Lady Katherine's School, Wotton under Edge

'To all the sons of the holy mother church, I, Katherine, who was the wife of Lord Thomas de Berkeley, late Lord of Berkeley, and we, Walter Burnell; chaplain, and William Pendock; chaplain, send greeting in Him who is the true health of all men, considering diligently and attentively that the intention of many persons desirous of being instructed in grammar, which is the foundation of all the liberal arts, is very frequently disappointed and frustrated by reason of poverty and want. Therefore for the support and promotion of our holy mother church and of divine worship and for the increase of other liberal arts and sciences, out of the goods bestowed by God upon us, we have caused the said Walter and William to purchase certain lands and tenements, underwritten to them and to their heirs in fee, that they may build anew a certain schoolhouse in WOTTON UNDEREGGE for the habitation or foundation, and likewise may be able to dispose of the said estates, for the support of one master and two poor scholars of the art of grammar; which said master and his successors shall govern and instruct all the scholars coming to the said house or school for the learning of this art, without taking anything for their trouble from them or any of them.'

This is a translation of the opening sentences of a foundation deed, dated October 1384, in the registry of Henry Wakefield, Bishop of Worcester, [DOC 733 1/1].

This deed established the school which came to be known as 'The free grammar school of Wotton under Edge'. It was not unique, since schools with such studies have existed in England since earliest Anglo-Saxon, if not Roman times. Its foundation distinguishes it especially from the known evidence of similar schools in three important aspects: It is the earliest known case, firstly, of a grammar-school foundation by a lay individual, as opposed to a church dignitary or institution; secondly, of a foundation by a woman; and thirdly, of a school of this kind in which tuition was offered freely to all who entered. It is also of special interest to our readers as it was possibly the school attended by William Tyndale in the opening years of the 16th century,

The foundation deed, eventually confirmed in 1390 by Richard II, contained two licences within it. The first, issued by letters patent from the 17 year old King dispensed the founders from the statute of mortmain on payment of 20 [the act prohibited property from passing into corporate ownership such as that of the clergy, without Royal permission]: the King was forbids his successors or anyone in the future to hinder the master and scholars in their possession of the school except for services due to the chief Lord [Glos. Record Office: DOC 733].

The second licence is from the chief Lord, Thomas, Lord Berkeley, step grandson of Katherine, and dated 1st July 1384. He sanctions the grant of Berkeley lands - part of the estate she held in dower, as a father's widow. from the manors of Cam and Wotton ... 'Considering the salutory purpose or the Lady Katherine who was late the wife of Lord Thomas Berkeley our grandfather ... He therefore grants the licence.'

Here, then, in this small Cotswold town, the rich widowed Lady Katherine, from one of England's most noble families, not only out of piety, but in response to a need and demand for learning, makes clear her purpose.

Schools actually represented the most constructive side of the work of the mediaeval church. The grammar schools were under the control of the secular clergy, whether these establishments were of cathedrals, collegiate churches or of religious guilds. The monastic orders bore some part also, but they were mainly directed towards educating entrants to their own communities.

The knowledge of Latin was, of course, vital for ensuring a supply of clerical recruits, but classical literature and philosophy were also included in the curriculum. Although the term 'grammar school' appears not to have been used before about 1300, this is simply because, being the only local place of education, it was usually known as 'the school'. On a more elementary level, the 'song school' limited itself to the reading and possibly the writing of English, together with learning plainsong for the services. The main careers in view, apart from the greatest number destined for the church, were in law, medicine and secretarial posts in the civil service; in town authorities and the households of noble families. The Black Death of 1349 and subsequent plagues dealt at least as severe a blow to the number of clergy and therefore to potential teachers as to any other class. Priests and friars were in closer touch with ordinary folk, if only in bringing to them the last rites when plague struck. In the Worcester diocese the bishop himself succumbed and eighty livings had their clergy replaced. The adverse circumstances of the times were a stimulus to the action of the Lady Katherine, the supply of new clerks being vital.

There is little doubt that part of the prompting for the foundation was the nature and location of Wotton. if not the largest, it was one of the oldest centres of the Cotswold wool trade and the prosperity of the whole country was based upon that. For two hundred years it had prospered, Cotswold wool being known on the continent as the finest in quality. The war with France was fought partly to protect the outlets for the trade with the Low countries and northern France. Large and valuable flocks surrounded the town and the war only pushed wool prices higher. The largest flocks belonged to the Berkeleys. The price of a 'todd' [28lbs] of wool in 1380 was 9s 4d [ordinary wool was 6s 5d]. By 1420 it had risen to 14s 1d. When Lady Katherine's husband died, the value of his cattle and sheep was assessed at 1,326.00 [the present value can only be guessed at by multiplying this by two or three hundred times].

