November 16, 2023

Shakespeare's Childhood Tutor


Sir Thomas Smith, the tutor of the young Shakespeare. Source of image: Queens' College, University of Cambridge. 


Sir Thomas Smith (23 December 1513 – 12 August 1577) was an English scholar, parliamentarian and diplomat.

Born at Saffron Walden in Essex, Smith was the second son of John Smith of Walden by Agnes, daughter of John Charnock of Lancashire. The Smiths of Essex are said to be descendants of Sir Roger de Clarendon, an illegitimate son of the Black Prince. He was educated at Queens' College, Cambridge, where he became a Fellow in 1530, and, in 1533, was appointed a public reader or professor. He lectured in the schools on natural philosophy, and on Greek in his own College. In 1540, Smith went abroad, and, after studying in France and Italy and taking a degree in law at the University of Padua, he returned to Cambridge in 1542.

He took the lead in the reform of the pronunciation of Greek, his views being universally adopted after considerable controversy. He and his friend, Sir John Cheke, were the great classical scholars of the time in England. In January 1543/44 he was appointed the first Regius Professor of Civil Law. He was vice-chancellor of the university the same year[43 or 44?]. In 1547, he became Provost of Eton College and Dean of Carlisle Cathedral.

Sir Thomas was an early convert to Protestantism, which brought him into prominence when Edward VI came to the throne. During the protectorate of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, he entered public life and was made the Secretary of State, and was sent on an important diplomatic mission to Brussels. In 1548, he was knighted. On the accession of Queen Mary I he lost all his offices, but in the reign of her sister, Elizabeth I, he was prominently employed in public affairs. 

Smith had no issue by either marriage, although he had one illegitimate son named Thomas, who was killed during the failed Ards settlement. His heirs were his younger brother, George, and George's son, Sir William Smith (died 12 December 1626) of Theydon Mount, Essex. Sir William Smith's daughter, Frances Smith, married Sir Matthew Brend, owner of the land on which the first and second Globe Theatres were built. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was brought up in Smith's house and his early education was supervised by him.

An excerpt from, "Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Smith" By Stephanie Hopkins Hughes,

During the period of most intense education of the nobility, possibly since Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, the first gush of the burst of energy in fields of scholarship, education, and scientific questioning brought by the English Reformation, a great university scholar and teacher spent eight years tutoring a single student, the overly sheltered little scion of one of the last of a dying race, the medieval English nobility. That tutor was the great Sir Thomas Smith, known to his students as the flower of Cambridge University.  That student was Edward de Vere, heir to the Oxford earldom.

Apart from the knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy, history, and literature, that Smith necessarily taught little Edward are five interests, one might call them passions, that lie outside the standard curriculum.  That Shakespeare should be so steeped in these five areas is one of the leading arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare. These five areas of interest are the Law, astronomy/astrology, the garden, medicine (or physic), and hawking.

While living at Smith’s manor of Ankerwycke, Edward had little to do but follow his tutor around from the study to the garden, from the garden to the kitchen, from the kitchen back to the study.  When Smith was gone on business, or locked away to work on some tract he felt called upon to write, naturally Edward would hang out with the falconer, the stable hands, the beekeeper, the gardeners, the dairy maids, the field hands, the cooks and the housekeepers.

Lacking a sibling for company, it was from these men and women of the household and outdoor staff that he learned the languages of the humble household crafts so prominent in Shakespeare, as noted by Caroline Spurgeon.  They were in fact his surrogate family.  They may have addressed him as “your Lordship” in company, but when tramping through the fields, falcon on fist, or brushing down a horse in the stable, or dipping a biscuit in a foaming mug of freshly espressed milk at the big table in the kitchen, there was nothing but the sort of comfortable camaraderie that will always spring to life among ordinary human beings.

An excerpt from, "Who Was Sir Thomas Smith?" (PDF) By Stephanie Hopkins Hughes, The de Vere Society newsletter, April 2021:

In seeking how and where Oxford had acquired the level of learning displayed by Shakespeare in his poems and plays, beginning with the knowledge of English and Roman history that began to appear in plays performed by Paul’s Boys for Elizabeth’s winter holidays whilst he was living at Cecil House, the answer is suggested by the library list drawn up by Sir Thomas upon his return from France in 1566 – as published by Strype in 1698. (The original list, in Smith’s own hand, can be found in the Old Library at Queens’ College, Cambridge.) At over 400 titles, Smith’s library was one of the largest in England. Most of his books were probably purchased during his two-year stint at the University of Padua in the 1540s, as he was preparing to teach Greek, Law, and Roman History to the students at Cambridge.   

Sir Thomas was given to inventories. The one from 1566 recorded by Strype was necessary because, upon his return from France, he had been faced with having to rebuild a section of Hill Hall, which was threatening to collapse due to the poor quality of the mortar used for that section (Drury, 1.261). The list guaranteed that his books would be reshelved in their proper order once that section of the outer walls was repaired.  

The list is divided into seven categories: Theology with 56 titles, Civil Law with 54, History 115, Philosophy 71, Mathematics 45, Medicine 21, Grammar and Poetry 58. There are 259 in Latin, 56 in French, 43 in Greek, 25 in Italian 25, and a mere 21 in English. The section on Medicine includes books on horticulture, reflecting his obsession with gardening and what were then the radical ideas of Paracelsus – known today as the ‘father of pharmacology’ – clearly his reason for creating laboratories separated from the main house wherein he experimented with making the medicines from the plants in his garden with which he was known to ply his associates (among them Anne Cecil for morning sickness during her first pregnancy). His section on Mathematics includes several ephemerides, indicating a professional level of expertise in astronomy and astrology. 

As noted by authorship scholar Eddi Jolly in her ground-breaking article ‘Burghley’s Library’ (published in The Oxfordian in 2000), Cecil too owned many of the titles relevant to Shakespeare. Several of the most important of these are missing from Smith’s list, among them Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his source for Venus and Adonis; Boccaccio’s Decameron for A Winter’s Tale; and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso for Much Ado about Nothing. While it may be the case that Oxford first encountered these at Cecil House, it may also be that they are missing from Smith’s list in 1566 because he had given (or lent) them to his 12-year-old student when they parted in 1562 – Oxford to London, Smith to France – a gesture common to teachers when parting with a favorite student. Particularly in this case where, over their eight years together, Smith must have become as close to Oxford, as dear to him as a son, and who, despite his exalted rank, probably had very little he could call his own when he was transferred to Cecil House. Cecil was notoriously tight-fisted, and it’s clear that his wife Mildred, who had a collection of Greek books of her own, and who certainly hated Oxford later, may well have disapproved of him from the start.  

Video Title: Stephanie Hopkins Hughes — Why Is It Taking So Long to Get the Truth Out? Source: Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. Date Published: November 21, 2019. Description:
After more than 400 years, why is it still so hard to get the truth about Shakespeare’s authorship accepted? Why lie about it in the first place? Why continue to lie long after both the purported author and the real author were dead? Why continue to lie long after it became known that the purported author of the world’s greatest works of English literature could not so much as write his own name the same way twice? 

Why, when the universities finally got around to creating their English Departments, did they people them with philologists whose interest to this day remains focused on the structure of Shakespeare’s language? Why do they show so little regard, by comparison, for the grandeur of his dramas, their poetry, their passion, and their rather obvious connections to the events and personalities of his time?