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Tudor England championed its yeomen and rewarded its grammar school boys

Posted in Education, English Literature, Farming, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare on Monday, 30 September 2013

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This edited article about Tudor England originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Free Grammar School, picture, image, illustration

A classroom in one of the free grammar schools in Tudor times; the boys are misbehaving and the schoolmaster ready with the birch by Peter Jackson

‘We are the yeomen, The yeomen of England.’

Those words, full of lusty patriotism, from the famous old English song, conjure up a wonderful vision of sturdy men in sunny green fields in a land flowing with milk and honey. The song invites us to think of the yeomen as the backbone of England – bastions of freedom and an impassable barrier against oppression.

And that, 400 years ago in the golden age of Tudor England, was exactly what they were.

What, in fact, was a yeoman? The term covered a number of classes of well-to-do countrymen. They were tenant farmers or owners of freehold land, or even peasants who were tenants of land with a fixed rent.

It might come as a surprise to think of a peasant as a yeoman. But in Tudor times the word peasant did not have the sometimes impolite meaning we give it today. And in Tudor times, too, there were two distinctly different types of peasant who could be distinguished as simply lucky or unlucky. The lucky ones were yeomen – the unlucky ones were just desperately poor people.

The distinction arose because in the first sixty years of the sixteenth century, as a result of the royal habit of debasing the nation’s coinage, food prices in England rose by nearly 200 per cent while wages scarcely rose at all. During this time some peasants held land at a fixed rent which was protected by law, while others held land on which the rent was renewable annually.

Landlords, themselves faced with spiralling prices, sought redemption by raising the annual rents to a sky-high level, so that those peasants who by chance had annual leases were made to suffer real hardships. Those whose rents were fixed enjoyed with the freeholders the advantage of being able to sell their produce at three times the price they once fetched while not paying an extra penny in rent.

The unfortunates, as ever, swelled the beggar population, to such an extent that an Act was passed licensing only the lame and infirm to beg; “sturdy beggars,” if caught, were shipped for the first offence, were shipped and had part of an ear cut off for the second offence, and hanged for the third.

While Tudor times were therefore terribly hard for some, for the majority of the four million people who lived in England and Wales it was truly a fair and prosperous land. We have the proof of this in the writings of many European travellers and the comparisons they made between life here and in the Continental countries.

One of them observed: “The English have abundance of white meats, of all kinds of flesh, fowl and fish, and of all things good for food. . . . English cooks, in comparison with other nations, are most commended for roasted meats.”

Wherever there were fields in Tudor England there were sheep and cattle grazing, and Continental travellers never failed to marvel at the numbers of them. They marvelled, too, that Englishmen still preferred country life instead of town living, for in Europe most of the wealthy now elected to live in towns and to follow fashions. While London had about 200,000 inhabitants and was already the largest city in Europe, the average size of a provincial English town was only about 5,000 inhabitants, although some housed as many as 20,000.

The abundance of sheep made mutton and woollen clothes cheap and the abundance of cattle made for a plentiful supply of good beef and leather shoes. Englishmen in Tudor times ate off pewter plates and used silver or tin spoons instead of wooden ones as their forebears had done. Beds of straw, without sheets, laid on the floor were now a thing of the past; pillows and feather mattresses were the new status symbols.

Houses, of daub and wattle on a wooden frame, were still, however, regarded by overseas visitors accustomed to stone buildings, as crude, and more than one Continental writer observed that while most Englishmen fed like kings, they did so in homes “made of sticks and dirt.”

It was during the days of the Tudors that the great Reformation movement was begun, by which the national religion of our country was changed from the Roman Catholic to the Protestant faith.

The Reformation encouraged men to enrich their lives with learning as never before. Thus, during the reign of Edward the sixth, many grammar schools were founded and many more were started during the reigns of Edward’s sisters, Mary and Elizabeth.

Wealthy people were great supporters of these schools, leaving large sums of money in their wills towards their upkeep.

But you would have found life as a boarder at a Tudor grammar school a much harder life than school today. Pupils were roused at 5 a.m. and were obliged at once to sing a Latin hymn while they dressed. As soon as that was done they had to make their beds, clean their bed-area and wash themselves ready for a half-hour service which began at 5.30 a.m. in the chapel.

Then came three hours of lessons, followed by breakfast at 9 a.m. More lessons from 9.30 until 12, and then an hour for the mid-day meal. Lessons began again at 1 and went on until 3.30, when there was a break for drinking beer. At 4 it was back to class and at 5 prayers were read. Another meal was eaten at 6 and from 6.30 to 7.45 was “homework” time. Next came supper; at 8 they all sang a psalm and at 8.15 they all had to be in bed.

There were half days on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Friday was punishment day, when the week’s misdemeanours were rewarded with public whippings with a birch rod. It was generally the custom not to stop the whipping until blood was drawn.

Most of the school time-table was given over to grammar, logic, arithmetic, Latin and Greek.

Despite the rigours of the schoolboy’s life, the scholars became remarkably proficient at their subjects. An example of how they seemed to enjoy themselves is recorded in the custom of the London grammar schoolboys to meet on St. Bartholomew’s Eve (September 5) in St. Bartholomew’s churchyard, for an argument on the principles of grammar. The boy judged to be the most convincing in the debate was awarded a silver bow and arrow.

For the less proficient and the less fortunate, there were village day schools held in a room over the local church porch. There the discipline was as strict as in the grammar schools, and one can imagine that while a few boys managed to win silver bows and arrows for their grammar, most of them must have crept, like Shakespeare’s schoolboy, “like snail unwillingly to school.”

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