All towns were pretty small. Wotton had a population of about 1,000 souls. Only two towns in England, London and York, exceeded the 10,000 mark. Not even Bristol had reached equivalent size. However, it would have been surprising if there had not been a demand in Wotton for the teaching of reading and writing and accounts for the various trades.

There is evidence of a school in 1293, probably run by the Oxford-based Crutched Friars or the Augustinian friars of Bristol.

Lady Katherine had been married before to Sir Peter Veel, of a well-known local family, and by whom she had a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Jone. In 1347 Lord Thomas III married this widow of four years. John Smyth, the well-known Berkeley historian, describes her husband as 'Thomas the rich'. He was a man of action: a warrior, landlord and politician. He never lived for more than one year in any of his houses on account of wars and travels. He helped Edward Ill against the Scots. He fought at Crecy, he attended at Parliament and toured his estates. His son, Maurice, was wounded at Poitiers in 1356. Lord Berkeley's source of income was the war itself, the opportunities for plunder and the capture of noble prisoners. He built Beverstone Castle near Tetbury in 1360 with ransom money. The castle, now a ruin, was later occupied by a cadet branch of the Berkeley family.

Smyth again, 'Katherine was fruitful to her husband in lands and children'. She brought him estates in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Devon and the Welsh borders. She bore him four sons in five years. Three of them, however, died young and only John grew to manhood. He it was who founded the cadet branch at Beverstone castle. Like many men of wealth and power, Lord Thomas devoted a goodly share to the safeguarding of his soul. This took the form of founding chantries with a small permanent income for a priest to sing masses in a side chapel for the souls of Berkeley generations long dead. There were at least seven of these in the churches of Berkeley, Newport, Cambridge (Glos.), Syde, Over, Wortley. and at St Augustine's abbey in Bristol. This, of course, was established custom; but his widow was to take the founding of chantries a stage further by attaching a school.

The Berkeleys expected high standards of their chantry priests. The priest at Newport was, in return for precisely defined duties, 'Forbidden to take any further money ... as if he had been a scholar of John Wyclif. He was enjoined to 'Live chastely and honestly and not come to markets, alehouses or taverns, neither frequent plays or unlawful games'.

In view of his considerable possessions, Lord Berkeley would need his household to include a number of relatively educated men -- all entitled 'clerks' (chaplains, tutors, secretaries and agents of various kinds), most at various levels of ordination, but also for administrative and non-religious duties. His own level of education is uncertain because so much responsibility was delegated. However, like most of the nobility of his time. he would have been able to read, write and understand accounts and master some Latin to exercise staff supervision. Norman French would also be required up to about the mid-century.[1]

Lady Katherine must also have had skill in writing both French and English since she had lands and possessions in her own right, She survived her husband for 24 years and even went on overseas pilgrimages. It is clear that these Lords fostered an intellectual climate which would make the new grammar school almost a natural development.

The aim of Lady Katherine's foundation was threefold:

  1. Scholars must be instructed in grammar. Grammar; the Latin language, the universal medium of communication and foundation of all the liberal arts; the seven studies of the middle ages: the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, studied by schools and continued at university) with four more, the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music); and the three Philosophies: Natural, Moral, Metaphysical. The liberal arts sufficed for the career of clerk, whether priest, master or civil servant. Beyond, lay the more specialised fields of the Law, Medicine and Theology - the learned professions. The very variable standards of attainment in the smaller grammar schools can be imagined.
  2. Those who wished to study should not be deterred by cost. Those who wished to study should not have to pay; the schools would take, however, very few of the poorer children in the 15th century. Serfs or Villeins (if they still existed) could not send their sons without the Lord's consent. Most farmers, traders and small craftsmen could not send their sons without support. For many, less able and willing to undergo a long period of learning, virtually the only objective was the priesthood.
  3. The Lady Katherine's action is grounded in faith and to strengthen the church.To strengthen the church, a great number of priests was required. Piety and good works were obviously in her mind, but practical purpose is evident. The educational aim is beginning to supersede the religious one.

