Learned ladies in Saxon times—Education of women in the Middle Ages—The rise of Grammar Schools—Want of provision for girls—Convent schools—Improvement of education in the fifteenth century—Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and her patronage of learning.
Latin was then the great vehicle of knowledge. It was the language of law, the medium of correspondence between scholars. Most of the accessible literature was in Latin. It was, therefore, to the study of that language above all else that students betook themselves. The learned ladies of the sixteenth century had their forerunners in the women of the seventh and eighth, in the studious Abbess Eadburga and her pupil Leobgitha, with both of whom the celebrated St. Boniface, called the Apostle of Germany, corresponded in Latin.
At that period learning was so closely associated with religion, that the Church was the nursery of scholars. The acquirements of the Saxon ladies were due to their connection with the religious orders. It was in the priories and convents that the arts of reading and copying manuscripts, of writing and composition were cultivated. So exclusively was learning the monopoly of the Church, that in the Middle Ages the study of books was but an inconsiderable part of a gentleman’s education.
With women the case was somewhat different. Their enforced seclusion in days of rude manners led them to sedentary occupations. They were frequently the only members of the family who could read with any ease. As long as war was the chief business and out-door sports the chief pastime of men, the quieter lives of the women gave them the advantage in point of learning.
But with the Renaissance a change crept in. The education of men began to improve, while that of the women was left as before. When William of Wykeham founded his school at Winchester in 1373, he thought only of boys. Henry VI. did not propose to admit girls to his foundation at Eton. All the great schools which rose up in the sixteenth century, Rugby, Harrow, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and the rest, were confined to the male sex. The universities, though owing much to the beneficence of women in early times, have, until recently, not only done nothing for the advancement of women’s education, but thrown stumbling-blocks in its way.
In education, as in everything else, the rich, of course, had the advantage. Sir Nicholas Bacon, in the reign of Elizabeth, introduced some reforms into the education of wards. There were—
“articles devised for the bringing up in vertue and learning of the Queenes Majesties Wardes, being heires males and whose landes descending in possession and coming to the Queenes Majestie shall amount to the cleere yearly value of c. markes or above.”
“This nevertheless I utterlie mislike in the poorer sort of them, for the wealthier doo sildome offend herein: that being of themselves without competent wit they are so carelesse in the education of their children (wherein their husbands also are to be blamed) by means whereof verie manie of them neither fearing God, neither regarding either manners or obedience, do oftentimes come to confusion which (if anie correction or discipline had beene used toward them in youth) might have proved good members of their common-wealth and countrie by their good service and industrie.”The children of the poor could not have profited much by the free education of the convent schools, for they began to earn their living as soon as they were able to use their hands. There was plenty of “discipline” in their bringing up, but not much regard paid to “manners” or learning.
The custom among the well-to-do classes of sending their children to live in the houses of the nobility prevailed all through the Middle Ages and up to the sixteenth century. Among the laity it was a recognized mode of education. The kind of training which the girls, under this system, received depended on the character and acquirements of the lady of the house. The primary things to be learnt were good manners and domestic arts. Books were very scarce, and, except in religious houses, there would be few persons who could make use of them. Even at the end of the fifteenth century it was unusual for a gentleman to be able to read and write. There were, of course, the schools attached to monasteries and convents where all classes were taught, and in good families tutors were employed for both girls and boys, such men as Elmer, Bishop of London, Roger Ascham, Walter de Biblesworth, and others notable for learning, acting in that capacity in the households of the nobility. The curriculum at the convents included English, Latin, music, and grammar. The majority of noblemen’s and gentlemen’s daughters are said to have attended the convent schools. A custom prevailed for these young gentlewomen to wear white veils, to distinguish them from professed nuns, who wore black, which implies that all the pupils were resident in the convents. It was not uncommon for the religious houses to be used as boarding establishments. At some places ladies were received as inmates of a conventual household, bringing their own servants to attend upon them, and to a great extent living apart from the nun.
With regard to women’s education, there seem to have been periods of enlightenment alternating with periods of darkness. In Saxon days, in the seventh and eighth centuries especially, the study of letters occupied a good deal of the attention of women. But while the Norman and Saxon were struggling into unity, education everywhere seems to have been at a low ebb.
Women did not profit much by the literary renaissance of the age of Chaucer. It is said that the daughters of John of Gaunt, who was father to Henry IV., were the first English ladies who could write (the Saxon abbesses and their pupils are ignored in this statement), while the earliest letter extant written by a woman in English is said to have been the notable epistle, already quoted, sent by Lady Joan Pelham in 1399 to her husband, relating her troubles during her gallant defence of Pevensey Castle.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, some improvement is noticeable. If writing were such a rare accomplishment as to add lustre to the family of John of Gaunt, the grand-daughter of that illustrious begetter of kings was celebrated for the keen interest she took in books, and was herself an author. Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII., was a noted woman of learning, though her interest for later generations lies more in the part she played in history. She was a woman of great intellectual ability, and had been most carefully trained. Printing was then a new art, and the Countess of Richmond, to give her the title by which she is best known, was a warm patroness of Caxton’s partner, Wynkyn de Worde, whom she appointed as her special printer. The countess was a very great lady, and had her printer, her poet, her band of minstrels, just as she had her resident confessor and her domestic retinue. She ordered several works to be printed, and did much to foster a taste for literature among the ladies of the court.
Her bent of mind was distinctly religious, and in her later years she regulated her establishment on monastic lines, and lived a life of conventual strictness. In her secluded manor-house, situated in the Hundred of Woking, her principal visitor was the abbot of the neighbouring monastery of Newark, who from time to time ambled along the ill-kept road with a train of monks all mounted on mules to confer with this powerful but dutiful daughter of the Church. In the picturesquely shaded house, which is still well preserved and retains much of its old-world air, the countess could pursue her reading and meditations undisturbed, and it was probably here that she composed her religious books. Her early studies enabled her to enjoy such literature as was accessible. She was well acquainted with Latin and French, but there is no mention of Greek or Hebrew.
We must skip the two next generations, and go on to the great grand-daughters of the Countess of Richmond before we find the dead languages assuming an important place in the curriculum of a woman’s education. There were very few books accessible to the laity in the days of Margaret of Richmond, but she lived long enough to see the means of knowledge multiplying fast, and to assist in the process.
The intellectual gifts and literary attainments of her grandson, Henry VIII., augured well for the progress of learning in England, and the countess, who died the year that Henry was crowned, was thus spared the pain of witnessing the crimes which stained his after career. The mental energy which characterised all the Tudors seems to have had its fountain-head in their distinguished ancestress, whose position exposed her to many trials and dangers, through which her strength of mind, steadiness of purpose, and nobility of character carried her unscathed. Some ills might have been averted from England had Margaret Beaufort been alive during the reign of her grandson. And what a brilliant leader she would have made of that group of learned ladies who adorned the second half of the sixteenth century!
Compiled from sources in the public domain
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