A hard life at Tudor school

PUBLISHED: 17:17 10 August 2006 | UPDATED: 11:56 04 May 2010

I came across an article recently about grammar schools in Elizabethan times and was interested to compare it with our present system. The schools were founded for the teaching of Latin grammar. Most of the time in the Lower School was devoted to learning

I came across an article recently about grammar schools in Elizabethan times and was interested to compare it with our present system. The schools were founded for the teaching of Latin grammar. Most of the time in the Lower School was devoted to learning this by heart, in the Upper School to the study of Latin authors and writing and speaking Latin.

The education was only for boys, of course. With no computers, calculators or modern technology, the boys would have written using a goose quill pen. This was sharpened by their penknife also used as a table knife. Beeswax candles would have been their only form of lighting and their lessons began at seven o'clock in the morning.

The grammar school boys at Ely would have followed such a routine and the diocesan archives give us some special insight into school life at the Cathedral Grammar School.

The Dean and chapter, for the "furtherance of piety and good learning, are to choose 24 poor boys of aptitude and learning". Henry VIII laid down this ordinance in the 1541 Foundation.

The boys were aged between nine and 15 years of age and were taught to read and speak Latin. They normally stayed at the school for four years, never more than five, and if found to be "slow or lazy" were reported to the Dean, who could remove them. They were taught by a schoolmaster appointed by the Dean and an usher, who taught the younger boys.

The grammar school masters, their boys, the choirboys and the 10 minor canons were all required to eat together in the common hall with the precentor at the head of the table. The schoolmaster was responsible for the behaviour of the boys at mealtimes.

Each boy received a stipend from the cathedral of 15 shillings a year. In addition, every Christmas, the boys were given two and a half yards of three and four penny cloth to make outer garments. All of those serving in the choir, the grammar school boys, choristers and six poor men, supported by the Cathedral, had to wear the same colour outer garments.

Prayers were to be said in the school by the usher and all the boys at 6am every morning and again before dismissal at 5pm.

The grammar scholars also had to attend the cathedral on feast days "and will recite the psalm Have pity on me O Lord and The Lord's Prayer".

For those boys who were loath to do their work the cane was an ever-present threat.

One schoolmaster at Ely "rejoiced at beating them soundly for the smallest of reasons".

The boys prayed in the cathedral to St Erminilde, the patron saint of schoolboys, for deliverance from their severe schoolmaster. Arriving back in the cloisters one boy offended the master who raised his cane to strike him, but he suffered a seizure before he could hit the boy.

The boys carried him to his cell where he lay paralysed for several days. He pleaded with the boys to help him. They agreed, but only if he promised never to beat them again. With his promise they carried him into St Erminilde's chapel where he repented of his unkindness and was healed and never raised his cane to them again.

Elizabethan grammar school boys played with bowling stones, throwing a bowl at ninepins, striking a ball through a ring and hoop trundling. The latter a tradition that still takes place every year at The King's School, Ely. But one imagines that after such a long and stressful day Elizabethan schoolboys had little time for play.

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