Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Sir John Cheke (15141557)
[Cheke was born at Cambridge in 1514, and, after passing through the Grammar School there, entered St. Johns College, of which he became Fellow in 1539. His influence was soon strongly felt in stimulating the intellectual activity of the college, already great, and in giving to its younger members a very decided bent towards new lines of study, and new doctrines in religion. In 1540, he became Regius Professor of Greek; but in 1544 he left the University to become tutor to Prince Edward. That position he retained after the young prince came to the throne; and it secured for him not only abundant grants from the lands which had belonged to the dissolved religious houses, but also further preferment at Cambridge (where he became Provost of Kings) and, ultimately, the honour of knighthood, and the position of Privy Councillor and Secretary of State. With less caution than his colleague Cecil, he allowed himself to be deeply involved in the scheme of Northumberland for the accession of Lady Jane Grey. For his share in these designs he was imprisoned: and although for a time he was set at liberty, and allowed to travel on the Continent, he was afterwards induced to put himself within the power of the advisers of Queen Mary, and was forced to make a humiliating recantation of his Protestant views, as the price of obtaining his freedom, and a regrant of some of the lands conferred on him by Edward. He survived the humiliation for a year only, and died in 1557.]
THE NAME of Sir John Cheke calls for mention in the history of English prose literature, not from the importance of such of his own prose as remains, but from the consistent testimony which his contemporaries bear to his wide and powerful personal influence, and to the impression made by his special theories, both as to literary form and matter, on those whose literary work was greater than his own. When we examine the record of his life and achievements, we cannot but feel somewhat sceptical as to the grounds for the very extravagant eulogies of which he is the subject, and are fain to take on trust the verdict of Holinshed, that he was a gentleman every way, in complete sort satisfying the report blazed abroad of him. Surely it appeareth, adds Holinshed, that as in this gentleman there was an extraordinary heap of laudable gifts, so there was also in him the right use of them all. But without accepting fully praises so lavish, it is possible for us to trace pretty clearly the nature of his influence. His chief work at St. Johns College was the promotion of the study of Greek; but this was to him only a means to a very definite end. His desire was to make his college a centre of all intellectual activities, so that it should represent, as Ascham tells us in describing Chekes aim, the universa literarum societas. But Cheke did not intend that St. Johns should be a mere home for students; its chief work was to be the training of men for the service of the State. By the bounty of Henry VIII. Cheke himself was able to travel in his early manhood, and thus acquire the knowledge of men which he desired to add to the knowledge to be derived from books; and under his guidance St. Johns became a nursery of men destined to take a high place in the active political life of the day. His conception of Greek scholarship was above all things practical; he directed the reading of his students to those books of which the subjects would best fit them for the duties of life; he discarded the disquisitions of the schoolmen and the niceties of the grammarian; and he seems to have impressed his auditors chiefly by his power of conveying in terse and forcible English the general sense of a Greek author. To draw from an author the practical teaching he had to give; to use him as a guide for the judgment; to select for the imitation of his scholars the style which was most natural and most expressive, this was Chekes aim in teaching Greek. Judged by its results, in the training of a whole troop of able men, who vied with each other in venerating their teacher, and who made St. Johns College illustrious, Chekes work was successful. It is difficult to avoid the impression that his attention to aspects of life, very different from that of the student, however clear-sighted and practical, was not always without a baser ingredient. He certainly made full and constant use of his opportunities for obtaining grants from the natural generosity of his royal pupil, and he procured a mandamus for his own election as Provost of Kings, against the most distinct provisions of the College statutes. He was not backward in devising those flattering accounts of his intellectual eminence by which Edward was taught to believe himself a miracle of learning and genius; but when we are told that Cheke selected the Ethics of Aristotle as a proper text-book for a boy of thirteen, we are tempted to think that the instruction was more specious than real, and that he allowed his veneration for royalty to get the better of his common sense. When occasionally compelled, by storms at Court, to retire for a time to the University, he was not superior to the usual insincere commonplaces upon the pleasure of abandoning aims of ambition for a restful obscurity, which he quitted upon the first opportunity. The course of his political career tempts us to judge that it was guided mainly by self-interest, and that his attachment to the Reformed Doctrine, which he recanted with every circumstance of humiliation, not only under the fear of persecution, but also with the prospect of restored wealth, was rather the natural accompaniment of his earlier political circumstances, than the result of independent or very sincere conviction.
Chekes works were chiefly in Latin, and are not in themselves of much importance. The style of his Latin verses does not indicate that he gave much attention to the niceties of composition, but we are told that he had the power of imparting to his pupils a good conception of the subtleties of style. His remarks on the style of Sallust, reported by Ascham, show an acute critic. Sallusts writing, he said, was more art than nature, and more labour than art. And in his labour also too much toil, as it were with an uncontented care to write better than he could; a fault common to very many men. To the limits and rules of imitation in literary form he gave special care; and Aschams maxims are reproduced from the teaching of Cheke. His innovation in the pronunciation of Greek, which he maintained against the rigid conservatism of the Bishop of Winchester, does not belong to that aspect of his work which concerns us here. But the spirit that prompted it moved him to attempt the hopeless task of reforming English spelling, and to the further attempt to introduce an affected purism, which would reject all words of other than Saxon origin. He left an incomplete and very unsuccessful translation of the Gospels, which is marred by both these pedantic eccentricities, and which he vainly hoped would supersede the earlier translation. The most considerable English work which he has left is a tract on the Hurt of Sedition (from which the following extracts are taken), written in 1549, against the insurrection then raised by Ket the Tanner, which was directed partly against the enclosures, and partly against the innovations in religion. It is written in terse, homely, and forcible prose; but although it shows the desire to avoid undue formality of style, which was characteristic of Cheke and of his pupils, it does not carry this homeliness to the length of an affected and pedantic purism. The construction is often very irregular, but there is a considerable straining after that balance of one clause with another by similarity of endings, which becomes more marked in Ascham.
In education and training, in the part he took first in the University and then in the political world, in his knowledge of the great European movements of the time, gained by experience abroad, Cheke was typical of his day, and his life might be paralleled by that of more than one of his contemporaries. In particular, Sir Thomas Smith was born in the same year; spent his earlier years in the University of Cambridge with Cheke; like him became a lecturer, and was strongly interested in the new studies; was summoned, as Cheke was, to the Court, as the adherent of the Protector; became an equally strong supporter of the Reformed Doctrine; served on embassies, as Cheke did. He managed to steer a safer course in the world of politics than did Cheke, and lived to become a statesman of importance under Elizabeth. His chief contribution to English prose was an account of the English Commonwealth, written also in French for the use of Prince Condé. The book shows no characteristic feature of style; but the juxtaposition of two men like Cheke and Smith is interesting, as showing the increasing influence of the Universities at once in literature and in public life.