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Durer Woodcut of a Schoolmaster
Schoolmaster woodcut by Dürer, 1510.

The Life of Nicholas Udall

NICHOLAS UDAL [or Udall], English schoolmaster, translator and playwright, author of the earliest extant English comedy, Roister Doister, came of the family of Uvedale, who in the 14th century became lords of Wykeham, Hants, by marriage with the heiress of the Scures. The name was probably pronounced Oovedale, as it appears as Yevedale, Owdall, Woodall, with other variants. He latinized it as Udallus, and thence anglicized it as Udall. He is described as Owdall of the parish of St Cross, Southampton, 12 years old at Christmas 1516, when admitted a scholar of Winchester College in 1517. He was therefore not 14 (as Anthony Wood says) but 16 years of age when admitted a scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in June 1520; he is called Wodall as a lecturer at that college in 1526 to 1528.

With John Leland he produced "dites" (ditties) "and interludes" at Anne Boleyn's coronation on the 31st of May 1533. Leland's contributions are all in Latin; those of "Udallus," which form the chief part, are mostly in English, the speeches being each spoken by a 'child,' "at Cornhill beside Leadenhall," "at the Conducte in Cornhill" and "at the little Conducte in Cheepe." His Floures for Latine Spekynge, selected and gathered out of Terence and the same translated into Englysshe, published by Bartlet (in aedibus Bertheleti), were dedicated "to my most sweet flock of pupils, from the monastery of the monks of the order of Augustine," on the 28th of February 1533-1534. There were no monks of that order, and whether Austin Friars or Augustinian canons were meant is open to doubt. The book was prefaced with laudatory Latin verses by Leland and by Edmund Jonson. The latter was a Winchester and Oxford contemporary of Udal's, in 1528 lower master (hostiarius) at Eton, a post which he left to become master of the school of St Anthony's Hospital, then the most flourishing school in London. From the dedication we may infer that Udal was usher under Jonson and "the sweet flock" was at St Anthony's school next door to Austin Friars.

At Midsummer 1534 he became head master of Eton (informator puerorum or ludi grammaticalis; Eton Audit Book. 25-26 Hen. VIII.). It has been suggested (Dic. Nat. Biog.) that the Floures was dedicated to Eton boys in advance; but this is unlikely, as in those days schools never got their masters till the place was vacant, or on the verge of vacancy. At Eton Udal's salary was £10 and £1 for livery, with "petty receipts" of 8s. 4d. for obits, 2s. 8d. for laundress, 2s. for candles for his chamber, and 23s. 4d. "for ink, candles and other things given to the grammar school by Dr Lupton, provost." One of his school books, Commentaries on the Tusculan questions of Cicero (ed. Berouldus, 1509), with the inscription "sum Nicolai Udalli 1536," is in the King's Library at the British Museum.

There was a yearly play, 3s. being paid for the repair of the dresses of the players at Christmas, and 1s. 4d. to a servant of the dean of Windsor for bringing his master's clothes for the players. A payment for repair of the players' dresses recurs every year. Udal has been credited (E. K. Chambers, Mediaeval Stage, ii. 144, 192) with producing a play at Braintree while vicar there, recorded in the churchwardens' accounts for 1534 as "Placidas alias Sir Eustace." The play is actually called in the accounts (only extant in 17th-century extracts) "Placy Dacy alias St Ewastacy," and is the old play of Placidas, mentioned in the 9th century. Udal did not become vicar of Braintree till the 27th of September 1537 (Newcourt's Repert. ii. 89). At Michaelmas he resigned the mastership of Eton to reside at Braintree, being called "late schole-master wose roome nowe enjoyeth and occupieth Mr Tindall" in a letter from the provost to Thomas Cromwell, then privy seal, on the 7th October 1537 (Lett. and Pa. Hen. VIII., 1537).

He returned to Eton, however, or rather to Hedgeley, the school being removed there on account of the plague, at Midsummer 1537, being paid for the third and fourth terms of the school year (Eton Audit Book, 29-30 Hen. VIII.). In October 1538 "Nicholas Uvedale, professor of the liberal arts, informator and schoolmaster of Eton," was licensed to hold the vicarage of Braintree, "with other benefices," without personal residence. The accounts of Cromwell for 1538 include "Woodall, the scholemaster of Eton, to playing before my lord, £5." Presumably he brought a troupe of Eton boys with him. In that year he published a second edition of his Floures of Terence for the benefit of Eton boys. The often-questioned account of Thomas Tusser1 (Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie) is typical of Eton at the time, as Udal's predecessor Cox is said in Ascham's Scholemaster to have been "the best scholemaster and greatest beater of our time":

"From Powles I went
     to Aeton sent,
To learn straightwaies
     the Latin phraise;
Where fifty-three
     stripes given to me
     at once I had;

For fault but small
     or none at all
It came to pass
     thus beat I was;
See, Udall, see,
     the mercie of thee to mee,
     poor lad."


