Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Question from Joseph - Literacy at Henry's court

What percentage of Henry VIII's courtiers were illiterate/semi-literate? Was it different for men and women?

1 comment:

Foose said...

The question of how widespread literacy was among Tudor people is currently being studied by a number of historians. It’s very difficult to estimate at this distance, but they tend to agree that the introduction of Protestantism, with its emphasis on reading scripture in the vernacular, did a lot of encourage and facilitate the ability to read.

Regarding writing, it’s a little more murky. Barbara J. Harris points out in her English Aristocratic Women that reading and writing were taught separately and sequentially and not considered interlinked; reading was much easier, whereas writing required tools and extensive practice in a society where orthography was not firmly established, with very mixed results – you can see it in the original, difficult-to-decipher letters of William Kingston (the Keeper of the Tower who oversaw Anne Boleyn’s imprisonment; he describes her as anticipating being sent to “anonre,” which was interpreted by some historians as “Anvers,” or Antwerp, and by others as “a nunnery”) and of Charles Brandon – the king’s best friend. Moreover, the written evidence is complicated by the fact that most courtiers of any importance would have had a secretary do their writing for them.

One book I can suggest for a start is Literacy and the Social Order by David Cressy, a reputable historian of the quotidian in Tudor lives – his Birth, Marriage and Death has been highly recommended on this blog and elsewhere.

William Herbert, brother-in-law of Catherine Parr and briefly father-in-law of Katherine Grey, was long believed to be “the last illiterate courtier in English history” (Cressy), thanks to the 17th-century author John Aubrey’s Brief Lives: “[Herbert] could neither write nor read: but had a stamp for his name,” Aubrey attributes his illiteracy to his youth as a soldier. Cressy observes:

“It is almost inconceivable that an executor of Henry VIII’s will, a Privy Councillor under Edward and an officer under Mary and Elizabeth, should not have known how to write his name … However, the record shows that Aubrey was wrong. Several of Herbert’s autograph signatures survive.” He goes on to note that “like most people who signed, [Herbert] was able to read and write.” [emphasis mine]

Moreover, the modern assumption that using a mark, or stamp, instead of a signature is a sign of illiteracy may be erroneous, according to Cressy: “… a mark does not really indicate an inability to write, and that people like John Shakespeare [William Shakespeare’s father] chose to employ marks instead of signatures for mysterious reasons of their own.”

On this blog, about two years ago, someone asked a question about Jane Seymour being illiterate. This was the first I heard of it, but she is described in two books of Alison Weir’s as being able to only “read and sign her name.” No source is cited and I cannot find any original source referencing Jane’s alleged deficiency. She was also described this way on the Website for Starkey’s TV series on Henry’s wives, although his book does not state this. Antonia Fraser, in her Six Wives of Henry VIII, says she was better educated than usually thought. Cressy does note that women were more likely to be illiterate than men, even wives of gentlemen and magnates, but Barbara Harris indicates that maids of honor were expected to reflect a high standard of beauty and culture. So while it might be safe to assume that some women at court (courtier-rank women being a much smaller pool than men) might be illiterate, maids-of-honor and nobly born attendants on the royal family would be more likely to read and write, although there are no guarantees.