The Tudor age was a time of great educational advancement in England, with the universities thriving and grammar schools founded in record numbers. Yet, for all this, records of the education of Tudor girls are extremely sparse.
At the start of the Tudor period girls were, for the most part, taught informally in their homes. Religious education was, of course, essential, but whether girls received much else in their early training is less clear. By the 1530s, however, it was becoming fashionable for the gentry and nobility to educate their daughters. In this trend, many families strove to follow the example set by Sir Thomas More in the education of his three highly accomplished daughters. His friend Erasmus, too, recommended the education of women. It was their considered opinion that it would provide girls with the tools to assist their husbands in creating a Christian home after marriage and to raise their children virtuously.
Richard Hyrde, who wrote the Introduction to Margaret More’s translation of Erasmus’s Treatise on the Paternoster, echoed contemporary sentiments to the contrary. ‘I have heard’, he wrote, ‘many men put great doubt whether it should be expedient or requisite or not, a woman to have learning in books of Latin and Greek. And some utterly affirm that it is not only neither necessary nor profitable, but also very noisome and jeopardous’. He had heard it said that such studies would ‘inflame their stomachs’ towards vice. Hyrde considered such a view erroneous, but it was a widely held one.
Thirty years later, Thomas Becon considered the subject of women’s learning, regarding it as a Biblical duty for them to be taught ‘to be sober minded, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, housewifely, good, obedient to their husbands; that the word of God be not evil spoken of’. To raise a godly woman, he believed, schools for girls should be erected in every town, presided over by ‘honest, sage, wise, discreet, sober, grave and learned matrons’ as teachers. He did not go so far as arguing for the same curriculum, however. Latin, Greek and even ‘good letters’ were to be left the boys. And although the provision of education for girls grew in the Tudor period, no one was seriously asking that they be taught to the same level as boys.
In the 1580s, Richard Mulcaster, addressing the issue, was quick to assure his readers that he would speak of boys’ education first, since ‘naturally the male is more worth’. Girls should not, he considered, be permitted to attend grammar schools or universities; but they had some capacity for learning. He had noticed that girls actually seemed to learn faster than boys, although he was quick to assure his readers that ‘for all that seeming yet it is not so’, since ‘their natural weakness, which cannot hold long, delivers very soon’. Nonetheless, a little learning could not hurt.
In aristocratic households, it was mothers who were primarily responsible for the early education of their daughters, providing instruction in reading, religion, sewing, embroidery, music, dancing and cooking. A lady mistress or governess could also be appointed, while the highest-born girls, such as the future Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey, received university-educated male tutors.
Nunneries also tended to take in the young sons and daughters of the gentry and nobility, although the extent to which they did so has probably been overstated. St Mary’s, Winchester, contained twenty-six children in 1535, with an equal number of nuns, while Polesworth in 1537 housed up to forty-two children. More usually, the numbers were smaller, with only one or two girls at any time – hardly enough to be considered a girls’ school. The education that the nuns provided was highly variable, since nuns were often little more than literate themselves. Elizabeth Barton, on becoming a nun, received the two daughters of the gentleman Thomas Gold to ‘be brought up by her in virtue and learning’ – despite the fact that she had had scant education herself.
Lower born girls had less access to formal education of the sort provided for boys. They could, very occasionally, attend grammar schools. In 1615, one Alice Shaw is known to have attended the prestigious Rivington Grammar School, founded in the 1560s, which sent pupils on to the universities – though Alice, as with all other young women, would have been barred from university entry. At Rivington there was Latin and Greek on the curriculum, so that Alice, along with the handful of other female students there in the period, could have received a school education comparable to the best on offer to boys. But such an opportunity was a rarity. Many grammar schools, such as Harrow, expressly forbade the education of girls in their statutes.
More usually, girls attended their local village school. One such, in London, was run by an aged priest named William Barbour between 1504 and 1515. He took in thirty students, teaching them both religious doctrine and ‘further learning’. At Wigston, in Leicestershire, a small free school was assembling daily by the 1580s, in the nave of the old parish church, with both boys and girls in attendance. Such schools would have taught reading, writing and accounting, although rudimentary Latin was also occasionally on the curriculum. Most of the institutions were run by men, although a few schoolmistresses are known form the period. The wife of Richard Dawes was running a school in Barking, Essex, in 1590, where she taught both boys and girls to read. She fell foul of the Church courts for failing to obtain a licence to teach although she was still permitted to teach any girls that wanted to be scholars and boys under the age of ten.
At Norwich, even the very poorest girls were sent off to the schoolroom, although typically girls’ formal education often ended earlier than their brothers’, when financial need made it necessary for girls as young as six to begin working for a living. Of the three daughters of Anne and Geoffrey Roberts, who lived in the city in 1570, the eldest – aged nine – had been pulled out of school to work, although her sisters still attended. The six-year-old daughter of a very poor neighbour – Elizabeth Skyver – also attended school, as did the seven-year-old daughter of a widow named Katherine Gabone. These girls usually returned home to take up spinning work after their lessons each day. Martin Luther, for one, considered that there was easily time for girls to spend an hour a day at their lessons while also keeping up with their household tasks. They could, he supposed, reclaim the time needed for lessons from the otherwise idle moments used in play, dancing and sleep.
Although the curriculum at such local schools was often basic, the fact that even the very poorest girls in Tudor society were able to potentially access a free education was revolutionary. Thank to Thomas More and other Humanists in the period, it became commonplace for girls to at least be able to read and write – a marked improvement on the educational attainments of most medieval women. The widespread education of women, albeit to a lower standard than that offered to men, was a quiet revolution in the lives of women in the period.