CHEKE, John (1514-57), of Cambridge and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1553

Family and Education

b. 16 June 1514, 1st s. of Peter Cheke of Cambridge by Agnes Duffeld of Cambs. educ. St. John’s, Camb. fellow 1529, BA 1529/30, MA 1533. m. 11 May 1547, Mary, da. of Richard Hill of Hartley Wintney, Hants and London, 3s. inc. Henry. suc. fa. c.1529. Kntd. 11 Oct. 1551.1

Offices Held

King’s scholar, Camb. 1534, master of glomery 1539/40, regius prof. of Greek 1540-51, public orator 1541/2-6, provost, King’s 1548-53; canon and prebendary, King Henry VIII Coll. Oxf. 1544-5; tutor to Prince Edward, later Edw. VI July 1544-53; gent. privy chamber 1547; commr. to visit Eton, Oxf. and Camb. 1548, relief, Cambs. and Cambridge 1550, heresies 1551, 1552, eccles. law 1551; chamberlain of Exchequer 12 Sept. 1552-2 Nov. 1554; sec. of state 2 June-19 July 1553.2


John Cheke’s father, a younger son in a gentle family of Mottistone in the Isle of Wight, settled in Cambridge on his marriage, becoming an esquire bedel in divinity of the university. Although Strype states that Peter Cheke’s estate was worth £300 a year, his will of 1528 reveals little affluence and his wife sold wine in the town. He was, nevertheless, well placed to secure for his son a good start in life. After a ‘grammar education’, Cheke entered St. John’s, where his tutor was George Day, the future bishop of Chichester, whom Peter Cheke appointed supervisor of his will; on the bishop’s imprisonment in 1552 Cheke was to acknowledge his debt to Day.3

Cheke excelled in languages, especially Greek, and in 1534, on the recommendation of Dr. William Butts, he was made one of the King’s scholars, the other being his friend Thomas Smith I. In 1536 Cheke and Day acted as proxies for their college to take the oaths of succession and supremacy. On the foundation of the regius professorships in 1540 Cheke was appointed to the Greek chair with a salary of £40 a year; according to Roger Ascham he had previously ‘read publicly without stipend’. Among his pupils were William Grindal and Ascham himself, who on Cheke’s recommendation became in succession tutors to Princess Elizabeth, and William Cecil, who in 1541 married Cheke’s sister Mary. Ascham paid tribute to Cheke’s teaching in his introduction to The Schoolmaster, a work partly based on Cheke’s methods. Two years after his appointment to the chair Cheke fell out with the chancellor of the university, Stephen Gardiner, over the pronunciation of Greek. Cheke’s system, which he shared with Smith, was to prevail, but he was less successful in his attempts to standardize the spelling of English and to exclude words of foreign extraction from the language.4

In 1539 Cheke and the more ambitious Smith had commended themselves to Henry VIII with a dissertation on the King’s marriage: Cheke had also dedicated other works to the King, including an edition of two of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies, the first book to be printed in England in Greek characters. In May 1544 he was made a canon and prebendary of King Henry VIII College, Oxford, and after its dissolution he received an annuity of £26 13s.4d. His widely approved appointment as one of Prince Edward’s tutors was confirmed on 7 July 1544. It was from the Prince’s household at Ashridge, Hertfordshire, that he dedicated his translation of Chrysostom to the King, and from Hertford, probably in January 1546, that he dealt similarly with a translation of the ‘Liber Asceticus’ of St. Maximus Abbas. In 1546, when the King ordered all colleges to return an account of their finances, Cambridge’s plea for help was addressed to Cheke and Smith as its friends at court.5

His pupil’s accession to the throne brought Cheke increased prosperity and standing. Between 20 May 1547, when he was styled ‘esquire’ in the grant of a 21-year lease of the manor and rectory of Rushworth, Norfolk, and 1 Oct. 1547, when he was returned to Parliament for Bletchingley, he had been made a gentleman of the privy chamber, being so described in the indenture. In the following year he replaced his former tutor George Day as provost of King’s, being elected by virtue of a mandate from the crown overriding the college statutes. In August 1547 he was granted an annuity of 100 marks out of the court of augmentations and two months later he received his first large grant of land, including the site of the college of Stoke by Clare, Suffolk, and property in London. By his marriage in May 1547 to Mary Hill, Cheke had become Sir John Mason’s son-in-law, for Mason had married her widowed mother.6

