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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIX. English Universities, Schools and Scholarship in the Sixteenth Century

§ 8. John Cheke

The rapid growth of the revival in England may be illustrated by contrasting the postion and attainments of Grocyn at Oxford (1491) and those of “John Cheke who taught Cambridge Greek” as regius professor, in 1540. Admitted to St. John’s when twelve years of age, Cheke so proved his skill in the tongues as “to have laid the very foundations of learning in his College.” The foundation of the royal chair of Greek gave him the pre-eminence, both titular and real, in Cambridge scholarship. His expositions of Euripides and Sophocles, Herodotus and the Ethics of Aristotle, are specially recorded. These, probably, were of far more importance in the history of learning in England than the controversy as to the right value of Greek vowel sounds, with which his name is usually associated. Cheke became public orator in 1544, and was appointed tutor to prince Edward. At heart a reformer, he had no scruple in accepting conventual lands, whereby he became a man of wealth and station. As provost of King’s College, one of Somerset’s visitors, a knight and intimate at court, he was familiar with the currents both of learning and of politics. For rashly embracing the cause of lady Jane Grey, he went, in due course, to the Tower; he was soon released, but, circumspectly, passed to the continent, where we hear of him teaching Greek at Padua and at Strassburg. He was arrested by order of Philip II, near Brussels, as an “unlicensed” traveller and conveyed, once more, to the Tower. Under threat of torture, he abjured his convictions, and died (1557) within a year, a broken man. Cheke was unquestionably a scholar of distinction. Of his criticism on Sallust as quoted by Ascham, something has already been said. He left behind a copious body of Latin translation from the Greek, patristic and classical.

His bulky tracts of controversial divinity are chiefly noteworthy as exhibiting the temper of the time, especially as it affected Cambridge learning. He wrote nothing but a pamphlet or two in the vernacular, though he endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to reform English spelling on a phonetic method. His outstanding merit lies in his stimulating force as a teacher, and the respect which his learning won for English scholarship.