The Education of Mary Tudor

Though her father Henry VIII still wanted a son to rule England, in the 1520s Mary Tudor was his only legitimate heir. Her mother Katherine of Aragon thought women could rule just as well as men—after all, Katherine’s own mother had ruled as queen of Castile. Katherine decided that Mary needed an education that went beyond the role of women as wives and mothers if, as it happened, she ruled England someday.

Katherine did not teach Mary how to read and write herself. Like other princesses, Mary had male tutors. Her mother was very involved in the planning of her education, however. Katherine asked Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives to write a manual for the education of the future queen. In Katherine’s opinion, his original version encouraged girls to be educated only so that they could raise children and be intelligent companions to their husbands. To be fair to Vives, no one in sixteenth century England knew what sort of education to recommend for a female ruler since the country never had one.

When Mary was seven years old, Vives wrote a more specific guide called On a Plan of Study for Children, which he dedicated to the princess. It emphasized how to pronounce Greek and Latin and recommended books by authors such as Thomas More, Erasmus, and Plato’s dialogues “particularly those which demonstrate the government of the commonwealth.” Mary was not allowed to read romances since, according to sixteenth century educators, they gave young girls immoral thoughts.

Mary’s intelligence was evident in her ability to learn new languages quickly. By age nine, she could write a letter in Latin. She also learned Greek, French, some Italian, and could understand Spanish.

Although Mary’s lessons might sound dull to today’s students, she also had opportunities to enjoy herself by playing music—something she excelled at and loved since she was a toddler. The Italian Mario Savagnano met Mary as a teenager and said that in addition to her knowledge of languages “she sings excellently and plays on several musical instruments, so that she combines every accomplishment.” Dancing and hunting were other favorite pastimes.

Like all Englishmen and woman, Mary was instructed by her mother to serve God. Young Mary was taught to attend mass several times a day and prayed regularly. At the time, her countrymen were all participating in the same religious rituals. Once Catholicism became unpopular with her father and others, however, Mary, like her mother, would remain Catholic.  When she ruled Mary would seek to bring the country back to the Catholic Church and get rid of other religions.

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