The year 1549 was a tumultuous one for Cheke. Among the events of his life which he recounted to the Italian physician and astrologer Cardano was his downfall on 11 Jan. 1549, the result of his implication in the misdeeds of Admiral Seymour. His wife added to his misfortunes by insulting the haughty Duchess of Somerset, and in the letter which he wrote to the duchess on 27 Jan. asking for her forgiveness he spoke of ‘this desert of other men’s troubles and mishaps of my own’. The main charge against Seymour was that he had used improper means to gain the favour of the young King. In such practices Cheke was the obvious accomplice, and Seymour confessed that at Christmas 1547 he had given Cheke £40, ‘whereof to himself £20, the other for the King to bestow where it pleased the King among his servants’: he added that Cheke had only taken the money after much persuasion and that this was the sole occasion on which money passed between them.7

Cheke was also named in the third article preferred against Seymour, the details of which are contained in Seymour’s reply, in the King’s deposition and in Cheke’s confession of 20 Feb. During the first session of the Parliament of 1547 Seymour had approached Cheke at Westminster with a letter which he wished the King to copy and sign: it was his intention to separate the offices of Regent and Protector and to take the Protectorate himself, and the letter, ostensibly from the King to the ‘Lords of the Parliament House’, sought their acceptance of this proposal. Seymour pressed Cheke to pass the letter to the King, who he said had promised to copy it, but Cheke refused, declaring that Paget had forbidden such dealings. When Seymour himself approached the King without success it was Cheke who intervened: ‘The King’s Majesty knoweth what I said unto him after in private exhortation; whereupon the King’s Majesty said that the lord admiral should have no such bill signed nor written of him: and neither afore nor after I heard of the lord admiral’s part any more of this bill.’ Another illustration of Cheke’s importance to the admiral’s designs occurs in John Fowler’s evidence against Seymour: when Seymour wanted to know the King’s opinion about a quarrel he had had with his brother over offices in the Admiralty, ‘my lord admiral told me he would pray Mr. Cheke to break with the King also, and so I think he did’.8

On 30 May 1549 Cheke wrote to his close friend Peter Osborne from Cambridge, ‘I feel the calm of quietness, being tossed afore with storms, and have felt of ambition’s bitter gall, poisoned with hope of hap’. He may have been in temporary retirement and there are grounds for thinking that he was for a time assisted as the King’s tutor by Sir Anthony Cooke. On 24 June he attended a disputation at Cambridge on the subject of transubstantiation and it was from there that he wrote to the Protector, with whom he was out of favour. If there was any doubt in 1549 about Cheke’s future it was probably dispelled by the appearance of his The Hurt of Sedicion: addressed to the Western and Norfolk rebels, the book was published twice in 1549 and was to be re-issued in 1569, 1576 and 1641, all of them years when the realm appeared to be in danger. An eloquent defence both of the religious policy of the government and of the evils of rebellion against established authority, The Hurt of Sedicion reveals Cheke’s deep involvement in public affairs. He was totally committed to Protestantism and he defended the new orthodoxy both on its merits and because of the authority it carried:

Dare ye commons, take upon you more learning than the chosen bishops and clerks of the realm have: think ye folly in it: ye were wont to judge your Parliament wisest, and now will ye suddenly excel them in wisdom: or can ye think it lacketh authority, which the King, the Parliament, the learned, the wise, have justly approved.

Cheke dismissed the Norfolk rebels’ claims to self-government, arguing that some were best fitted to rule and others to be ruled, and that in changing their obedience ‘from a King to a Ket’ they were usurping God’s power.9

Cheke returned to London in the autumn of 1549, in time to take his seat in the third session of Parliament which opened on 4 Nov.; in September he gave evidence at Bishop Bonner’s examination. On 3 Jan. 1550, while Parliament was still in session, he received ‘for diligence in the instruction of the King and other causes moving the King’s liberality’, property in Lincolnshire and Suffolk worth £118 a year. In April 1550 he was granted a licence to keep 50 retainers.10