The notion of 'poor scholars' needs a mention here. This, a conventional term, was far from being literally true. The definition was, 'any child who could not attend unsupported' - no specific financial background was implied. Many poor scholars were from quite prosperous homes. The title was an echo from the earlier Middle Ages when learning was associated with the self-denying principle of the religious orders. Labourers' children would not necessarily be excluded, but the incentive to attend would be greater in better-off families

The agents were to purchase land and houses and to build 'De Nuovo' (to build anew) a schoolhouse. This implies an inadequate existing house for the 'de nuovo' means a purpose-built schoolhouse. Perhaps here was an unfulfilled plan of a century earlier. But the most important clause is that free education is to be provided not just for the poor scholars but for all who same, 'without taking anything from them'. This was truly remarkable in a small country town and is the first such example so far as is known.

Then Lady Katherine's instructions are detailed more precisely: 'Two acres of land with one master and two poor scholars to continue for ever and to live together (in collegialiter) in the manner of a college', (,in the mediaeval tradition of collegiate churches and of the new university colleges).

1384, it must be noted, was only two years after the foundation of the first great residential school of Thomas Wykeham at Winchester. It must also be remembered that at Oxford, and at other universities, it was being realised how unsuitable it was for students to live out in lodgings, with few facilities for study. Hitherto, schools had been appendages to a church or college Now, the master is in charge of a separate institution, and this set the pattern for many smaller endowed schools for the rest of the century.

The three clerks are named and are to observe the ordinances and statutes. They are: John Stone (Master), John Benley ad Walter Morkyn (clerks). It is not necessary to dwell on the grants of land except to say that they comprised two acres and seventeen messuages (houses) plus one garden and other plots in Nibley, Stancombe and Woodmancote (all neighbouring villages). The witnesses who affixed their seals to the deed were Sir Peter Veel, Sir Thomas Fitznichol. Sir Thomas de Veel and Sir Edmund de Bradston (knights), John Sargeant de Stone, Ralph Waleys, Henry Warriner and others.

The duties of the priest/headmaster are laid down. He is to celebrate mass in the chapel of St Katherine, while the Lady Katherine or other Lords and Ladies are in residence at Wotton Manor. He is to pray for the safety of Lady Berkeley and her soul after she is dead and, incidentally, for the previous Lords of Berkeley, their ladies, and her late husband. These chantries were, of course, attacked by Wycliffe because, in his view, prayers for individuals were wicked.

The school holidays were laid down:

  1. From the feast of St Thomas (21st December) to the morrow of the Epiphany (7th January).
  2. From Palm Sunday to the Sunday after Easter.
  3. From the eve of Pentecost to the morrow of Trinity Sunday.
  4. From the feast of St Peter (1st August) to the Exaltation of the Cross (14th September).

This is the first school known, not only to define holidays precisely, but to introduce almost exactly the modern pattern.

The master is to be of 'honest conversation and diligently to apply himself to the care of his government'. He is to maintain all property in good condition. He is to provide for the scholars due support in meat and drink, lodging and all other necessaries excepting clothing and shoes. His pension was even fixed at 5 marks per year for life (or 3.6s.8d). Scholars should be at least 10 years of age or younger if their ability justified it, 'They should also be of honest conversation, attentive to the school, obedient to the master, and not set to perform any other tasks; they are to apply themselves to study. If they are disobedient, refuse punishment and will not improve, they are to be expelled and replaced. After six years they are to leave and be replaced anyway.

Many of these statutes and provisions can also be found in the Winchester College foundation documents (1382). These two foundations, widely separated as they were by scale and ambition, seem to have broken new ground together.

When things settled down in the 1400s, it appeared that the appointment of Master was looked upon by aspiring priests as a stepping stone to more lucrative livings. In the 1460s, the school had four masters in nine years. The post seems not to have been a goal in itself and not so well rewarded as a parish priest. But it left the young aspirant some time for further study and was also not beyond the strength of a man in his declining years. The last four masters before the Reformation (three of them graduates) had quite long tenures of office and this suggests that the mastership was becoming a more desirable appointment. In Tyndale's time, presuming he attended, and there is a very strong possibility of this, the master was John Chilcote MA who had been instituted by the Tudor Bishop Morton in 1493. He was the most distinguished academic the school had ever known. He was already a fellow of All Souls by 1497 and was approaching middle age. A Bishop's Visitation a sort of school inspection - in 1498 produced no positive report, so far as is known. Chilcote stayed a surprising 18 years. He resigned in 1511 and took the living in Shilton, Oxfordshire.

