Educating the Aristocracy in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

Jonathan Hughes describes how the new classical-inspired education given to young members of the aristocracy in the fifteenth century laid the foundations for future English ideas of education, empire and public service

In early fifteenth-century England, most young male members of the lay nobility received their education in the patriarchal household, where they were taught hunting, jousting, estate management, heraldry and manners. As the century went on, however, this traditional approach was replaced by a classical education that emphasised reason and discipline, and equipped the young for service to a state that was increasingly preoccupied with imperial ambitions.

The new educational literature consisted of translations and adaptations of the philosophers and historians of ancient Rome, especially Cicero and Seneca. The works of classical authors had been popularised during the reign of Charles V of France (1364-80), who had commissioned French translations of Livy, and the Ethics and Politics of Aristotle. Translations of Cicero and Seneca followed in the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422). Christine de Pisan (1364-c. 1430), who grew up at the court of Charles V, sought a broader view of the functions of the governing class as professional civil servants rather than as a retained nobility. Seeing the key to this evolving function as education, she was the first to use these authors in this way.

With the English conquest of Normandy, 1415-35, much of this culture was transmitted into English court and household circles through John, Duke of Bedford, the regent of France. Bedford acquired the royal library of Charles V at the Louvre (some 843 volumes) and Sir John Fastolf, his lieutenant, had access to French translations of works of Roman history and military theory that gave the English a sense that they were following in the footsteps of the conquerors of Gaul. By 1438, when Fastolf returned to England, he had fostered a belief in the preeminence of Roman civilisation while those who had been involved in the campaigns of the years between Agincourt and the death of Bedford in 1435 shared a nostalgia for this period of conquest. Fastolf maintained a household of young men, and besides regaling them with stories of his military exploits, he made available to them the literature that transmitted the military and ethical ideals of the Roman civilisation that he and other members of the ruling class were beginning to emulate.

Stephen Scrope, who accompanied Fastolf, his stepfather, on military campaigns in Normandy between 1415 and 1421, was among the first to render French versions of the history and myths of antiquity into English. In 1440 he translated Christine de Pisan's Epitre d'Othea into The Epistle of Othea. Reflecting on the causes of the fall of Troy (such as a lack of prudent counsel), Scrope expressed the hope that the conquest of Normandy could result from a rejuvenation of English chivalry to be achieved through the virtue of prudence. Scrope also translated The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, emphasising the importance of education in classical philosophy, history and mythology and thereby adding a new dimension to a ruling class previously defined by considerations of lineage. This education was manifested in the urbane skills of witty conversation, proverbial wisdom and manners demonstrated in the Paston correspondence.

In his Boke of Noblesse (commenced soon after 1451) Fastolf's secretary, William Worcester, showed how the reconquest of Normandy could be achieved, and he too saw England's imperial destiny in France depending on the adaptation of the aristocracy's code of chivalry to that of the ancients. Like his friend Scrope, Worcester emphasised the virtue of prudence, exemplified by Fastolf. He explained the loss of Normandy as a failure of the English aristocracy to emulate the self-discipline, organisation, bravery and moral uprightness of the Roman governing classes. …