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Grammar for the ages: a royal intervention

The history of English grammar is shrouded in mystery. It’s generally thought to begin in the late sixteenth century, with William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar (1586)—but where did Bullokar’s inspiration come from? In these times, the structure and rules of English grammar were constructed and contrasted with the Latin. Bullokar wrote his treatise with the intention of proving that English was bound by just as many rules as Latin, and for this, he borrowed heavily from a pre-existing text: William Lily’s Latin Grammar.

No other textbook has been used for such a long period of time in English schools as Lily’s Latin Grammar. It was prescribed by Henry VIII in 1540 as the authorized and obligatory text, to be used in all schools across the countryand thereafter dominated the teaching of Latin for more than three centuries. As a consequence of this, Lily’s Latin grammar has a massive impact on not just Latin, but English as well, right up until the nineteenth century. One of England’s most famous school boys, William Shakespeare (when he was enrolled in King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon around 1571), acquired his formal education with none other than this ubiquitous grammar edition.

A number of allusions scattered in Shakespeare’s plays testify to his familiarity with the textbook. For example, Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 4, Scene 1) asks his student (William), some questions:

Evans: William, how many numbers is in nouns?
Will: Two….
Evans: What is ‘fair’, William?
Will: Pulcher.…
Evans: What is ‘lapis’, William?
Will: A stone.
Evans: And what is ‘a stone’, William?
Will: A pebble.
Evans: No; it is ‘lapis’. I pray you, remember in your prain.

The passage in Shakespeare’s comedy echoes rules in Lily’s grammar in English:

“A nowne adiectiue is, that can not stand by hym selfe, but requireth to be ioyned with an other worde, as Bonus good, Pulcher fayre…. In nownes be two numbers, The syngular and the plurall. The syngular numbre speketh of one as lapis, a stone. The plurall noumber speaketh of moo than one, as lapides, stones.”

“Latin Letters” by Tfioreze. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Lily’s Latin Grammar was based on a long tradition of grammar writing in the vernacular which can be traced back to the second half of the fourteenth century. From about 1400 onwards, Latin grammatical manuscripts written in English have come down to us. When printed school texts became available in the 1480s in England, short versions on elementary morphology and syntax also found their way into the classrooms. Soon afterwards, there is evidence that schoolmasters often compiled their own teaching materials which then appeared in print. After about 1510, this practice was clearly getting out of hand, and there is evidence of teachers’ and also pupils’ complaints about the large number of different versions which were circulating and in use.

As a result of this, problems arose in classrooms when children had to learn Latin using different editions, or even completely different versions of the same grammar. To solve this problem, Henry VIII issued his command that a common Latin grammar had to be used in all schools in the country. A royal committee was asked to compile the texts in English and in Latin, which were then introduced by royal prerogative in 1540.This grammar, attributed to William Lily (1468?–1522/23), was the text that has influenced the English language ever since. Sadly however, Lily did not live to see this grammar introduced and used in schools.

Lily was an eminent man and renowned teacher of Latin and Greek, as well as a close friend of Sir Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam. He became the first headmaster of St. Paul’s School in 1510, and a number of his other works, especially on elementary syntax in Latin and in English, as well as those on gender and epigrams still survive. He was an excellent scholar and an outstanding teacher, and Lily’s successful teaching in St. Paul’s School was widely known to his friends and pupilswhich in turn fed into the high rank and reputation of St. Paul’s School itself. As a result, this massively helped the implementation of the royal edict, as many other schools were keen to take St. Paul’s as their model and follow in their high standards. When John Milton wrote his Latin grammar Accedence Commenc’t Grammar (1669), over 60% of his illustrative quotations were taken from Lily’s grammar.

In the course of time, Lily’s name lent authority to the grammar introduced by Henry VIII, and came to signify an entire genre of textbooks. Lily’s grammar was the standard Latin school grammar, and with its influence on scholars, authors, and playwrights such as Bullokar, Milton and Shakespeare, shaped the English language for centuries after.

Featured image credit: “Grammar, Magnifier” by PDPics. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    Many 16th C intellectuals regarded English as too plebeian for intellectual discourse and wrote and debated in Latin. The worst effect of this was on English spelling. Samuel Johnson still regarded Latin as superior even in the 1750s and exempted most words of Latin origin from English consonant doubling after short, stressed vowels, leaving us with illogical inconsistencies like ‘very merry, rabbit habit, poppy copy’. He made matters even worse by using doubling to indicate defunct Latin prefixes, as in ‘apply, arrive’ (cf. apple, arise). English should be spelt according to its own rules, not Latin ones.

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