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By Ken Clayton


Attendance at school during the 17th century was entirely voluntary: if the parents did not want the child to go, there was nothing to say that they must because compulsory education was not introduced in England and Wales until the latter part of the 19th century. As a result, it seems unlikely that the majority of children attended school on a regular basis. There were probably two reasons for this: in the main schools charged a fee to attend and although this would have been only a few pence per term, it is unlikely that the average agricultural labourer would have been able to afford the fees. In many cases schools provided free places for poor children but then it is still unlikely that the children would have attended on a regular basis because their parents would have needed them to make a contribution to the household income either by earning money themselves or by doing jobs that would allow the parents and older siblings to spend more time earning money.

This explains why, according to David Cressy (1980) only around 25 per cent of the population nationally could read and write.


In the seventeenth century, primary education was usually provided at a Petty School, sometimes known as a Dame’s School. There would have been one school teacher, almost regardless of the number of pupils. They tended not to have professional teachers but according to Vincent (1969 p71) would be presided over by the local Parson as a way for him to supplement his stipend or by a poor woman ‘as a shelter from begging’.

Petty schools were often endowed by the rich but Vincent (1969 p72) quotes Charles Hoole as claiming that they often did not pay a living wage for a schoolmaster. Those that did frequently stipulated the inclusion of so many free scholars that good teachers would not take the jobs because they were so poorly paid.

Children were first taught to read with a horn book which was, in effect, a wooden paddle with a sheet of paper pinned to it. The alphabet was written out at the top of the book, combinations of letters below that and the Lord’s Prayer at the bottom of the book. They were called Horn Books because the writing was protected by a translucent sheet of horn nailed in place over the paper. Writing was taught about two years after reading.

The Parish Church or the schoolmaster’s house was often used for lessons.


There were many variations of Grammar school but the major distinction lay between the guild schools and the public schools. Professional Guilds such as the Haberdashers provided funding for schools but entrance was limited to the sons of Guild members. Public schools were open to all and usually endowed by wealthy individuals. Even so, Borer (1968, p94) reports that there were 1,400 grammar schools in England by 1660. Grammar schools would usually charge a registration fee and there might be other fees to be paid in addition. However, the individuals who provided the funding for the schools often stipulated that a proportion of the pupils should be educated free of charge in order that poor children could attend. This inevitably affected the schoolmaster’s income. Cliffe (p135) reports that in 1627 Roger Williams wrote that between 1627 and 1630 he was offered two livings paying £100.00 a year while, in 1630 a chaplain in a Protestant household was paid £20.00 or £30.00 a year.

There could be up to 50 or 100 pupils of different ages in a school, all presided over by one Master and one Usher. Vincent (1969 p58 and p69) reports that Berkhamstead School had 144 boys with one Master and one Usher. They had only one classroom but Huggett (1998 p10) states that there would have been monitors chosen from the older boys to help keep order. It would have been relatively unusual for girls to have attended grammar schools. According to Borer, girls had been admitted to grammar schools in Tudor times (1968 p94) ‘…but as the Puritans gained power the status of women sank…’. She also reports that at Uffington school ‘…there is a note in the records for 1637 that girls be refused admission..’. This is not to say that girls were never educated beyond the petty school. One example was Red Maids in Bristol which was set up specifically to teach girls. That said, Borer (1968 p94) reports that they ‘were to be taught ‘to read English and to sew or do some other laudable work for their maintenance’ and in 1628 a similar school was founded in Great Marlowe…’.

The Master was expected to be severe and to keep the pupils in awe and good order and to have a University degree according to Vincent (p62 and p112). The Master was often 23 or 24 years old when first appointed although records show that at least one was appointed at age 65 (Vincent p118) and, given that when they stopped teaching, most would have had no income, they had little choice but to keep teaching until they died. However there were exceptions. Sargeaunt maintains (1898 p13) that masters at Westminster School supplemented their incomes by taking boys in as borders and comments that ‘Every boy in the School was supposed to give a Christmas gift to each of the Masters. Practically the gift was a compulsory payment’. In some cases the Master was not allowed to marry without the permission of the school governors, local JP or other specified individuals (Vincent p113) and although Masters were often in holy orders and therefore could be fulfilling the role of Parson as well as schoolmaster (Vincent p113), it was by no means unusual for the schoolmaster to be forbidden to hold any additional office.

