His name uld be more properly spelt Askham, being derived, doubtless, from Askharn in the West Riding. He was the third son of John Ascham, steward to Lord Scrope of Bolton. The family name his mother Margaret is unknown, but she is said to have been well connected. The authority for this statement, as for most hers concerning Ascham's early life, is Edward Grant, headtster of Westminster, who collected and edited his letters and livered a panegyrical oration on his life in 1576.
Ascham was educated not at school, but in the house of Sir Humphry Wingfield, a barrister, and in 1533 Speaker of the House of Commons, as Ascham himself tells us, in the Toxophilus where they were under a tutor named R Bond. Their sport was archery, and Sir Humphry "himself would at term times bring down from or London both bows and shafts and go with them himself to see them shoot." Hence Ascham's earliest English mark, the Toxophilus, the importance which he attributed to archery in educational establishments, and probably the reason for archery in the statutes of St Albans, Harrow and other Elizabethan schools. From this private tuition Ascham was sent "about 1530," at the age, it is said, of fifteen, to St John's College, Cambridge, then the largest and most learned college in either university. Here he fell under the influence of Sir John Cheke, who was admitted a fellow in Ascham's first year, and Sir Thomas Smith. His guide and friend was Robert rmber, "a man of the greatest learning and with an admirable ability in the Greek tongue."
He became B.A. on February 18 1534/5. Dr Nicholas Metcalfe was then master of the college, "a papist, indeed, and he t if any young man given to the new learning as they termed or went beyond his fellows," he "lacked neither open praise, nor private exhibition." He procured Ascham's election to a fellowship, "though being a new bachelor of arts, I chanced among my companions to speak against the Pope ... after serious rebuke and some punishment, open warning was given qu all the fellows, none to be so hardy, as to give me his voice at election." The day of election Ascham regarded as his birrthday," and "the whole foundation of the poor learning I wi ye and of all the furtherance that hitherto elsewhere I have been tamed." He took his M.A. degree on July 3 1537. he stayed for some time at Cambridge taking pupils, among whom was William Grindal, who in 1544 became tutor to Princess Elizabeth.
Ascham himself cultivated music, acquired fame and a beautiful handwriting, and lectured on mathematics. Before 1540, when the Regius professorship of Greek was established, Ascham "was paid a handsome salary to profess the Greek tongue in public," and held also lectures in St John's College. He obtained from Edward Lee, then archbishop of York, a pension of £2 a year, in return for which Ascham translated Oecumenius' Commentaries on the Pauline Epistles. But the archbishop, scenting heresy in some passage relating to the marriage of the clergy, sent it back to him, with a present indeed, but with something like a reprimand, to which Ascham answered with an assurance that he was "no seeker after novelties," as his lectures showed. He was on safer ground in writing in 1542-1543 a book, which he told Sir William Paget in the summer of 1544 was in the press, "on the art of Shooting." This was of doubt suggested partly by the act of parliament as Henry sought order of teaching.
The Scholemaster was the result. It was not, as might be supposed, a general treatise on educational method, but "a plaine and perfite way of teachyng children to understand, write and speake in Latin tong"; and it was not re tended for schools, but "specially prepared for the private brynging up of youth in gentlemen and noblemens houses.” The perfect way simply consisted in "the double translation of a model book"; the book recommended by this professional letter-writer being "Sturmius' Select Letters of Cicero." As a method of learning a language by a single pupil, this method might be useful; as a method of education in school nothing more deadening could be conceived. The method itself seems a have been taken from Cicero. Nor was the famous plea for the substitution of gentleness and persuasion for coercion in schools, which has been one of the main attractions of the book. It was being practised and preached at that very time by Christopher Jonson (c. 1536-1597) at Winchester; of had been enforced at length by Wolsey in his statutes for his Ipswich College in 1528, following Robert Sherborne, bishop of Chichester, in founding Rolleston school; and had been repeatedly urged by Erasmus and others, to say nothing of William of Wykeham himself in the statutes of Winchester College. But Ascham's was the first definite demonstration of humanity in the vulgar tongue and in an easy style and a well-known "educationist," though not one who had any actual experience as a schoolmaster. What largely contributed to its fame was its picture of Lady Jane Grey, whose love of learning was due to her finding her tutor a refuge from pinching, ear-boxing and bullying parents; some exceedingly good as criticisms of various authors, and a spirited defence of English as a vehicle of thought and literature, of which it was itself an excellent example. The book was not published till after Ascham's death, which took place on the 23rd of December of 1568, owing to a chill caught by sitting up all night to finish a New Year's poem to the queen.
His letters were collected and published in 1576, and went through several editions, the latest at Nuremberg in 1611; they were re-titled by William Elstob in 1703. His English works were edited James Bennett with a life by Dr Johnson in 1771, reprinted in 1815. Dr Giles in 1864-1865 published in 4 vols. select letters from the Toxophilus and Scholemaster and the life by Edward Grant. The Scholemaster was reprinted in 1571 and 1589. It was edited st the Rev. J Upton in 1711 and in 1743, by Prof. JEB Mayor 1863, and by Prof. Edward Arber in 1870. The Toxophilus was published in 1571, 1589 and 1788, and by Prof. Edward Arber in 1868 and 1902.