By Ken Clayton

Thomas Beard, Oliver Cromwell’s schoolmaster at Huntingdon Grammar School

To be a master at a Grammar school in seventeenth century England might look like an enviable career. In fact, it seems that a high proportion of them were, in effect, clergymen in waiting. Helen Jewell maintained that, in many cases, taking a job as a schoolmaster represented little more than finding a way to earn an income between graduating as a BA and being able to gain an MA and a church living (1998, p64). Apart from that, the universities were producing more graduates than the Church needed. 

Francis Lenton was one who suggested that graduates would have to become schoolmasters because they could not find positions as Rectors (Lenton 1631). In other cases, such as that of William Lilly, becoming a schoolmaster provided an escape from poverty (Ashmole, 1822, p21) although the term ‘escape’ seems to have been relative: Robert Burton claimed that schoolmasters were paid no more than a falconer (1621, p173).

Although these authors painted a grim picture of the prospects of schoolmasters, others laid the blame on the schools themselves. In 1673 Christopher Wase set out to make a study of grammar schools in England and the Rector of Foots Cray in Kent wrote saying ‘Free schools generally are a prey for greedy Feoffees, a Pretence for unthankful Parents, a Provision for the Rich […] Were it not for so many free schools a Scholar might live plentifully with honour allmost every where but now they can scarce live any where but with very small means and less credit’ (CC Library, Vol IV MSS CCC.C391 150).

While it is clear that a career as schoolmaster may not have been appealing, it had the advantage of being available to graduates because the founding statutes of free grammar schools usually stated that the master must have a degree. Clearly this rule excluded women since they were not allowed into the universities in the seventeenth century. In reality, however, such rules were not always applied: Beaumaris grammar school founding statutes demanded that the Master should have an MA from Oxford and the Usher (deputy master) a BA. The correspondent who provided this information added, however, that ‘these rules have been seldome observed, […] Bachelours of Arts have been placed Schoolemasters without regard to any Universitie & Undergraduates have been placed Ushers’ (Wase papers, Vol III MSS CCC.C390/3, 4, 5, 6 & 7).

One consequence of the requirement for a degree, however, was that Masters were often 23 or 24 years old when first appointed. On the other hand, teaching was by no means, the preserve of young men: records show that some at least were teaching into their sixties. Wase recorded a master at Mottram Grammar School in Cheshire working until he was 88 while another was 80 (Wase, Vol III MSS CCC.C390/57) and several masters were 60 when Wase was gathering his data in 1673.

In the main, however, the masters were young men and yet it was not unusual for the founding statutes to insist that the Master was not allowed to marry without the permission of the school governors, local JP or other specified individuals (Vincent, 1969, p113).

There was then the question of whether the master was to also have a role in the church. In some cases the master was definitely not to hold religious office but in others the statutes dictated that the master must be a practising clergyman. This overlap between clergymen and schoolmasters seems to have been very common: many of the letters sent to Wase included examples of masters who went on to positions in the church.

Masters and Ushers were sometimes appointed by the governors of each school although there were frequent variations on this procedure. According to one of Wase’s correspondents, the process for selecting a new master for Shrewsbury school was tightly drawn and involved the master and fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge finding a man born ‘in the town of Salop’, who had studied at the school and was the son of a Burgess and had a degree. If they could not find a suitably qualified individual, they could widen the search by steps but even when they had chosen a candidate the bailiffs of the town had the freedom to reject their choice and the whole process would start again (Wase papers Vol III MSS CCC.C390/156-7). Other schools were less demanding but most specified that the master must be a university man.

Apart from the educational standards expected of a master, some schools made additional demands: the statutes at Ashby-de-la-Zouch school were quite specific in the personal qualities expected of a master. He should not be ‘a Papist Nor Heretick […] Adulterer, ffornicator, Drunkard, neither Game player, Noe swearer, or Blasphemer’ and he must be able and apt to teach the Latin tongue’ (Fox, 1967, p128).

Once appointed, masters were subject to discipline. At Tadcaster Grammar School a master who was absent for more than ten days at a time, or more than 30 days in a year without permission ‘should be warned by the guardians’. If the master received three warnings he could be removed from his post (Curtis, 1948, pps5-6). At Aldenham school, neither the master nor the usher were to ‘give themselves to games not the hauntinge of Alehowses and Tavernes’. Minor misdemeanours would attract a warning for the first offence but a second could lead to dismissal. If, on the other hand, they were found guilty of fornication, adultery, blasphemy or were judged to be a ‘common swearer, ryoter or com’on drunckarde’ they were to be ‘forthwith removed with as much speed as convenientlye may be’ (Edwards and Wood, 1997, p3-4).

Overall, then, grammar school masters seem, in the main, to have been graduates who fell into the job for want of any other employment opportunity. Given the long hours, rates of pay that were, at best, average and the the fact that each could be teaching up to 140 boys with just one assistant, it does not seem surprising that so many of them preferred the Church.


Ashmole, Elias (ed.) (1822) William Lilly’s History of his Life and Times from the Year 1602 to 1681 London, Charles Baldwin.

Burton, Robert, (1621) The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is.Oxford, Henry Cripps.

Edwards, J and Wood, R. (1997) The History and Register of Aldenham School Old Aldenhamian Society.

Fox, L. (1967) A country Grammar School – a History of Ashby-de-la-Zouch Grammar School through four centuries 1567-1967 Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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