Medieval Schools of England

Courtney Dainton describes how the enquiring middle class trained at the grammar schools of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries went on to influence late medieval English society.

Soon after his arrival in England in 597 St Augustine founded a school at Canterbury to train priests; it is the earliest school in the country of which we have any records. Little is known of its early years, except that in the second half of the seventh century it had two teachers whose reputation spread throughout the Christian world: Theodore of Tarsus, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 669, and his assistant, Hadrian, an African monk.

During the next two centuries similar schools, attached to cathedrals and monasteries were established elsewhere - at Rochester, London, York, Winchester, Dunwich, Worcester, Dorchester-on-Thames, Hereford, and Lichfield. The school at York was founded by Paulinus, who became Bishop of York in 628. It, too, had a teacher with an international reputation: Alcuin, who was a pupil at the school before he became master there. From Alcuin’s own writings it is known that divinity was considered to be far the most important subject taught at the school.

Whether these cathedral and monastic schools provided education for boys who did not intend to become priests or monks is uncertain. Occasionally the sons of local chieftains may have been admitted to the schools, but there was probably very little demand for education except from those who intended to enter the priesthood.

The establishment of schools for girls followed closely on that of boys’ schools. One of the earliest was attached to Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire. Another famous girls’ school was at a convent at Barking in Essex. Most of the girls educated at these schools intended to become nuns.

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