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Portrait of Sir John Cheke

Sir John Cheke (1514-1557)

SIR JOHN CHEKE, tutor to Edward VI, secretary of state, and one of the principal restorers of Greek learning in England, was born in the parish of St. Mary the Great, Cambridge, 'over against the Market cross,' on 16 June 1514. The house in which he was born is supposed to have been that which stands at the corner of the Market hill and Petty Cury. His father, Peter Cheke, one of the esquire-bedels1 of the university, was descended from the ancient family of the Chekes of Motston in the Isle of Wight and settled at Cambridge on marrying Agnes Dufford of the county of Cambridge, who is styled by Roger Ascham, in one of his epistles, a 'venerable woman,' and who sold wine in St. Mary's parish.2

After receiving a grammatical education under John Morgan, M.A., who afterwards removed to Bradfield, Essex, he was admitted of St. John's College, Cambridge, where he obtained an extraordinary reputation for his knowledge of the learned languages, especially Greek. His tutor and principal 'bringerup,' from whom, as he himself acknowledges, he 'gate an entrie to some skill in learning,' was George Day, fellow, afterwards master of St. John's, and ultimately bishop of Chichester. He was admitted a fellow of his college on 26 March 1529, proceeded B.A. in 1529-30, and commenced M.A. in 1533. He adopted the doctrines of the Reformation while at St. John's, where many of the fellows in Cardinal Wolsey's time privately studied the scriptures and the works of Luther. On one occasion, when he was on a visit to the court, his friend and patron Sir William Butts, one of the royal physicians, spoke so highly to Henry VIII of his proficiency in the Greek tongue that the king granted him an exhibition3 for encouragement in his studies, and the payment of the expenses of his travels abroad.

He introduced an improved method of study at St. John's, and is said 'to have laid the very foundations of learning in that college.4 He zealously promoted protestantism as well as learning, advising scholars to decide all questions by an appeal to the scriptures alone. In 1536 Nicholas Metcalfe, master of St. John's, George Day, and Cheke were appointed the college proxies to appear before the king's commissioners in the matter of the oaths of the succession and supremacy. Baker charges Day and Cheke with ingratitude towards Metcalfe, 'to whom they owed their rise and beginning,' and who was worried into abdicating the government of the college in 1537.5

Cheke appears to have been the last 'master of the glomery' in the university (1539-40), the precise duties of which office antiquaries have been unable to ascertain.6 Among Cheke's pupils at St. John's were William Cecil, afterwards Lord Burghley (who in 1541 married Cheke's sister Mary), Roger Ascham, and William Bill. He became Greek lecturer of the university and discharged the duties of that office without salary, but on the foundation of the regius professorships in 1540 he was nominated to the Greek chair, with an annual stipend of £40,7 and he continued to occupy it till October 1551.

In his lectures he went over Sophocles twice, all Homer, all Euripides, and part of Herodotus.8 At this period Greek was little known in England, and the few scholars who had acquired a knowledge of the language pronounced it in a manner resembling that in vogue nowadays in the continental universities, which Cheke believed to be corrupt. Accordingly he and Thomas (afterwards Sir Thomas) Smith endeavoured to find out the true pronunciation; 'which at length they did, partly by considering the power of the letters themselves, and partly by consulting with Greek authors, Aristophanes and others; in some whereof they found footsteps to direct them how the ancient Greeks pronounced.'9 Cheke publicly taught the new mode of pronunciation, which was not unlike that now adopted in England, and this mode was vehemently opposed by a strong party in the university, who sent a complaint to Gardiner, bishop of Winchester and chancellor of the university. Gardiner on 1 June 1542 issued a solemn decree confirming the old pronunciation. Those who did not obey this decree were, if regents, to be expelled from the senate; if scholars, to lose their scholarships; and the younger sort were to be chastised.10 Seven letters which passed between Gardiner and Cheke on the subject were given by Cheke to Coelius Secundus Curio, of Basle, who printed them in 1555. Cheke reluctantly submitted to the chancellor's decree, but the new pronunciation of Greek ultimately prevailed in this country.11

