History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Elizabeth I's faithful tutor

Simon Adams and David Scott Gehring explain how the Virgin Queen's little-known teacher may have influenced the religious policies of her reign...

Published: January 21, 2013 at 9:53 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Elizabeth I enjoys the reputation of being the best-educated of British queens and, as a result, her schooling has been the subject of much discussion.


Her most famous tutor was the Cambridge academic Roger Ascham, who has left the only account of what she studied. However, Ascham’s time with her was brief, from mid-1548 until the beginning of 1550. He was preceded by his pupil and friend, William Grindal, who taught Elizabeth from 1545 until he died of the plague in January 1548. 

Grindal and Ascham taught the future queen Latin and Greek, but they were not her only tutors. Giovanni Battista Castiglione (who later became a groom of her Privy Chamber) taught her Italian, and Jean Belmain taught her French, as he did her brother, Edward VI.

The received account of Elizabeth’s education will now have to be completely revised, for she had another tutor in the classical languages, a man who actually served longer than either Grindal or Ascham. He was Johannes Spithovius (John Spithoff), also known as Monasteriensis, from his probable place of birth, somewhere near Münster in north-western Germany. 

Spithovius was initially a pupil of the Lutheran reformer, Philip Melanchthon, but he matriculated at the University of Copenhagen in 1542 and was appointed Professor Paedigogicus in 1545. He came to England in 1549 with recommendations from Melanchthon and others to Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer, together with the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer (who had just taken refuge in England himself), recommended Spithovius to the princess in the summer of 1549. 

He was still in Elizabeth’s service when Mary came to the throne in 1553, but in the following year, while Elizabeth was imprisoned at Woodstock, he returned to Denmark and resumed teaching at Copenhagen. He died in Copenhagen in 1563, possibly of the plague.

Spithovius’s connection with England did not end in 1554. In 1559 he served twice as a special ambassador from the Danish crown.

His second embassy lasted from July 1559 to January 1560 and is well-known to Danish historians. Its purpose was to persuade Elizabeth to marry the new Danish king, Frederick II, rather than Prince Eric of Sweden. However, the earlier embassy has escaped notice until now. 

Christian III of Denmark died on New Year’s Day 1559 and shortly afterwards his widow Dorothea sent Spithovius to congratulate Elizabeth on her accession and to discuss privately an alliance with Denmark, possibly including a marriage to Frederick. Spithovius arrived in early February and probably left in early April. 

The surviving report from this embassy has been buried in the Rigsarkivet in Copenhagen among the correspondence from the second embassy. It is of major significance, however, because it supplies the answer to one of the mysteries of the 1559 religious settlement.

Spithovius records a conversation in February with Sir Thomas Smith over forms of worship. According to a much-debated policy memorandum, the ‘Device for the Alteration of Religion’, Smith was to be appointed the chair of a committee to review the order of worship in advance of the parliament of 1559. 

He was also authorised to consult with other learned men. Since no evidence that the committee had actually met has been discovered, scholarly opinion has generally dismissed the proposal as abortive. Thanks to Spithovius’s report it can now be established that the committee did exist. 

The fact that it was still at work after the parliament opened may explain why the crown did not introduce the bills for the religious legislation at the beginning of the session.

Elizabeth held Spithovius in considerable regard and his possible influence on her opens up a range of new questions. Though few records of his period as tutor (1549–53) have been left to us, we know that this was a psychologically formative chapter in Elizabeth’s life. And, although we have no clear idea of what he taught her, his presence in her household is further evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of her education. 

He certainly increased her understanding of the Lutheran world and she may have gained a reading knowledge of German from him. In view of the complexities of the 1559 religious settlement, it is no less interesting that Smith asked Spithovius about Danish and Saxon practice regarding religious ceremonies. 

Without question, whatever the ultimate explanation of the settlement, it was not made in ignorance of Lutheran opinion.


This article highlights research by Simon Adams and David Scott Gehring that appears in the English Historical Review


Sponsored content