Next to the French women, those in England applied themselves with the greatest zeal to the study of the ancient languages and of the sciences. The latter, however, possessed an undeniable superiority over their continental neighbors in one important particular, that is to say, they conferred much greater honor on their erudition by irreproachable manners than the women of France.
There was activity in all departments of thought. The study of poetry, of theology, of the classics, went on apace. The printing press was letting loose those floods of knowledge. The tide swept the women of the nobility along in its course, as it did those of France. They stand out prominently among the ranks of scholars. In place of the domestic arts, they are found immersed in classics, divinity, and philosophy.
Education was not conducted on the easy, pleasant lines of our own day. Knowledge was hard to obtain. It was locked up out of reach of the indolent, in languages to which there were none of the modern keys. Literature was the great study, and familiarity with Greek and Latin essential. The tree of science had only just begun to grow, and was sorely beset by the brambles of superstition and mysticism. The arts in England could scarcely be said to exist. History was in the form of chronicles and romances.
And yet, says a competent authority, “No age was so productive of learned women as the sixteenth century. Learning was so very modish that the fair sex seemed to believe that Greek and Latin added to their charms, and that Plato and Aristotle untranslated were frequent ornaments of their closets.” Certainly England can show a roll during that period, which is in striking contrast to the records of the preceding and succeeding centuries.
Queen Catherine, the last wife of Henry VIII., was the translator of a notable literary work. She was excelled by the queens Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom were likewise authors. The former wrote Latin epistles with elegance, and the latter was in the habit of returning extemporary [sic] answers in the same language to Polish ambassadors.
The beautiful, virtuous, heroic, and unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, who was in every respect worthy the first throne in the world, is justly styled by Hume, a prodigy in literature. Never was a woman, and very seldom a person of the other sex, attached to learning for its own sake, or on account of the pleasure
and advantage which it afforded to her understanding and her heart, as Lady Jane Grey, who ascended the scaffold with greater resolution than the throne, and who consoled her sister in the same language in which Plato wrote on immortality of the soul. Not only the queens, but, as Hume informs us, “even the ladies of the court valued themselves on their knowledge. Lady Burleigh, Lady Bacon, and their two sisters, were mistresses of the ancient as well as modern languages; and placed more pride in their erudition, than their rank and quality.”
The house of Sir Thomas More was truly the habitation of the Muses. His three daughters, but especially Margaret, who afterward married Mr. Roper, wrote, even in their childhood, Latin letters of which veterans in literature would have no occasion to feel ashamed. It was perhaps these three daughters who honored the memory of Queen Margaret of Navarre in Latin poems of their own composition.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.