Cheke doubtless owed his return for Bletchingley to the Parliaments of 1547 and March 1553 to the patron of the borough, Sir Thomas Cawarden, who on the first occasion was elected with him: a notable Protestant and a lively figure at court, Cawarden was probably both expected and willing to provide a place for Cheke. Little is known of Cheke’s activities in Parliament: on 4 Apr. 1552 the third reading of a bill touching praemunire was committed to him, and he was among those named in an order to the House, made on 12 Apr., to look after the interests of one Ralph Ellerker who had been involved in an attack on (Sir) Robert Brandling. Outside Parliament Cheke played an important part in the new religious settlement which was ratified there. When the first Book of Common Prayer was reviewed in 1550 and Cranmer consulted the continental scholar Peter Martyr, it was Cheke’s translation into Latin of the first book which Martyr read. Martyr told Cheke that he feared that many of the bishops were secretly Catholics, to which Cheke replied, with an interesting prediction on the use of the King’s prerogative, ‘that if the bishops would not alter what was fit to be altered, the King would do it by himself and, when the Parliament met, he would interpose his own authority’. Cranmer’s Defence of the True and Catholic doctrine of the Sacrament, first published in 1550, is thought to have been translated into Latin by Cheke, although the Latin edition of 1553 does not name the translator.11

In 1549 an Act was passed empowering the King to appoint a commission of 32 persons to reform the ecclesiastical laws (3 and 4 Edw. VI, c.11), and Cheke was one of the eight divines chosen. A bill brought into the final session of the Parliament of 1547 for the continuance of the commission was not carried, and the work entitled Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum was not published until 1571: Cheke and Walter Haddon had made the Latin translation. In 1551 Cheke took part in two important private disputations on the sacrament, the first at Cecil’s house on 25 Nov. and the second at (Sir) Richard Morison’s on 3 Dec. These gatherings have been regarded as preparatory to the revision of the Prayer Book made in the following year and there can be little doubt that Cheke was consulted in that work. He probably played some part in the composition of the 42 articles: on 19 Sept. 1552 Cranmer, who had drafted them in the previous year, wrote to Cecil, ‘I have sent the book of articles for religion unto Mr. Cheke set in a better order than it was ... I pray you, consider well the articles with Mr. Cheke; and whether you think best to move the King’s Majesty therein before my coming, I refer that unto your two wisdoms’. The articles were agreed to in the Convocation of 1552 and published in the following year.12

On 6 May 1551 Cheke’s annuity of 100 marks was cancelled and he was granted for his services to the King property in Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Staffordshire and Suffolk, worth £192 a year. In September 1551 he took part in the visitation of Eton. On 11 Oct. Cheke and Cecil were knighted and on the same day the Earl of Warwick was created Duke of Northumberland. Cheke was regarded by the scholar John ab Ulmis as having influence with Northumberland. In May 1552, the month following the dissolution of Parliament, Cheke contracted sweating sickness. According to Fuller, when the doctors told the King that Cheke would die, Edward VI replied, ‘No, Cheke will not die this time, for this morning I begged his life in my prayer and obtained it’. After John Leland’s death in April 1552 Cheke tried to realize a cherished project, to build up a collection of manuscripts for the King’s library, but after Mary’s accession much of it was dispersed. In 1552 he took part in a public disputation at a commencement in Cambridge and afterwards joined the King on a progress in the south-west.13

By 1553 Cheke was clearly a man of great repute. On 2 June he was sworn and admitted one of the principal secretaries by the Privy Council; it was the only occasion in the 16th century when there were three principal secretaries. The reasons for his appointment are not wholly clear: the Imperial ambassador reported on 11 June, when all three secretaries attended the Council, that ‘the King’s schoolmaster, a great heretic, has been made secretary in place of Dr. Petre, who is said to have demanded permission to retire’; Strype, however, considered that Cheke was intended to supplant Cecil. In the event neither Petre nor Cecil retired and all three secretaries signed the device altering the succession. On 19 June Cheke was granted a writ of assistance to the Parliament which was to be called on the following 18 Sept. A writ for the previous Parliament, issued on 5 Jan. 1553, had listed him with Cecil and Petre as one of the secretaries: it may have been the intention to promote him at that time, during the King’s illness. When Cecil presented his account of his part in these events to Queen Mary he cited Cheke as a witness ‘of my purpose to stand against the matter’, and declared that it was Cheke who had dissuaded him from flight overseas. According to Cecil’s servant Roger Alford, it was Cheke who wrote the Council’s reply to Mary’s letter from Kenninghall. Cheke remained loyal to Queen Jane to the last: on 19 July he wrote the letter from Jane’s Council to Lord Rich, requiring him to remain loyal, but on the same day he was present in Cheapside at Mary’s proclamation.14

