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1500-1600 Renaissance and Reformation

The History Of Education In England

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

Henry VIII

1500-1600 Renaissance and Reformation

Europe was reshaped by two forces during this time.

The first of these was the Renaissance (rebirth), a cultural movement that started in Italy during the 14th Century before spreading throughout the continents over the following three hundred years. Whilst the Renaissance tends to be considered in terms of artistic development such as linear perspective in painting it also encompassed a resurge in learning from classical sources and a more generally humanist educational reform. This educational reform was based on reasoning and empirical evidence.

The second force was the Reformation, the establishment of Protestantism as a branch of Christianity. It was prompted by discontent with the perceived worldliness of the Papacy and the financial demands it made. It had begun as far back as the 14th Century when the Lollards, led by John Wycliffe and the Hussites who were followers of a Czech reformer called Jan Hus began to attack the hierarchical and legalistic structure of the Church. The Reformation however, is usually reckoned as having begun in 1517 when Martin Luther protested about Church corruption and the sale of indulgences. The movement subsequently spread across Europe during the following two hundred years.


 The English Reformation

For England’s part the process was a much more local affair and centred on Henry VIII’s disputes with Rome regarding the status of his marriages. At first Henry (pictured – from the portrait by Hans Holbein) opposed the reforming movement and dedicated his book Assertio Septum Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments) to Pope Leo X, who rewarded him in 1521 with the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith).  This Papal loyalty began to change in 1527 with Henry’s desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. In addition he was also keen to extend the sovereignty of central government. It was therefore, for both political and personal reasons that he both overthrew and dissolved the monasteries.

Henry’s education was under the direction of John Skelton and Bernard Andre amongst others, and as a result he received the best grammar school, song school and university education of the day. He studied Latin, literature, rhetoric, dialectic, music, French, Italian and Spanish.

According to the historian Leach:

“Henry VIII was, perhaps, the most highly educated person for his time who ever sat on the throne of England. … Hence his zeal for learning and for education. No king ever showed more desire to promote learning and learned men, and none was more impressed and desirous of impressing on others the advantages, or did more for the advancement of education. Whether in the statutes of the realm or in the ordinances and statutes of the many foundations of his time, he was never tired of expatiating on the necessity of education and the benefit that educated men were to church and commonwealth.” (Leach 1915:277)

Leach estimated that there were approximately 400 schools for a population of just 2.25 million with one school for every 5,625 people although he did accept that it was difficult to ascertain the precise number of schools and even harder to calculate the exact population levels at any given point during the Middle Ages.

Under Henry’s leadership, the English Reformation affected education in a number of ways. Some of the old foundation schools were closed and an equal number of new ones were opened. Many older schools were revived, expanded, or converted into free schools. The grammar school remained central to the system, but there was an important change in its sponsorship. While the typical medieval grammar school belonged to the church, the new grammar schools were mostly private foundations supervised in variable degrees by both Church and State.

The abolition of the larger monasteries in 1540 resulted in the refounding of twelve grammar schools as part of so-called ‘new foundation’ cathedrals. In these new institutions the monks, who had removed the canons 600 years earlier, were now turned out to make room for canons.

The statutes of the re-founded school at Canterbury included a chapter concerning ‘The Method of Teaching”. It allowed for six classes with three under the Usher and three under the headmaster. These schools would provide the majority of the education of England until the eighteenth century.

Another major outcome of the Reformation was the translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular of the day and in 1535 Henry VIII’s Vicar-General and chief adviser Thomas Cromwell ordered that copies of William Tyndale’s new English Bible were to be placed in every parish church. Parliament was unhappy with this decision and showed its displeasure in 1543 (three years after Cromwell had fallen from grace and been executed) by passing an Act which banned artisans, husbandmen, labourers, servants and almost all women from reading or discussing the Bible. The prohibition proved impossible to enforce however. And the brief availability of the English Bible had already encouraged many to learn to read and had made them think about the nature of society and the church. ‘This was a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions and the consequences are deemed to have stretched way beyond the period of the Reformation and the English Revolution.