In or about 1544 Cheke was elected public orator of the university. On 10 July in that year Henry VIII summoned him to court and appointed him to succeed Richard Cox, afterwards bishop of Ely, as tutor to Prince Edward. He accordingly left the university and gave up the office of public orator, in which he was succeeded by Ascham, who in his 'Toxophilus' laments the great loss suffered by the university by his friend's withdrawal from it. Sir Anthony Cooke was associated with Cheke in the education of the young prince, who lived chiefly at Hertford. Cheke continued his course of instruction after his pupil's accession to the throne, being 'always at his elbow, both in his closet and in his chapel, and wherever else he went, to inform and teach him.'12 He read to the king Cicero's philosophical works and Aristotle's ethics, and also instructed him in the history, laws, and constitution of England. At his suggestion Edward wrote the journal of public events preserved in the Cottonian Library and printed by Burnet and by Nichols. Occasionally Cheke acted as tutor to the king's sister, Princess Elizabeth.

About the time of his appointment as tutor to the Prince he was made a canon of King's College (now Christ Church), Oxford, and was incorporated M.A. in that university. From his preferment to a canonry Strype infers that he had been admitted to holy orders, but this is extremely doubtful. When, in 1545, Henry VIII dissolved the new college and converted it into a cathedral, Cheke obtained, as a compensation for the loss of his canonry, an annual pension of £26 13s. 4d.13 In or about 1547 he married Mary, daughter and heiress of Richard Hill, who had been serjeant of the wine-cellar to Henry VIII.14 Shortly after the accession of Edward VI, he received considerable grants of lands and lordships which had become vested in the crown by the dissolution of religious houses, colleges, and chantries [see Dissolution of the Monasteries. Thus he became owner of the house and site of the priory of Spalding, Lincolnshire; and he acquired by purchase from the king the college of St. John Baptist de Stoke juxta Clare, Suffolk. This latter bargain Strype thinks was 'no question a good pennyworth.' Cheke was returned as member for Bletchingley to the parliament which assembled on 8 Nov. 1547, and he represented the same constituency in the parliament of 1 March 1552-3.15

He was elected provost of King's College, Cambridge, on 1 April 1548, after the resignation of George Day, bishop of Chichester, who held the provostship in commendam, and Cheke was elected by virtue of a mandamus from the crown, dispensing with three qualifications required in a head of that college, that he should be a doctor, a priest, and on the foundation. It may fairly be concluded from the terms of this document that Cheke was not in holy orders. The viceprovost and fellows were reluctant to comply with the mandamus, but eventually yielded to the royal command. Cheke did not return to Cambridge till May 1549, when he was in temporary disgrace at court; for in a letter addressed from King's College to his friend, Peter Osborne, he speaks of enjoying the calm of quietness after having been tossed with storms, and having felt 'ambition's bitter gall.'16 He continued to hold the provostship of King's College till the beginning of Queen Mary's reign, when he resigned it.

In the summer of 1549 he acted as one of the visitors for the reformation of the university.17 He also at this period composed an expostulation addressed to the rebels who had taken up arms in most of the counties in England. In October 1549 he was one of the thirty-two commissioners appointed to examine the old ecclesiastical lawbooks, and was with seven divines selected to draw thence a body of laws for the government of the church. His name again occurs among the divines in a new commission for the same purpose, issued on 10 Feb. 1551-2, so that there can be little doubt that prior to the date of the first commission he had taken orders.18 The new ecclesiastical laws drawn up by the commissioners were translated into elegant Latin by Cheke and Dr. Walter Haddon.

Cheke returned to court in the winter of 1549, and met there with great uneasiness on account of some offence given by his wife to Anne, duchess of Somerset, whose dependent she was. He himself was with others charged with having suggested bad counsels to the Duke of Somerset, and with having afterwards betrayed him. But he continued to enjoy the royal favour, and became the great patron of religious and learned men, both English and foreign. Ridley, bishop of London, knowing Cheke's zeal for the reformation, styled him 'one of Christ's special advocates, and one of his principal proctors.' He was examined as a witness against Bishop Bonner in 1549, and against Bishop Gardiner in 1550. In or before the latter year he was constituted one of the gentlemen of the privy chamber, and he continued to act as tutor to the king, over whom he exercised great influence. His favour and patronage were eagerly sought by the courtiers, and the king's ambassador in Germany used to write to him privately every week, as well as to the privy council. In 1551 he gave great offence to his former admirer, Ridley, because he failed to procure for that prelate the disposal of the prebend of Cantrells, which had been appropriated by the king towards the maintenance of the royal stables.19

On 11 Oct. 1552 Cheke received the honour of knighthood.20 To enable him to support his rank, the king made him a grant of the manor of Stoke, near Clare, Suffolk, and other property at Spalding and Sandon. Soon afterwards he took a leading part in two disputations respecting the sacrament of the altar, with Feckenham, Young, and Watson. The first of these was held at the house of Secretary Cecil on 25 Nov., and the second at the house of Sir Richard Morysin on 3 Dec.