  Woodcut of a Schoolmaster, c.1445

Udal's rule of the rod at Eton was brought to an abrupt conclusion by his being brought up before the privy council on the 14th of March 1540/1541 for being "counsail" with two of the boys, Thomas Cheney, a relation of the lord treasurer of the household, and Thomas Hoorde, for stealing some silver images and chapel ornaments. He denied the theft, but confessed to a much more scandalous offence with Cheney, and was sent to the Marshalsea prison.

He tried, but failed, to get restored to Eton. Attempts have been made to whitewash him. But his own confession, and an abject letter of repentance with promises of amendment, addressed, (probably) to Wriothesley, a Hampshire man and a family friend, cannot be got over. It shows that he was a bad schoolmaster as well as an immoral one, since he pleads "myn honest chaunge from vice to vertue, from prodigalitee to frugall lyving, from negligence of teachyng to assiduitee, from play to studie, from lightness to gravitee." In 1542-1543, after the bursar of Eton had ridden up to London to the provost, Udal was paid "53s. 4d. in full satisfaction of his salary in arrears and other things due to him while he was teaching the children"; but on the other side of the account appears an item of "60s. received from Dr Coxe for Udal's debts." So no money passed to Udal.

He seems to have maintained himself by translating into English, in 1542, Erasmus's Apophthegms and other works. In 1544 he published a new edition of the Floures of Terence. He seems to have taken a schoolmastership in Northumberland or Durham, as Leland in one of his Encomia speaks of him, probably at this time, as translated to the Brigantes. He seems to have been made to resign his living at Braintree, a successor being appointed on the 14th of December 1544. He purged himself, however, by composing the Answer to the Articles of the Commoners of Devonshire and Cornwall (Pocock, Troubles of the Prayer Book of 1549, Camd. Soc., new series, 37, 141, 193), when they rose in rebellion in the summer of 1549 against the First Prayer Book of Edward VI.

In 1551 he received a patent for printing his translation of Peter Martyr's two works on the Eucharist and the Great Bible in English (Pat. 4 Edw. VI. pt. 5, m. 5, Shakespeare Soc. iii. xxx.). He was rewarded by being made a canon of Windsor on the 14th of December 1551. On the 5th of January "after the common reckoning 1552" (i.e. 1551/2) he edited a translation of Erasmus's Paraphrases of the Gospels, himself translating the first three, while that on St John was being translated by the princess Mary, till she fell sick and handed her work over to Dr Malet. The work was done at the suggestion and expense of the dowager queen Katharine, in whose charge Mary was. A translation by Udal of Geminus's Anatomie or Compendiosa totius anatomiae delineatio, a huge volume with gruesome plates, was published in 1553. Udal's preface is dated the 10th of July 1552 "at Windesore."  In June and September 1553 (Trevelyan Pap. Camd. Soc. 84, ii. 31, 33) "Mr Nicholas Uvedale" was paid at the rate of £13, 6s. 8d. a year as "scholemaster to Mr Edward Courtney, beinge within the Tower of London, by virtue of the King's Majesty's Warrant" — the young earl of Devon, who had been in prison ever since he was twelve years old.

Queen Mary on the 3rd of December 1554 issued a warrant on Udal's behalf reciting that he had "at soundrie seasons convenient heretofore shewed and myndeth hereafter to shewe his diligence in setting forth Dialogues and Enterludes before us for our royal disporte and recreacion," and directing "the maister and yeomen of the office of the Revells" to deliver whatever Udal should think necessary for setting forth such devices, while the exchequer was ordered to provide the money to buy them (Loseley MSS. Kempe 63, and Hist. MSS. Corn. Rep. vii. 612).

