William Lilye

William Lilye, or Lily (c. 1468 – 25 February, 1522) was an English classical grammarian and scholar. He was an author of the most widely used Latin grammar textbook in England and was the first headmaster of St Paul's School, London.


Lilye was born c. 1468 at Odiham, Hampshire and he entered the university of Oxford in 1486. After graduating in arts he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return journey he put in at Rhodes, which was still occupied by the knights of St John, under whose protection many Greeks had taken refuge after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. He then went on to Italy, where he attended the lectures of Sulpitius Verulanus and Pomponius Laetus at Rome, and of Egnatius at Venice.

After his return he settled in London—where he became friends with Thomas More—as a private teacher of grammar, and is believed to have been the first who taught Greek in that city. In 1510 Colet, dean of St Paul's, who was then founding the school which afterwards became famous, appointed Lilye the first high master in 1512. Colet's correspondence with Erasmus shows he first offered the position to the Dutchman, who refused it, before considering Lilye. Ward and Waller ranked Lily "with Grocyn and Linacre as one of the most erudite students of Greek that England possessed". The school became a paragon of classical scholarship.

He died of the plague in London on 25 February 1522 and was buried in the north churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral.


Lilye is famous not only as one of the pioneers of Greek learning, but as one of the joint-authors of a book, familiar to many generations of students during the 19th century, the old Eton Latin grammar or "Accidence". This "Brevissima Institutio", a sketch by Colet, corrected by Erasmus and worked upon by Lilye, contains two portions, the author of which is indisputably Lilye. These are the lines on the genders of nouns, beginning "Propria quae maribus", and those on the conjugation of verbs beginning As in "praesenti". The "Carmen de Moribus" bears Lilye's name in the early editions; but Hearne asserts that it was written by Leland, who was one of his scholars, and that Lilye only adapted it.

An edition published in 1534 was entitled "Rudimenta Grammatices". Various other parts were added and a stable form finally appeared in 1540. In 1542 Henry VIII authorised it as the sole Latin grammar textbook to be used in education and schools; it has been suggested that Henry commissioned the book but the interval between initial publication and authorisation argue against this. With corrections and revisions, it was used for more than three hundred years. It was so widely used by Elizabethan scholars that Shakespeare was able to refer to it in the second scene of Act IV of "Titus Andronicus", quote from it in the first scene of Act II of "Henry IV, Part 1" ("Homo" is a common name to all men") and allude to it in the first scene of Act IV of "The Merry Wives of Windsor".

Part of the grammar is a poem, "Carmen de Moribus", which lists school regulations in a series of pithy sentences, using a broad vocabulary, and examples of most of the rules of Latin grammar that were part of an English grammar school curriculum. (See Latin mnemonics.) The poem is an early reinforcement of part of the reading list in Erasmus' "De Ratione Studii" of the Classical authors who should be included in the curriculum of a Latin grammar school. Specifically, the authors derived from Erasmus are Cicero, Terence, and Virgil.

When John Milton wrote his Latin grammar "Accedence Commenc't Grammar" (1669), over 60 percent of his 530 illustrative quotations were taken from Lilye's grammar.

Besides the "Brevissima Institutio", Lilye wrote a variety of Latin pieces and translations from Greek, both in prose and verse. Some of the latter are printed along with the Latin verses of Sir Thomas More in "Progymnasmata Thomae Mori et Gulielmi Lylii Sodalium" (1518). Another volume of Latin verse ("Antibossicon ad Gulielmum Hormannum", 1521) is directed against a rival schoolmaster and grammarian, Robert Whittington, who had "under the feigned name of Bossus, much provoked Lilye with scoffs and biting verses."

A sketch of Lilye's life by his son George, canon of St Paul's, was written for Paulus Jovius, who was collecting for his history the lives of the learned men of Great Britain.


*Anders, Henry R.D. "Shakespeare’s books: A dissertation on Shakespeare’s reading and the immediate sources of his works" (New York: AMS, 1965)
* [http://books.google.com/books?vid=0uDV2YYiT0IUgRf5&id=tdoFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=A+short+introduction+of+grammar#PPP28,M1 "Lily, William. "A shorte introduction of grammar" (1513)]
*Ward, A. W. and Waller, A.R. (eds.) "The Cambridge History of English and American Literature". Volume III: "Renascence and Reformation" (Cambridge: University Press, 1908)
*J. H. Lupton, formerly sur-master of St Paul's School, in the "Dictionary of National Biography".

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