In Tudor England you had to pay to go to school. Often, only boys from rich families went to school while the girls were educated at home. Poor children generally did not go to school, instead going to work from an early age to earn money for their families. Many boys attended parish schools where the local vicar taught basic skills. The wealthiest families would hire a tutor to teach their boys at home.
Boys often started school at the age of 4, learning to read and write, then at 7 they went on to grammar school. Grammar school taught Latin and Greek as well as logic, mathematics and rhetoric. Pupils were often required to speak in Latin while at school. Unlike our modern week, with two days off school at the weekend, Tudor schools were open six days a week! The school day started at 7.00am in winter and 6.00am in summer and didn’t end until about 5.00pm. ‘Petty Schools’ had shorter hours, to allow poorer boys to go to work as well.
There were still opportunities for poorer children. Local women would run schools, often in their own homes, for girls and boys. These school dames would teach local reading and simple maths. Girls might be taught sewing and boys how to write. These came to be known as ‘Dame Schools’.
Writing practice often focused on religious texts, like the Lord’s Prayer. Books were expensive and rare in classrooms, so pupils read from hornbooks instead. The alphabet or prayers were pinned to wooden boards and covered with a layer of transparent cow’s horn.
Image: Daniel Penfield. Via Wikipedia
These lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like it suggest that school days would have been hard for boys in Tudor times:
… the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
Punishments in Tudor school were harsh - corporal punishment was practised, and boys would be whipped with canes for any misdemeanours. It is sometimes thought that rich parents would pay for a ‘whipping boy’ to be punished in place of their son; but there is some doubt about whether this actually happened. However, if it did, it would be a deterrent to misbehaviour if a boy had to witness someone else being punished in his place.
At the age of about 14, some boys went on to university. There were only two universities in Tudor England – Oxford and Cambridge.
Our finds on the Mary Rose suggest that most of the men were uneducated, although it is likely that the officers had received at least some education. Nine books, two inkpots and two quill nibs hint that at least some of the men could read and write; but some objects were simply marked with the owner’s sign.
There were leather-bound book covers, from which the paper had disappeared long ago; we think it is likely these would have been prayer books.
In contrast, most children today enjoy school and look forward to their lessons. Corporal punishment is now against the law, and there is equality for boys and girls. The curriculum has expanded enormously since Tudor times, and being poor is no longer a bar to education, which is free for all.
But did our Tudor forebears valued education more than we do because it was more difficult to obtain? Who can say...