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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.

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