Cheke was committed to the Tower on 27 or 28 July, and an indictment was drawn up against him in the following month, but in the spring of 1554 he was released and licensed to go abroad, and on 28 Apr. he was pardoned for offences committed before the previous I Oct. He reached Strasbourg with Sir Anthony Cooke on 14 Apr. and then travelled on to Basle. On 10 July he was at Padua and two days later wrote to Sir John Mason declaring his intention, if he should stay, ‘to learn not only the Italian tongue ... but also philosophically to course over the civil law’, and asking for news of his wife. He lectured in Padua on Demosthenes, but by 20 Oct. he had returned to Strasbourg. On 4 Nov. Mason asked the Queen for charity to be shown to Cheke’s wife and children, as his income, ‘by his folly, is reduced from £600 to less than nothing’. Three months later Cheke wrote to Cecil in praise of Cecil’s conduct in the Parliament of 1555.15

Strype states that Cheke spent some time at Emden supervising the publication of Cranmer’s Defensio and it was probably Cheke who organized the Protestant propaganda issued from a printing press there and circulated in London and the eastern counties. If Cheke’s was the directing mind behind the tracts it would help to explain why, of the many Englishmen on the Continent, he was singled out for kidnapping and arrest. According to the Venetian ambassador Badoer, King Philip told the Duke of Savoy that he had ordered the arrest because he suspected Cheke and Sir Peter Carew of complicity in plots against himself and the Queen. Carew may have betrayed Cheke, although a contemporary thought that the plot was laid by Paget and Mason, who invited Cheke to Brussels to fetch his wife and assured him of a safe-conduct. Cheke and Carew were arrested between Mechlin and Antwerp on 15 May, taken to England and on 2 June imprisoned in the Tower.16

Faced with the alternatives of burning or recantation, Cheke submitted after discussions with Dr. Feckenham and Cardinal Pole, and on 15 July he wrote to the Queen from the Tower promising obedience to her laws and religion. He hoped that this was all that would be demanded of him, but in October he was forced to make a public recantation and in the following month the Venetian ambassador Michiel reported the effect of this apostasy on the Protestant party—‘well nigh 30 persons who were in prison or in danger of being burned having lately by the grace of God and through the efficacy of his language been converted’. There followed a resettlement of Cheke’s estates. These had been greatly augmented by a grant in May 1553 of lands in Cambridgeshire, Essex, Huntingdonshire and Suffolk, with a clear annual value of £100. Cheke’s freehold of all the property in the eastern counties, granted to him by Edward VI, was reduced to a reversionary interest but he was granted further freehold lands in Devon, Somerset and Suffolk with an annual value of some £200 and rents worth a further £44 a year. In March 1557 Peter Martyr received news that Cheke repented his recantation. Cheke made his will on the day of his death, 13 Sept. 1557, probate being granted on 18 Jan. following; he was perhaps a victim of the prevailing epidemic rather than, as Strype suggests, of depression. The will is brief and contains no detailed provisions: he appointed his wife and his friend Peter Osborne executors and Sir John Mason overseer. He died in Osborne’s house in Wood Street, London, and was buried in St. Alban’s church. His widow married Henry Macwilliam.17