One of these interludes was probably Roister Doister; for it was in January 1553, i.e. 1554, that Thomas Wilson, master of St Katharine's Hospital by the Tower, produced the third edition of The Rule of Reason, the first text-book on logic written in English, which contains, while the two earlier editions, published in 1551 and 1552 respectively, do not contain, a long quotation from Roister Doister. It gives under the heading of "ambiguitie," as "an example of such doubtful writing whiche, by reason of poincting, maie have double sense and contrarie meaning . . . taken out of an intrelude made by Nicholas Udal," the letter which Ralph Roister procured a scrivener to compose for him, asking Christian Constance, the heroine, to marry him. Roister's emissary read it—

"Sweete mistresse, where as I love you nothing at all,
Regarding your substance and richnesse chiefe of all,"
and so on; whereas it was meant to read—
"Sweete mistresse, whereas I love you (nothing at all
Regarding your substance and richnesse) chiefe of all,
For your personage, beautie, demeanour and wit."

The play was entered at Stationers' Hall, when printed in 1566. Only one copy is known, which was given to Eton by an old Etonian, the Rev. Th. Briggs, in 1818, who privately printed thirty copies of it. As the title-page is gone the only evidence of its authorship is Wilson's quotation. Wilson being an Etonian, it has been argued that his quotation was a reminiscence of his Eton days, and that the play was written for and first performed by Eton boys. But the occurrence of the quotation first in the edition of 1554, and its absence in the previous editions of 1551 and 1552, coupled with the absence of anything in the play to suggest any connexion with a school, while the scene is laid in London and among London citizens and is essentially a London play, furnish a strong argument that Roister Doister first appeared in 1553, and therefore could not have been written at Eton or for Eton boys.

Nor could it have been written at Westminster School or for Westminster boys, as argued by Professor Hales in Eng. Studien (1893) xviii. 408. For though Udal did become headmaster of Westminster, he only became so nearly two years after Wilson's quotation from Roister Doister appeared. He was at Winchester in the interval, for Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester and chancellor, by will of the 8th of November 1555 (P.C.C. 3 Noodes), gave 40 marks (£26, 13s. 4d.) to "Nicholas Udale, my scholemaister." In what sense he was Gardiner's schoolmaster it is hard to guess. He was not head master or usher of Winchester College; but he may have been master of the old City Grammar or High School, to which the bishop appointed (A. F. Leach, Hist. Winch. Coll. 32 , 48). The schoolhouse had been leased out for 41 years in 1544 but it is possible Gardiner had revived the school or kept a school at his palace of Wolvesey.

At Westminster "Mr Udale was admitted to be scholemaster 16 Dec. anno 1555" (Chapter Act-Book). The last act of the secular canons, substituted by Henry VIII for the monks, was the grant of a lease on the 24th of September 1556. When the monks re-entered, on Mary's restoration of the abbey (Nov. 21, 1556), the school did not, as commonly alleged, cease, nor had Udal ceased to be master (Shakespeare Soc. iii. xxxiv.) when he died a month later. The parish register of St Margaret's, Westminster, under "Burials in December A.D. 1556" records "11 die Katerine Woddall," "23 die Nicholas Yevedale," i.e. Udal. Katharine was perhaps a sister or other relation, as Elizabeth Udall was buried there on the 8th of July 1559. The abbey cellarer's accounts ending Michaelmas 1557 contain a payment "to Thomas Notte, usher of the boys, £6, 10s., and to the scholars (scolasticis vocatis le grammer childern), £63, 6s. 8d.," showing that the usher carried on the school after Udal's death. Next year (1557-1558) the abbey receiver accounted for £20 paid to John Passey, (the new) schoolmaster, to Richard Spenser, usher, £15, and £133, 6s. 8d. for 40 grammar boys. So it is clear that the school never stopped. Udal therefore was master of Westminster for just over two years. He died at the age of 52.

Roister Doister well deserves its fame as the first English comedy. It is infinitely superior to any of its predecessors in form and substance. It has sometimes been described as a mere adaptation of Plautus's Miles Gloriosus. Though the central idea of the play — that of a braggart soldier (with an impecunious parasite to flatter him) who thinks every woman he sees falls in love with him and is finally shown to be an arrant coward — is undoubtedly taken from Plautus, yet the plot and incidents, and above all the dialogue, are absolutely original, and infinitely superior to those of Plautus. Even the final incident, in which the hero is routed, is made more humorous by the male slaves being represented by maidservants with mops and pails.

The play was printed by F. Marshall in 1821; in Thomas White's Old English Dramas (3 vols., 1830); by the Shakespeare Society, vol. iii., the introduction to which contains the fullest and most accurate account of his life; in Edward Arber's reprints in 1869; and Dodsley's Old Plays (1894), vol. iii.

1  Tusser was a chorister of St Paul's.

Excerpted from:
Leach, Arthur Francis. "Nicholas Udal."
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XXVII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 554-6.

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