The English Renaissance

The Renaissance came relatively late to England and is widely viewed as being a feature of the Elizabethan period in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with writers like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Sir Philip Sidney and John Milton, architects such as Inigo Jones, and composers Thomas Tallis, John Taverner and William Byrd. However, while the Reformation resulted in changes to the structure of the English school system, the Renaissance appears to have had little effect on the curriculum. One historian wrote:

‘while the schools were reorganised by the Reformation their teaching was not redirected by the Renaissance’.

This meant that Greek and occasionally Hebrew were added to the main Latin curriculum (to assist correct understanding of the scriptures) and there was more study of literature, but the education provided by the grammar schools – and by the universities – remained rigid and narrow.

As a result the major achievements of the Renaissance, in the vernacular literatures, in geographical discovery, in new painting and music, in the new spirit in philosophy and physical inquiry, in changing attitudes to the individual, had little effect on the standard forms of general education.

The renaissance did however, have the effect of extending education to the laity while Henry’s reforms reduced the control of the monks. The period was a complex one, but with three clear trends: ‘the increase in vernacular teaching, the failure of the traditional institutions to adapt either to a changing economy or to an expanding culture, and the passing of most of the leading schools from sponsorship by a national institution to private benefaction. The main educational theories of the Renaissance – especially the ideal of the scholar-courtier – had little effect on English schools. It has also been argued that they had ‘the paradoxical effect of reducing the status of schools’ in favour of an alternative pattern, ‘drawing in part on the chivalric tradition, of education at home through a private tutor’ (Williams 1961:133), a preference which, for many families, would last well into the nineteenth century.

Apprenticeships and chivalry

As early as the 16th century and even more so in the 17th there was much criticism of the limited curriculum of the grammar schools because it was based on the requirements of the universities and the learned professions. In particular, it no longer suited the needs of the upper classes, who wanted their sons trained for posts at Court, for diplomacy and for higher appointments in the army.  As a result, two other types of educational provision became popular with the upper classes: apprenticeships in crafts and trades, which were standardised in the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers in 1562; and the chivalry system, which enabled noble families to send their young sons to be pages at great houses and undergo a course of training for knighthood. It has been pointed out that the existence of these two systems, alongside the academic system, reminds us of the determining effect on education of the actual social structure. The labouring poor were largely unaccounted for although there are notable cases of individual boys getting a complete education, through school and university based on merit. For the rest, education was organised in general relation to a firm structure of inherited and destined status and condition: the craft apprentices, the future knights, the future clerisy.

At this time, in France and in the German and Scandinavian states – knightly or courtly academies were being founded to give instruction to young nobles, not only in horsemanship and the use of arms, but also in modern languages, history and geography, and in the application of mathematics to military and civil engineering.

A proposal for the establishment of a school on these lines in England was made by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1572, and in the following century Cowley, Locke, Defoe and other writers urged the setting up of such schools. In the 17th century England’s upper classes sent their sons to private tutors, and then to the continental knightly or courtly academies. The development of this type of school designed for the governing class was one of a number of movements which reflected the disparity between classical grammar schools and the requirements of contemporary life.

New types of school

Although the traditional grammar school changed little, there were significant developments in the education of younger children. The number of schools increased and there was a wide variety of forms, ranging from instruction by priests to private adventure schools..

Another type of school which began to develop was the ‘writing school’. The aim of these schools was to meet the secular needs of a society in which trade was now expanding rapidly and whose administration was becoming more complex. Some grammar schools adopted their policy of teaching English and accounts.

Elizabethan England

Elizabeth I’s reign from 1558 to 1603 was a period of extraordinary expansion: Elizabethan England ‘took the world by surprise’ – in navigation, commerce, colonisation, poetry, drama, philosophy and science. Much of this was due to ‘the immense extension of lay initiative and effort’ in every area of national life – ‘not least in the sphere of education and the schools’ (Leach 1915:332).

