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By Ken Clayton

The church had a very close relationship with, and a tight control of English education from its inception in the sixth or seventh centuries until the 1640s. The decline in influence was slow to start with: first came the dissolution of the monasteries, then the Chantries Act and then the abolition of religious guilds. Each of these actions resulted in significant religious institutions being abolished and, where they supported schools, the schools either disappeared or had to find new sources of funding. Even so, by the seventeenth century, the church still had a significant degree of control. The Canons of 1604, section LXXVII, made it clear that:
‘No man shall Teach either in publick School, or private House, but such as shall be allowed by the Bishop of the Diocess, or Ordinary of the Place, under his hand and Seal, being found meet as well for his Learning and Dexterity in Teaching, as for sober and honest Conversation, and also for right understanding of God’s true Religion

On the face of it, this implies that all teachers, including those at Petty Schools should have a licence. However, the evidence suggests that this rule was, in practice, applied only to grammar school teachers.       

Paragraph LXXVIII went on to dictate that if there was a curate in a parish who was able and willing to teach, nobody else was to be granted a licence until the curate had been given a job. The text also stated, very clearly, that a curate might want to teach ‘for the better increase of his Living’. This paragraph differs from the earlier one, however, in that it specifically mentions teaching of grammar and therefore, it appears to refer specifically to grammar schools (Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical).

So by the middle of the seventeenth century the influence of the church had declined from total control of a majority of schools to, in most cases, nothing more than the bishops being able to decide who could and could not teach, at least in grammar schools.

What remained of the bishops’ control of schoolmasters began to disintegrate during the period of the Civil Wars. Parliament first undermined the bishops in 1642 and then, in 1646, abolished the episcopate altogether.

This meant that the church no longer had any control over education and, indeed, it seems that there was no control of any sort by any organisation for a few years. One consequence of this was a rise in the number of private schools run by individuals who would never have been given a licence to teach by a bishop. Bromsgrove in Worcestershire was one place in which this happened with William Suthwell being installed in 1650 without the blessing of a bishop (Icely, 1953, p17).

This situation did not last long because schoolmasters became caught up in Parliament’s determination to crack down on any remaining Royalists. Much of this activity was aimed at clergymen who refused to toe the Puritan line but the fact that there was significant crossover between schoolmasters and clergymen meant that schoolmasters were caught up in the net. According to Durston, in August 1654, the County Commissioners were told ‘to receive information against any […] schoolmaster who was suspected of having committed one or more of a long list of offences including […] using the Book of Common Prayer, encouraging traditional festivities and dancing, harbouring Ranter or popish opinions’ (Durston, 2001, p158).

Six years later, after the restoration of the Monarchy, the Act of Uniformity of 1662 not only re-introduced the issuing of licences by bishops, it also reversed the instructions to County Commissioners by introducing a requirement that schoolmasters accept publicly the new Book of Common Prayer.Those who refused were denounced as dissenters and usually removed from their posts. Helen Jewell maintains that around 150 Dons and schoolmasters were ejected as dissenters (1998, p37) while Edmund Calamy, writing in 1713, reckoned that 39 schoolmasters were ejected as a result of their refusal to comply with the Act. In the preface to his book he admitted that it had been difficult to compile a list of those ejected and referred to earlier reports of around 2,000 clergymen, Dons and schoolmasters having been ejected (Calamy, 1713, p iv).

The preface to Calamy’s book provides an interesting insight to attitudes to dissenters, even forty years after the event. ‘To write of Nonconformists and Dissenters, is in the Esteem of some Men, to write of Schismatics and Rebels; To commend them is little better than to write in praise of Nero’ he wrote, adding that ‘They have born all the obloquy of the stage, the tavern, the press, or the pulpit could well vent against them’ (1713, p iii). However, Calamy cannot be regarded as an entirely dispassionate observer, given that his father and grandfather were both clergymen who were ejected from their livings and Calamy himself was keen to restore the reputations of the ejected individuals (Wykes, 2004). That said, there is no doubt that schoolmasters who would not conform were usually removed from their posts.

So by 1662 the church had re-established a degree of control over schools following the upheavals of the Commonwealth period but it was still a long way from the grip that it had over schools prior to the Reformation.



Calamy, Edmund (1713) An Account of the Ministers, Lecturers, Masters and Fellows of Colleges and Schoolmasters who were Ejected or Silenced after the Restoration in 1660 London.

Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical of the Church of England para. LXXVII (available at, accessed 12 Feb 2015).

Durston, C. (2001) Cromwell’s Major-Generals: Godly Government During the English Revolution Manchester, Manchester University Press

Icely, H.E.M. (1953) Bromsgrove School Through Four Centuries Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Jewell, Helen M. (1998) Education in Early Modern England, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Wykes, David L. (2004) ‘Calamy, Edmund (1671–1732)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 (Available at, accessed 6 July 2014).