Out of the Cloistered Shadows

For Centuries education had been the responsibility of priests and monks and not truly respected as a profession in its own right.  It wasn’t until the Reformation began in 1517 that teaching was considered worthy of more than just songs and religious doctrine.

Education in Medieval England was generally conducted in small schools usually attached to churches, Cathedrals and monasteries. Lessons were taught by minor clergy in basic religious rites, with emphasis on the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins.  The alphabet was taught along with the psalters, but within the Grammar schools Latin was also included in the curriculum with composition and translation.

A school day could last up to 13 hours with breaks for meals, and birch beatings were commonplace as a form of discipline.

In the 14th Century, education was often in the form of a practical apprenticeship, and instruction would be expected to lead to a trade.  These apprenticeships would be forbidden to the very poorest in society, however, as it was maintained that labourers were required to work the land and the movement of labour was tightly controlled.

‘Education’ was still the domain of the wealthy and elite sons of society.

The blueprint of what was to become Oxford University was originally thought to have been inspired by King Alfred in 872 and originally consisted of people gathering together in the city to learn, rather than in a building.  It wasn’t until the 12th Century that buildings were erected to accommodate the growing enthusiasm for education.  When fights and disagreements erupted between the Oxford townsfolk and the students, many students fled to Cambridge in 1209 to establish the now world-renowned University.  It was here in this more emancipated, yet privileged environment that students could choose their subjects to study and hire professors to suit their own hours and teaching preferences.

However, when Winchester College was founded by Chancellor to King Richard II, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, as a dedicated place of learning in 1382, it opened its doors to the first 70 poor scholars in 1394.  The criteria for being ‘poor’ meant a family income of less than 5 marks sterling, (around £2,000 per annum, in today’s currency).  By the 15th Century it was teaching 100 pupils made up of 70 scholars, 16 quiristers (choirboys) and commoners, and the curriculum was still generally limited to religious doctrine.  But it was the start of a movement which introduced a new way of thinking in bringing education to the common man.

It was Henry VI, a ‘Champion of Schools’ who established Eton College in 1440 and subsequently inspired endowments for other such schools. Eton was grander than Winchester College at that time and included a school where 25 poor scholars would be given free board, lodging and education based on the model of the ground-breaking Hampshire college.

A year later, Henry issued a foundation charter for a Cambridge College, (now known as King’s College) to allow scholars from Eton to study there.  However, when Henry was deposed in 1461, Edward IV gave away most of the school’s property to the college of St George in Windsor Castle which seriously diminished Eton’s funds and greatly reduced its intake of students, a blow from which it took Eton many years to recover.

Today, Winchester College is known as the oldest of the original nine English public schools as listed by the Clarendon Commission (est.1861) and which comprise of:

Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester.  The day schools are St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors.

The Clarendon Report published the findings of its enquiries on governance and financial management at the schools, which ultimately led to The Public Schools Act of 1868 where tighter regulations were introduced.

The education system in England was rigid and narrow for many years with its strong ecclesiastical influences, and it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that ideas began to change.

Schoolmasters in the sixteenth century were still very poorly paid and were, in the main, forced to deal with large classes of unruly boys, ensuring that the notoriously harsh discipline metered out by clergy in previous centuries was continued, as rioting among students was rife. But the prevailing dominance of religious dogma was loosened by Henry VIII when he expelled Catholics and their papal literature along with iconic ornaments of worship.  Education took on humanistic influences and Greek was taught along with Latin.  Girls from privileged backgrounds were now considered worthy of being educated, albeit limited in scope and certainly not yet in the intellectual pursuits enjoyed by their male peers, as Tudor girls were still encouraged to prioritise the perfecting of domestic duties of the future wife she was expected to become.  Nevertheless, a major overhaul of Education had begun.

We will peer further into this period of change and expanding curricular in the next blog in this series.