One of the most notable educationists of the period was Roger Ascham (1515-1568), the teacher of Queen Elizabeth. He bemoaned the lack of status accorded to education:

“It is pitie, that commonlie, more care is had, yea and that emonges verie wise men, to finde out rather a cunnynge man for their horse, than a cunnyng man for their children. To the one they will gladlie giue a stipend of 200 crounes by yeare, and loth to offer to the other 200 shillinges. God suffereth them, to haue, tame, and well ordered horse, but wilde and vnfortunate children.” (The Scholemaster, quoted in Nunes, undated)

Ascham also stressed the importance of play in education.

‘The Scholehouse should be in deede, as it is called by name, the house of playe and pleasure, and not of feare and bondage.’

He set up his own school, funded by Richard Sackville.


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.

Vikings and Normans – 866 to 1100

The History Of Education In England

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

Vikings and Normans – 866 to 1100


The progression and expansion of education in England was violently interrupted due to the prolonged succession of Viking raids from around 866 onwards. According to historian A.F. Leach:

“A gloomy interval in the history of English education ensued after the death of Offa and the widespread devastation caused by the Viking invasions. When the curtain rises again, the scene has shifted from the North and the Midlands to the South, and centres in the great figure of Alfred.”

Alfred’s prominence in the next stage of education was down to his Wessex kingdom being the only part of England that successfully resisted the Viking invasion. HAL Fisher tells us that Alfred took:

‘delight in the songs and literature of his people’ and showed ‘concern for education’.

He also taught his own children English literature and Latin and it was through him that reconstruction of the English school system began. His influence on the importance of education was continued by his son and grandson Edward the Elder and Athlestan.


It transpires however, that not all Vikings were destructive when it came to education. Canute, a Christian who married his predecessor’s (Ethlered the Unready) widow, was greatly concerned about the education of poor boys. Herman, the 11th Century historian of Bury St. Edmunds wrote:

whenever he went to any famous monastery or borough he sent there at his own expense boys to be taught for the clerical or monastic order, not only those whom he found among freemen but also the cleverer of the poor, and with his own hand in kingly munificence he also in his progress made some free.


Further big changes were to come as a result of the Norman invasion in 1066. Leach asserts that one of the worst effects of the Conquest was:

‘the foisting of the Italian adventurer Lanfranc into the See of Canterbury’

It seems that there was a desire to expel the monks from Canterbury along with the other monastic cathedral schools and reinstate seculars but these attempts were frustrated by the monkish Lanfranc. As a result the school remained under the control of Lanfranc unlike York and St. Paul’s whose schools who were taught and governed by resident Chapter members. The downside to this was Lanfranc’s lack of residency and his lack of interest in schools and schoolboys.

Despite these problems the secular schools flourished under the Normans with French replacing English as the teaching language medium for Latin and Latin being translated into Norman-French rather than English.  Norman-French remained the vernacular of the upper classes in the country, the middle classes in the towns, and the whole cultured and clerkly class until the reign of Edward III in the mid 14th Century.

Even though the secular schools were expanding education was still mainly about vocational training for those intending to become monks or enter the priesthood but there are records of education for younger members of the royal and noble families.


In The Beginning – The King’s School Canterbury

The History Of Education In England

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

In The Beginning – The King’s School Canterbury

The first schools were established by St. Augustine in order to teach Latin to English priests. It is generally accepted that the first of these schools was King’s School in Canterbury (pictured above), a Grammar School which was founded in around 597 or 598 making it the world’s oldest extant school.  King’s School was endowed by King Ethelbert who also endowed the Church that was founded at the same time but is actually named after Henry VIII as it was refounded at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.

The first Grammar Schools were not schools as we understand them.  The educational ideas were derived from Roman and Hellenistic schools of rhetoric and they taught seven liberal arts and sciences – grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – which were regarded as a preparation for the study of theology, law and medicine.  The primary subjects were Latin grammar and literature because the schools’ main aims were to prepare scholars for the priesthood making it a vocational education.

The scholars were future priests and monks who were being trained to conduct Church services and to read and understand the Bible and early Christian fathers’ writings. As a result ‘grammar’ at this point did not mean learning about the structure of language as we understand it today.  The current meaning didn’t develop until the middle ages. It was instead a preparation for reading, especially reading aloud, and was taken to involve comprehension and commentary.

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