A school would operate for eight hours a day, six days a week. (Vincent p58) It was normal for pupils to begin their school day at 06:00 in summer and 07:00 in winter. Those arriving first would be allowed to sit in the places they had been elected to the day before. If they were late, they sat wherever there was a place for them until they were elected to a better place again. (Huggett p11) After religious observance an hour would have been spent copying out the Latin exercises they had been given the night before (Huggett p11). There would be a break of between 30 and 45 minutes between 08:00 and 09:00 (Vincent p58). The Master would arrive at 09:15. (Huggett p11) and the boys would go home for their mid-day meal at 11:00. They returned at 13:00, had a 15 minute break at 15:00 or 15:30 (Huggett p11) then worked until 17:00. (Vincent p58) although some schools closed earlier, typically at dusk in winter. The day ended with a Bible reading, singing of a psalm and a prayer. (Huggett p11)

There was no play time except on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon when boys would be allowed to play games such as shooting with longbows, chess, running, wrestling, leaping, driving a top and tossing a handball. (Vincent p59) Even Sunday was not entirely a day of rest. In some schools, pupils were expected to attend church twice and make notes about the sermon in order to be able to discuss it with their classmates on Monday.

Barring out was a tradition that involved barring access to the school to the Master and Usher. It usually happened just before the Christmas holidays. (Vincent p67)

The major subject within the curriculum was Latin which was taught as a foreign language with pupils expected to learn to read, speak and write Latin, to translate from Latin into English and then, after a period of time had passed, to translate the text back into English. They would be expected to perform plays in Latin and to deliver orations in Latin. In some cases, pupils who were capable of speaking Latin were forbidden to speak English when in the company of others who spoke Latin. The emphasis on Latin arose because it was the language used in a variety of professions including the law and medicine. For example Harvey published his work on the circulation of the blood in Latin.

After three years, pupils at some schools would be taught Greek and, in a few schools, Hebrew and Arabic, although this was not common.

Rhetoric was the second major element of the curriculum and appears to have been intended to teach boys to be more eloquent, to improve their vocabulary and to order their arguments so as to persuade others to their point of view.

Religious instruction was, inevitably, a significant subject within the curriculum. English was taught although the attitude of the schoolmaster John Brinsley appears to have been that it was necessary to teach English only because parents complained that their sons could speak Latin fluently but struggled to express themselves in their own language. According to Hugget (p10) Merchant Taylors School in Manchester was the first to teach English in the mid-16th century. Reading was included along with writing although this latter would probably have been aimed at teaching the boys to write what was described as ‘a good hand’ which could be read easily. For that purpose, it is likely that a Scrivener would have visited the school from time to time to teach handwriting. They would have provided copy sheets and, in the Scrivener’s absence, the Schoolmaster would have set the boys to copying the text provided by the Scrivener. In some cases, the school statutes dictated that the boys must provide their own quill pens, ink, paper and wax candles for writing.

Arithmetic was taught only rarely before 1660 (Vincent p74) on the grounds, according to some Schoolmasters, that pupils at Grammar schools were young gentlemen and the only people who needed to learn arithmetic were those who were going into trade. This was not seen as a slur on any section of society: the idea that ‘Trade’ was somehow disreputable would not surface until the 18th century. However, of 48 Grammar schools founded between 1660 and 1714 29 taught writing and 21 taught arithmetic. (Vincent p74) Later in the century the curriculum grew broader. Dartford Grammar, founded in 1679, taught Latin, English, mathematics and navigation. (Huggett p10)

It can be seen therefore that education in England during the 17th century was an extremely patchy affair. For the mass of the population, it was out of reach. For the wealthier members of society, it may have been available but it was not universally good.


Borer, Mary Cathcart, (1968) People of Stuart England, Belfast, W. and G. Baird Ltd.
Brinsley, John, (1627), Grammar Schoole, London, John Bellamie.
Cliffe, J. T. (1999) The World of the Country House in Seventeenth-Century England, New York, Yale University Press
Cressy, David, (1980), Literacy and the Social Order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Huggett, Jane, (1998) The Book of Children 1480 – 1680 Part 2 Age 7 – 14, Bristol, Stuart Press
Sargeaunt, John, (1898) Annals of Westminster School, London, Methuen & Co.
Taylor, David and Ruth (2002) Mr Adams’ Free Grammar School, London, Phillimore & Co Ltd.
Vincent, W. A. L. (1969) The Grammar Schools, London, John Murray
Watson, Foster, (1908) The English Grammar Schools to 1660: Their Curriculum and Practice, Cambridge, University Press