinshed for their Chronicles, and from the former of these borrowed by Shakespeare, who has made the incident universally famous. The source of Elyot’s information on the subject is absolutely unknown. Mr. Croft, who has examined the evidence with exhaustive diligence, comes to the conclusion that the story “must at length be deposed from its pedestal as the monument of a strictly historical fact, and be henceforth regarded only as a peculiarly interesting specimen of monastic legend.” (Croft’s Edition, ii. 71.)  5
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