Did William Tyndale spend some schooldays there? It was the nearest grammar school for anyone living in Berkeley vale. The others were in Cirencester, Dean, Chipping Campden, Gloucester and Bristol. Pupils came from further afield than Stinchcombe, Cam, Slimbridge or Nibley to lodge in Wotton for about 8 pence per week. Poorer boys' families could not afford that. Some came daily on foot or horseback. Mid 16th century numbers were 20-30 (even large schools' rolls rarely exceeded 120).

Nicholas Orme and A.F. Leach, authorities on English schools in the middle ages, have given us a picture of life in the establishments of the time. Equipment had to be provided. Books were expensive, but perhaps a very small, very basic Latin grammar with parts of speech in question and answer form was used - perhaps the Ars Minor of Donatus, which was first produced in 4th century Latin and persisted for 1,000 years. The master might have had one of the more detailed French grammars of the 1300s.

Teaching would be oral, memorising and repetition - the master devising his own sentences called 'vulgaria', which the pupils wrote out on pieces of parchments or wax tablets. Pupils paid for writing equipment. Each boy would supply one or more quill, his inkhorn being carried at his belt, as well as supplying candles, dress and shoes. Hours were from six, or seven in winter, to eleven, with a short break. Breakfast was not a major meal. At Winchester only the younger boys were expected to eat at breakfast time The midday break was from eleven or so and work then continued from 12 or 1 pm to 5 or 6pm. Schoolboys were expected to work the same long day a, adults. Prayers began and ended the day.

Often, in chantry schools, there was more than one priest. The priest who said mass early in the day for people going to work was called the 'morrowmass-priest', and was freed to teach for the rest of the day. It was a long week, six days, but there were 50 holy days when work ceased early as well as the four modern style closures. In some parts of the country there was a schoolboys' special day when ball games or even cock fighting were allowed, But the discipline was harsh, with beatings everywhere an acceptable institution, even for royal children, and in most families. The mediaeval master is usually depicted at his high desk complete with birch rod. One big room held all classes, the word 'form' deriving from the bench where you sat. At Westminster School (founded in 1322) one class became known as 'shell' because it occupied an apse. The living quarters were shared by master and resident scholars all under one roof.

It is difficult to assess the scholars' achievements. Poor records, if any, were kept. Most pupils were probably not able to read before they enrolled, there being yet no village or 'dames' schools. Pupil-teachers, however, were well known in the 15th century. Central libraries existed, but only in cathedral cities like Worcester, and were in the hands of the bishops and mainly for the use of the clergy and theologians. When it is remembered that neither Bristol nor Gloucester were cathedral cities, it can be seen how hard it must have been for a local, Wotton master to keep abreast of new or higher learning.

The Katherine, Lady Berkeley School has undergone many changes over its seven centuries. It has been a grammar school, a comprehensive school, and has now developed into a specialist language college as well as a secondary school and 6th form college. One of its famous former pupils was the discoverer of the technique of inoculation, Edward Jenner - like Tyndale, a local boy.

The roll now numbers 1,312 and I like to think that the spirit of the great translator still broods over his native vale.

David Green, July 2000

(Extract from a paper given to the 1998 Oxford International Tyndale Conference)


1. John Trevisa of Queens College Oxford. who had entered the service of Lord Thomas 4th of Berkeley on 1380, translated Higden's World History, the PLOYCHRONICON, in the course of which he made the important observation that within a generation or so after about 1350 English had replaced French in schools as the language into which Latin texts were translated. French for normal conversation was being ousted by English Nicholas Orme, English Schools in the Middle Ages.

Primary source
Lady Katherine's Foundation Deed, Gloucester Record Office (Doc.D733 1/1).

Secondary sources
Nicholas Carlisle, The Endowed Grammar School of England and Wales (1818).
F.W.D. Hornsby, Late Headmaster Katherine, Lady Berkeley's School, 1384 to 1959,.
(Lady Katherine's School Governors 1983).
A.F. Leach, The Schools of Mediaeval England (1916).
A.F. Leach, Educational charters and documents 1598--1909 (1911 Cambridge).
A. F. Leach A history of Winchester College (1899 London).
Nicholas Orme, English schools in the middle ages (1973 Methuen).
John Smyth, Lives of the Berkeleys (Ed Sir John Maclean, 1883-85).
Victoria History of the County of Gloucester vol. 11 (1907).

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