Elyot’s English Renaissance Masterpiece: The Conduct & Education of the English Prince & Courtier. The Boxbourne Library Copy

Elyot, Thomas, Sir (1490?-1546)

The boke named the Gouernour deuised by syr Thomas Elyot knight

London: Thomas Berthelet, 1544


Octavo: 14 x 10 cm. [8], 216 lvs. Collation: a8, A-Z8 a-d8

THIRD EDITION (1st ed. 1531)

Bound in contemporary English calfskin, tooled in blind. Joints cracked, corners bumped, a little worn. The contents are in excellent condition with just a bit of light browning and a small backed marginal hole to the title, and a little soiling on the final leaf. A tall copy with occasional deckles in the bottom margin. Provenance: John Ehrman (Bibliotheca Broxbourniana bookplate affixed to inner rear board), and Albert Ehrman, (bookplate with his motto “Pro Viribus Summis Contendo” affixed to f.f.e.p.) 16th c. annotations on final leaf.

Thomas Elyot, humanist and diplomat, composed three influential works during the reign of King Henry VIII: “The Boke named the Governour”(1531), a Latin-English “Dictionary”(1538) and the “Castel of Helth”(1539). Of these, it is the “Governour” that proved most influential and brought Elyot preferment at Henry’s court.

In September 1531 Elyot was named ambassador to the emperor Charles V and sent to the continent to “to sound out Charles regarding the king's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, who was the emperor's aunt” and to apprehend William Tyndale. When Elyot, who opposed the divorce, failed to make any headway with the Emperor, he was recalled and Cranmer was sent in his place. Upon his return in 1532, Elyot “retired to his Cambridgeshire estates and spent the rest of his life in scholarly activities.”

Promoting Humanism in England:

It is during this period that Elyot wrote and published his “Dictionary” and the “Castel of Helth”. The former, while “not the earliest Latin dictionary… was the first based on classical sources and applying humanist principles. As Elyot said, he had given English equivalents for virtually all the words found in classical texts, and had also provided tables of ancient weights and measures.” In his “Castel”, Elyot continued his humanistic programme by attempting “to summarize the teachings of the ancient Greek and Roman physicians, especially Galen, so that English men and women may understand and regulate their health accordingly.”(DNB)

The Education of a Renaissance Monarch: Elyot’s “The Governour”

“Elyot's reputation as a humanist scholar rests primarily on his treatise ‘The Boke Named the Governour’. First published in 1531 and dedicated to Henry VIII, it is divided into three books and deals with a variety of topics. The first few chapters advance a monarchical political theory, with Elyot arguing that a ‘publike weale’ is made up of a hierarchic order of degrees of men. At the top of the hierarchy there must be a single ruler, the king. Monarchy, therefore, is the only natural and proper form of government; Elyot says that the king within his realm is like God within His, thus implying that the king's power is unlimited. This view of government can be traced back to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Castiglione, whose book ‘The Courtier’ may have been given to Elyot by Thomas Cromwell.

“The remainder of book 1 describes the form of education appropriate for young men who are destined to be members of the governing class. Here Elyot prescribes the classical works to be read in the original Greek and Latin and deals also with physical education, dancing, and music. The second and third books are concerned with setting out the virtues that governors should display; the definitions are often trite, but there is considerable interest in the anecdotes drawn from ancient history that Elyot uses as examples of virtuous behaviour.

‘The Governour’ demonstrates the considerable breadth of Elyot's knowledge of classical and Renaissance literature; it became very popular, running through eight editions during the sixteenth century, and was very influential in disseminating new humanist ideas on the role of the gentleman in England. It is likely that Elyot in publishing ‘The Governour’ was deliberately courting the king's favour, and it is possible that the section praising monarchy was added at the request of Thomas Cromwell.”(DNB)

ESTC S100426; cf. PMM 61; STC 7637