Monday, June 16, 2014

And so made significant

Sir John Cheke, an English classical scholar and statesman, was born exactly 500 years ago today. He left behind no diaries, but he is credited with influencing Edward VI - the Boy King who died aged only 15 - to keep a diary. King Edward’s diary is one of earliest surviving English diaries, and is all the more remarkable for having been written by a teenager who was also a reigning monarch. Remarkable, too, is the fact that we have some idea of why Cheke advised the young man to keep a diary. 

John Cheke was born on 16 June 1514 in Cambridge, the son of Peter Cheke an administrator at the university. He was educated at St John’s College, where he excelled at Latin and Greek, became a fellow, and became a protestant. Dr William Butts, a friend of his father, was also a great friend and counsellor to John. He spoke highly of the young man to King Henry VIII, who gave him an exhibition [grant] in 1538 to aid his studies. Two years later, on Henry VIII’s foundation of the regius professorships, Cheke was elected to the chair of Greek.

In 1544, Cheke was confirmed as tutor to the young Prince Edward to teach him, according to documents in the famous Cotton Library (part of the British Library), ‘of toungues, of the scripture, of philosophie and all liberal sciences’. He left Cambridge to live in the prince’s household, and continued as Edward’s tutor after he became king in 1547, until 1549. Also, in 1547, Cheke married Mary Hill, and they would have three sons.

Cheke increasingly became more active in public life: he sat as member for Bletchingley for two short parliaments; he was made provost of King’s College, Cambridge; he was one of the commissioners for visiting Cambridge and Oxford universities and Eton College; and he was appointed to help with draw up a body of laws for the governance of the church. He was knighted in 1551, and in 1553 the new and protestant queen, Lady Jane Grey, made him one of her secretaries of state, and he joined the privy council.

On the accession of Mary, a Catholic, however, just days later, Cheke lost his positions and was, briefly, imprisoned in the Tower of London. On his release, he fled abroad, living mostly in Strasbourg. He published further papers on Greek pronunciation, but was beset with debts and concerns over the lack of provision for his family. He continued, however, to oppose Mary’s Catholic regime, and was arrested again, in Belgium, and imprisoned in the Tower. There, faced with the prospect of death by burning, he publicly and humiliatingly recanted his Protestant faith - providing Mary with a propaganda coup. He died of shame - or so it is said - soon after, in 1557. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), or from John Strype’s 1821 biography, The Life of the Learned Sir John Cheke, freely available at Internet Archive.

More about Edward VI’s historically valuable diary - some extracts and links to online texts - can be found in another Diary Review article. Here, though, is a passage from Strype’s biography explaining Cheke’s advice to the young King Edward VI to keep a diary:

‘And that all King Edward’s transactions, and the emergencies of his kingdom, whether public or private, might be the better remembered by him, (whereby his experience might be the greater,) Cheke directed him to keep a diary of all occurrences of weight; and to write down briefly, under each day of every month, debates in Council, despatch of Ambassadors, honours conferred, and other remarks, as he thought good: and this, we may conclude, produced that excellent Journal of this King preserved in the Cotton library, and printed thence by Bishop Burnet. And, to set forth the benefit of keeping of such a day’s book, Cheke is said to use this aphorism, “That a dark and imperfect reflection upon affairs floating in the memory, was like words dispersed and insignificant; whereas a view of them in a book, was like the same words digested and disposed in good order, and so made significant.” ’

The Diary Junction

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