In May 1552 he had an alarming attack of illness. In a valedictory letter to Edward VI, written from what he believed to be his deathbed, he exhorted the king to listen to faithful advisers, and, after thanking him for various favours, concluded with a supplication on behalf of the late provost of King's College, Dr. George Day, bishop of Chichester, who was then in the custody of Bishop Goodrich and for whose services as his tutor Cheke had never been able to show his gratitude. When the physicians despaired of his recovery, the king said to them, 'No, he will not die at this time, for this morning I begged his life from God in my prayers, and obtained it.' Contrary to all expectation, Cheke recovered before long, and was quite well again in August. At the commencement at Cambridge this year he held a public disputation with Christopher Carlile on the subject of Christ's descent into hell. He was on 25 Aug. appointed for life one of the chamberlains of the exchequer.21 He was also clerk of the council, and on 2 June, 1553 was appointed one of the secretaries of state, and sworn of the privy council.

His zeal for the protestant religion induced him to concur, on the death of Edward VI, in the settlement of the crown on the Lady Jane Grey, and he acted as secretary of state during her brief reign. Immediately after Queen Mary's accession he was committed to the Tower on an accusation of treason, 27 July 1553. He was discharged from custody on 13 Sept. 1554, and about the same time obtained a pardon and the royal license to travel abroad. After residing for some time at Basle he went to Italy, and at Padua he met some of his countrymen, to whom he read and interpreted some of the orations of Demosthenes. Subsequently he settled at Strasburg, where he read a Greek lecture for his subsistence.

At the beginning of 1556 he resolved to go to Brussels, where his wife was, chiefly in consequence of a treacherous invitation from Lord Paget and Sir John Mason. As, however, he was a firm believer in astrology, he first consulted the stars to ascertain whether he might safely undertake the journey, and fell into a fatal snare on his return between Brussels and Antwerp, for, by order of Philip II, he and Sir Peter Carew, with whom he was travelling, were suddenly seized by the provost-marshal on 15 May, unhorsed, blindfolded, bound, thrown into a wagon, conveyed to the nearest harbour, put on board a ship, under hatches, and brought to the Tower of London, where they were placed in close confinement. The alleged ground of his committal was, that having obtained license to travel, he had not returned to England by the time specified in his license.

In the Tower he was visited by two of the queen's chaplains, who tried in vain to induce him to alter his religious opinions. The desire of gaining over so eminent a man caused the queen to send to him Dr. Feckenham, dean of St. Paul's, a divine of moderate and obliging temper. Cheke had been acquainted with him in the late king's reign, and had tried to convert him to protestantism when he was a prisoner in the Tower. Cheke's courage began to fail at the prospect of the stake, and he was at his own request carried before Cardinal Pole, who gravely advised him to return to the unity of the church. Cheke dared hold out no longer, and Feckenham had the credit of effecting his conversion. He made in writing a profession of his belief in the real presence, and sent the paper by the dean of St. Paul's to the cardinal, with a letter dated from the Tower on 15 July, praying that he might be spared the shame of making an open recantation.

This request being refused, he addressed to the queen on the same day a letter in which he declared his readiness to obey all laws and orders concerning religion.22 After this, in order to declare his repentance for his rejection of the pope, he made a formal submission before the cardinal, as the pope's legate, and after being absolved he was received back into the Roman church. He was kept in prison for upwards of two months before he was allowed to make his public recantation. This was done on 4 Oct. in the most public manner before the queen, and for the sake of greater formality the reading of the palinode was preceded by an oration addressed to her majesty by Feckenham. Cheke was also obliged to read a longer form of recantation in presence of the whole court, and to promise to perform whatever penances might be enjoined upon him by the legate.23 After having submitted to all these humiliations he was released from the Tower, and regained his lands, which, however, he was forced to exchange with the queen for others.

