Tudor Education

By Tim Lambert

In the early 16th century, many boys went to chantry schools. Rich men left money in their wills to pay priests to pray for their souls. After the religious changes of the 1540s, the chantry schools were closed. However many rich men founded grammar schools.

Boys usually went to a kind of nursery school called a ‘petty school’ first then moved on to grammar school when they were about seven. The school day began at 6 am in summer and 7 am in winter (people went to bed early and got up early in those days). Lunch was from 11 am to 1 pm. School finished at about 5 pm. Boys went to school 6 days a week and there were few holidays.

In Tudor times many children learned to read and write with something called a hornbook. It was not a book in the modern sense. Instead, it was a wooden board with a handle. Fixed to the board was a sheet of paper with the alphabet and the Lord’s prayer (the Our Father) written on it. The paper was usually protected by a thin slice of animal horn.

Discipline in Tudor schools was savage. The teacher often had a stick with birch twigs attached to it for hitting boys. At about 15 or 16 the brightest boys might go to one of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

In the Middle Ages university students learned the seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In the 16th century, they began to study the humanities. In the Middle Ages, ancient writers like Aristotle were regarded as the final authority. Lecturing was a matter of explaining what they meant. However, with the Renaissance, there was a new spirit of inquiry.

Of course, many Tudor boys did not go to school at all. If they were lucky they might get a 7-year apprenticeship and learn a trade. Some craftsmen could read and write but few laborers could.

As for girls, in a rich family, a tutor usually taught them at home. In a middle-class family, their mother might teach them. Upper-class and middle-class women were educated. However, lower-class girls were not.

Tudor children who did not go to school were expected to work. They helped their parents by doing tasks such as scaring birds when seeds were sown They also helped to weave wool and did other household tasks.