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23 September 2020: Tudor educationA man in Tudor dress

Our local National Trust Supporter Group has now resumed its monthly talks but unfortunately they will have to be online for the rest of this year and possibly longer.

Thirty-o(ne people logged on for this first online talk, including our speaker Tony Tuckwell. Tony is a former headmaster of the King Edward VI Grammar School (“KEGS”) in Chelmsford and a very popular local speaker.

He concentrated on the history of KEGS but started by taking us back to the medieval concept of Purgatory, where Christian souls would go after death so sufferings there could fit them to enter Heaven. Wealthy individuals would endow “chantries”. Each endowment was intended to provide an income in perpetuity to finance a succession of “chantry priests” who would offer prayers to God to reduce the benefactor’s sufferings in Purgatory. One such chantry was established in Chelmsford, in the grounds of the parish church (now Chelmsford Cathedral) in 1379.

Chantry priests became bored with continually saying the same prayers in the same place for the same person. They would therefore expand into other activities, particularly teaching local boys. Other chantry priests might involve themselves in other activities benefiting the local community, such as care for the poor.

When Henry VIII broke with Rome and Protestantism started to come to the fore in this country, the idea of Purgatory was rejected and, with it, the need for chantries and chantry priests. However, when Henry expropriated the monasteries’ endowments and properties he left the chantries alone because they were popular with the people owing to the extra services the chantry priests provided. At the time there were 64 chantries in Essex, 16 of which had chantry schools.

It was therefore left to the courtiers of the young Edward VI to abolish the chantries and grab their endowments in the king’s name. A commission was established to decide what should be done with the chantry funds and chantry schools. One of the two commissioners was local man Sir Walter Mildmay so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the commission concluded that the Chelmsford Chantry School should be one of those preserved. Thus KEGS was founded. It received not only the endowments from the Chelmsford Chantry but also some from other chantries in the area. When the endowment of the Baddow Chantry was transferred to KEGS, it was on condition that the governors would pay £2 0s 8d (£2.03) each year for the benefit of the poor in Baddow. This payment was eventually allowed to lapse.

Whilst most of the new schools had local aldermen as the governors, KEGS was unusual in having four local knights as their governors - two from the Mildmay family, one from the Tyrrell family and the fourth from the Petre family. They didn’t govern by committee; instead they took four-year turns. The governors were responsible for managing the endowments, paying the Master and Usher and maintaining the premises.

The governors appointed the two teachers, known as the Master and the Usher, both of whom had to be ordained clergy of the Church of England. Their primary duty was to teach Latin. During the four-year governorship of one of the Petre family, a dispute arose between the then Master and Usher. The Master complained about the Usher’s behaviour, neglect and excessive punishment of pupils. He was even accused of beating one boy so badly that he later died. Tony Tuckwell said that KEGS is the only grammar school that can say it killed one of its pupils!

The original school would have been a single classroom, probably with a stove in the middle and a curtain down the centre to separate the younger and older boys, who would be taught separately. After the dissolution of the chantry, the school was first housed in a building just off Moulsham Street; the spot is now under Parkway. From there it moved to two converted pubs on the current site of County Hall. It moved to its current site in Broomfield Road in 1891.

The Masters of some former chantry schools started taking in boarders to boost their income. The extra income would pay for teachers for additional subjects for the boarders, such as maths and geography. The “Foundation” students had to be content with Latin as their school costs were paid out of the endowment, which could only be used for teaching that subject.

When endowed in 1551 KEGS probably had around 60 students. When it later took in boarders they, being the sons of the landed and moneyed classes, did not like sharing with the Foundation students. On the other hand, the parents of the Foundation students wanted them to learn commercially useful subjects rather than just Latin. Numbers of both boarders and Foundation students dwindled. Between 1853 and 1856 KEGS had no students at all! The payments to the Master and Usher from the endowment fund continued regardless, so they had no incentive to recruit new pupils.

Another problem was that there was no retirement age for the priest who acted as Master. Some, including some Masters at KEGS, continued even when they were senile.

The English school system was reformed in the 1890s when William Gladstone was Prime Minister. One reform was to remove the restriction on the endowed schools requiring them to teach Latin only. The head teacher’s title was changed to Headmaster. KEGS was given a proper board of governors and moved to its current site. Tony Tuckwell told us that, despite KEGS’ long history, possibly going back to the foundation of the original chantry in 1379, he was only the sixth Headmaster not drawn from the ranks of the clergy.