Pining away with shame and regret for his abjuration of protestantism, he died on 13 Sept. 1557 in Wood Street, London, in the house of his friend Peter Osborne, remembrancer of the exchequer.24 He was buried on the 16th in the north chapel of the chancel of St. Alban's, Wood Street, where a monument was erected to his memory with a Latin inscription composed by Dr. Walter Haddon.

He left three sons. John and Edward, the two youngest, died without issue; Henry, the eldest, is noticed in a separate article. Cheke's widow married Henry McWilliams, esq., whom she survived many years, not dying till 30 Nov. 1616.

Cheke was unquestionably one of the most learned men of his age. He was a felicitous translator and a judicious imitator of the ancient classical authors. The success of his reform of the pronunciation of the Greek language has been already noticed, but he failed in his attempt to introduce a phonetic method of spelling English. He is described as beneficent, charitable, and communicative. It has been said that he was a libertine, but there seems to be no ground for the imputation.

1. Beadels, or Bedels. There are two bedels, called esquire bedels, at Cambridge University. They bear the maces before the vice-chancellor at formal occasions.
2. Baker, History of the College of St. John the Evangelist, ed. Mayor, p. 105. [link]
3. An educational grant.
4. Aschami, Epistolae, ii. 45.
5. History of St. John's, pp. 104, 105; Ascham, Scholemaster, ed. Mayor, 1863, p. 161. [link]
6. Cole, Manuscripts, xlix. 26.
7. £40 in 1540 was roughly equivalent to £17,000 in 2008. Source: Measuring Worth.
8. Langbaine, Life of Cheke.
9. Strype, The Life of the Learned John Cheke, ed. 1821, p. 14. [link]
10. Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials, vol. i. chap. i. Append. No. cxvi.; Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, i. 401-3. [link]
11. Leigh, Treatise of Religion and Learning, p. 92; Ellis, The English, Dionysian, and Hellenic Pronunciations of Greek, p. 5. [link]
12. Strype, Life of Cheke, p. 22. [link]
13. £26 13s 4d in 1545 was roughly equivalent to £8,000 in 2008. Source: Measuring Worth.
14. Stowe, A Survey of London, ed. Strype, vol. ii. Append, p. 70.
15. Willis, Notitia Parliamentaria, vol. iii. pt. i. pp. 14, 21.
16. Nichols, Memoir of Edward VI, p. 50. [link]
17. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, ii. 23-5, 27, 32; Domestic State Papers, Edward VI, vol. v. art. 13.
18. Strype, Life of Cheke, pp. 43, 44; Literary Remains of Edward VI, ed. Nichols, ii. 398.
19. Coverdale, Godly Letters of Saintes and Martyrs, p. 683. [link]
20. Holland, Herowlogia Anglica, p. 53; Literary Remains of Edward VI, ii. 352.
21. Domestic State Papers, Edward VI, vol. xiv. art. 67.
22. Lansdowne MS. 3, art. 54; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. 239 bis, v. 309.
23. Petyt MS. xlvii. 390, 391.
24. Cooper, Athenae Cantabrigienses, ii. 125. [link]

      Excerpted from:

      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. X. Leslie Stephen, ed.
      London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1887. 178-183.

Sir John Cheke on the Web:

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Philip Henslowe
Edward Alleyn
The Blackfriars Theatre
The Fortune Theatre
The Rose Theatre
The Swan Theatre
Children's Companies
The Admiral's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Citizen Comedy
The Isle of Dogs, 1597

Common Law
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Fleet Prison
First Fruits & Tenths
Livery and Maintenance
Oyer and terminer

The Stuarts

King James I of England
Anne of Denmark
Henry, Prince of Wales
The Gunpowder Plot, 1605
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Arabella Stuart, Lady Lennox

William Alabaster
Bishop Hall
Bishop Thomas Morton
Archbishop William Laud
John Selden
Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford
Henry Lawes

King Charles I
Queen Henrietta Maria

Long Parliament
Rump Parliament
Kentish Petition, 1642

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
John Digby, Earl of Bristol
George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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