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1100-1500 Expansion and Development

The History Of Education In England

An occasional series highlighting the history of our education system from the 6th Century onwards

 Eton College

1100-1500 Expansion and Development

Church control of education


By about 1100 schools were attached to all the cathedrals and collegiate churches with the schoolmaster being one of their most important officers and teaching one of their most important functions. New schools were being established and there was a demand for them in every town of a considerable size but not all of the new schools were being provided by the Churches. In addition some schools were removed from Church control, such as Bedford, Christchurch and Waltham. These schools were handed over to secular canons. Bury St. Edmund’s School had probably been founded as part of a collegiate church before Canute’s time and was given an endowment at the end of the twelfth century to convert it into a ‘free or partially free grammar school’. The monasteries did not take this lying down and tried to regain control of the schools. In Bristol the city grammar school was transferred from the governance of the seculars to the regulars on the foundation of Keynsham Abbey in 1171.

With regard to curriculum the average attainments were just reading and writing and this was supplemented by chanting and an elementary knowledge of Latin in the cathedral schools. But the school curriculum was beginning to develop. For younger pupils rhetoric became as important as grammar while a growing availability of the works of Aristotle resulted in a greater emphasis on logic.

At this stage education was still primarily a Christian enterprise but liberal education was developing. This liberal education was a preparation for the specialised study of law, medicine and theology.  The idea of Seven Liberal Arts (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) dated back to the 5th Century but was now beginning to take on a greater importance in education.

Independent schools

While control of the church over education was beginning to diminish during this time in its development it was never removed entirely. And as we know religious provision of schools is still a significant and expanding feature of education in England today.

There were a number of challenges for the church:

  1. The development of philosophy, medicine and law along with the requirements of an expanding secular society removed parts of the curriculum from church supervision
  2. The new universities (which we shall discuss in our next posting) were determined to be independent corporate learned bodies deciding their own conditions for granting degrees and licences to teach.
  3. Finally, by the end of the 15th century the network of grammar and song schools had been joined by a number of ‘independent’ schools.

By the latter half of the 14th Century benefactors to monasteries had diminished and wealthy donors were beginning to establish chantries, each one with its own priest who could celebrate mass for the benefactor’s soul and a lot of times conduct a school.

The first of these chantry schools was probably the grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, founded in 1384 by Lady Katherine Berkeley. Chantry schools were effectively independent of the church. This is different to our modern understanding of the term ‘independent school’ which indicates independence from the state. Over time more independent schools were opened for the boys of the ruling class who paid fees and sons of the poor and needy. These boys were schooled in reading and writing, plain song and Latin Grammar.  Because of their independence admission to these schools was not restricted to one local catchment area but was on a national basis. They drew increasingly on a single social class, combining the educational methods of the grammar schools and the social training of the chivalric system (1). They developed into the ‘public schools’ (private or non-state schools) which still exist today. In view of their close connection with the colleges of the new universities, their development had a profound effect on the educational system as a whole.

Two of the earliest independent schools were Winchester and Eton.


Winchester College was founded by William of Wykeham who was Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor to Richard II. Winchester’s charter of foundation was granted in 1382, the buildings were begun in 1387 and the first scholars entered the school in 1394. During this period William of Wykeham also founded New College Oxford to provide for the further education of his seventy Winchester pupils. The special significance of Winchester was that although it was connected with New College it was a separate and distinct foundation for boys being an independent corporation, self-centred and self-governed’).


Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440 and was followed a year later by King’s College Cambridge which was to be supplied with scholars from Eton. The school was to be part of a large foundation which included a community of secular priests, ten of whom were Fellows, a pilgrimage church, and an almshouse. Provision was made for seventy scholars to receive free education.

Growing public interest

The growing interest of the laity in education during this period is visible in the licences that were granted to two Trinity gilds in Oxfordshire to maintain schoolmasters, one at Deddington in 1446, and the other at Chipping Norton in 1451.

Finally, the great schoolmaster William Wayneflete founded Magdalen College and attached two schools, one at his birthplace of Wainfleet, Lincolnshire in 1459 and the other Magdalen College School, by the gates of the college at Oxford. At the latter he paid for a master to be paid £10 a year and an usher (his deputy) £5, ‘to teach all comers freely and gratis without exaction of anything’.

It is noteworthy that this system of public schools being used as feeder schools for Oxford and Cambridge persists to this day.

(1)    Chivalric System – For youngsters of the aristocracy in the Middle Ages of the 13th century, there was chivalric education. This was a kind of secondary education that young men received while living in the homes of nobles or at court. It included some poetry, national history, heraldry, manners and customs, physical training, dancing, a little music, and battle skills. Chivalric, secular education was governed by a code rather than a curriculum. Boys of the lower classes could learn a trade through apprenticeship in a craftsman’s shop.


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