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: S. R. Johnson


  • 1. Date of birth given in Sloane 325, f. 58. Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 54; Archaelogia, xxxviii. 114; C.H. Cooper, Cambridge Annals, ii. 135; DNB.
  • 2. Ath. Cant. i. 166; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Oxf. 1501-40, p. 114; LP Hen. VIII, xix; CSP, Dom. 1547-80, p. 11; CPR, 1549-51, p. 347; 1550-3, pp. 354, 355, 404; 1553, pp. 351, 362; 1553-4, p. 193; APC, iii. 382, 386; iv. 282; E315/236, f. 194; Strype, Cheke, 36; DNB (Ascham, Roger); C219/19/103.
  • 3. T. Baker, St. John’s, i. 105; Camb. Antiq. Soc. octavo ser. xlv. 72; Strype, 1-5.
  • 4. Baker, i. 104; Strype, 6-9, 14-18, 161, 163; Camb. Hist. Eng. Lit. iii. 430-1; Eng. Works of R. Ascham, ed. Bennett (1761), 191 seq.; Dissertissimi viri Roger Aschami (1590), 54 et passim; Troubles conn. with Prayer Bk. 1549 (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxxvii), 3; LP Hen. VIII, xvii; Foxe, Acts and Mons. vi. 97; Castiglione, The Courtyer, trans. Hoby (1561), Zz, v.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, xix; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, pp. xlv-xlviii; E315/236, f. 194; Chrysostom, Homiliae duae (1543), De providentia dei (1545); Leo VI, De bellico apparatu liber (1554); Strype, 22-23, 31; M. Dewar, Sir Thomas Smith, 24, 40; Royal 16c, ix; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 41-44.
  • 6. CPR, 1547-8, p. 284; 1550-3, p. 182; C219/19/103; Strype, 35, 36, 47; E315/218, f. 37.
  • 7. Archaeologia, xxxviii. 99-101, 114; APC, ii. 248, 259; Lansd. 2, f. 85 (misdated Strype, 44).
  • 8. Lit Rems. Edw. VI, p. cxvi; APC, ii. 260; Haynes, State Pprs. 74; SP10/6/26; Jordan, i. 375-6.
  • 9. Lansd. 2, f. 74; Zurich Letters (Parker Soc.) iii. 465; Grindal Remains (Parker Soc.) 194; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, ccxlv; Froude, Edw. VI, 99; Jordan, i. 42; ii. 406; Strype, 40-42.
  • 10. CPR, 1549-51, pp. 113, 327; Req.2/196/5; Foxe, v. 770.
  • 11. CJ, i. 21, 23; Works of Cranmer (Parker Soc.), i. 301.
  • 12. DNB (Haddon, Walter); Reform of Eccles. Laws, ed. Cardwell, p. vi; Strype, 69 seq.; C. Read, Cecil, 84-85; Works of Cranmer, i. 439.
  • 13. Zurich Letters, iii. 438, 440, 449, 456n; Strype, 66, 87, 88; Eccles. Memorials, ii(2), 534; Works of Ridley (Parker Soc.), 331-2; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, pp. clix-clxi; CSP For. 1547-53, p. 216; DNB (Leland, John); Lansd. 3, f. 2; C. Carlisle, Discourse conc. two divine positions (1582).
  • 14. F. G. Emmison, Tudor Sec. 104-7, 110-11; Strype, Cheke, 91-92; Annals, iv. 485-6; APC, iv. 282-6, 288; Zurich Letters, iii. 140; E315/225, f. 198; Read, 92-93, 95; Jordan, ii. 502; Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 12, 91, 109; Lansd. 3, f. 50; 1236, f. 24; C218/1, mm. 5, 6; Tytler, Edw. VI and Mary, ii. 175, 188, 192, 206.
  • 15. Machyn’s Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii), 38; Strype, Cheke, 94-95, 98, 151; APC, iv. 421; CPR, 1553-4, P. 435; CSP For. 1553-8, pp. 103, 105, 112, 134; C. H. Garrett, Marian Exiles, 114-17; Lansd. 3, f. 130; Read, 112.
  • 16. Garrett, 49; Strype, Cheke, 106-8; CSP Ven. 1555-6, pp. 486, 489, 505, 510.
  • 17. Strype, Cheke, 110-17, 131-9; Parker, ii. 183; Annals, ii(2), 499; HMC 3rd Rep. 239; Zurich Letters, iii. 142; CSP Ven. 1555-6, pp. 548, 554, 645, 690; Lansd. 3, f. 115; CPR, 1553, p. 92; 1555-7; PCC 2 Coode; C142/116/12; Royal 12A, xxxviii. f. 26.