Medieval grammar school

St Mary's Church - where Hugo Rasen, former grammar schoolmaster, is interred.

St Mary's Church - where Hugo Rasen, former grammar schoolmaster, is interred.

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

When Robert Wardale dictated his will in 1457 he asked to be buried near the font in the parish church of St Mary’s “ubi Hugo Rasen quondam magister scolarum grammaticalium sepultus fuit”, or, where Hugo Rasen, formerly grammar schoolmaster, was interred. This is the earliest surviving written evidence of the existence of a grammar school at Scarborough.

Robert Wardale was one of the town’s leading burgesses, but all that we know of Hugo Rasen (variously, Raysyn or Rasyn) is that in 1422 he was one of Scarborough’s two bailiffs and then elected by the Common Hall to represent the borough in the new parliament of Henry VI.

Presumably, following a brief political career, he turned his hand to school teaching and was so successful at it that in 1444 the mayor of Hull invited him to be master at his town’s own grammar school. Hugo preferred Scarborough and he was buried close to where he had taught for many years.

That there is so little documentary evidence of education in medieval Scarborough is less surprising than that before the Reformation, with a population of fewer than 2,000, the town then had its own grammar school. Other early grammar schools in Yorkshire, such as St Peter’s York, St John’s Beverley and St Wilfred’s at Ripon, were all closely attached to religious houses and their masters were clergymen. But Hugo Rasen was a layman, not a priest, and his office was a municipal, not a church, appointment.

Not that Scarborough then lacked residents in holy orders: during the 1400s there were many chaplains living in the town who had Oxbridge Master of Arts degrees and therefore were quite capable of instructing boys in Latin and Greek.

In our terms, grammar schools were secondary. Boys (formal education outside convents was then confined exclusively to males) who entered such schools were expected to have already learned their English alphabet and be literate and numerate. Yet, since Latin was the official universal language of the law, of government and of the church, knowledge and fluent use of it were essential for anyone who wished to qualify for a position of authority, religious or secular.

Distinction was drawn strictly between a grammar school where classics were taught and a petty or English school where they were not. In the former, Latin took precedence and English was discouraged, even in conversation.

Whether Hugo Rasen had any successors at Scarborough, where his school was located, how many scholars he had there, and how his school was financed - all these questions remain unanswered through lack of record.

Probably Scarborough’s earliest grammar school was very small, educated only boys between the ages of seven and 14 who were the sons of local burgesses and did not long outlive Hugo Rasen. Nevertheless, that most of the county’s major towns, such as Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield, had to wait another century or more before they founded their own grammar schools, is yet another indication of Scarborough’s medieval importance.

After an absence of a hundred years from the historical record, Scarborough’s grammar school reappeared in 1559 at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. Then the headmaster was Henry Langdale, vicar of St Mary’s parish church until his death in 1602.

Whatever Rasen’s qualifications might have been, they could not have exceeded Langdale’s. Scarborough’s new Protestant vicar had spent four years as an undergraduate at St Benedict’s, later Corpus Christi, College, Cambridge. Later, he had been assistant at that university to the professor of Greek. When examined for his competence to teach he had excelled in Latin. His testimonial approved at York in 1563 ended by saying that he had licence to teach grammar to boys anywhere in the archdiocese.

However, though Langdale was required to be licensed by the established Anglican church authority, like all his successors at Scarborough, his headmaster’s salary was paid and he was appointed by the town’s governing body. He was a servant of the borough as well as the state.

This much was made clear in the earliest reference to “the High Schoole” in Scarborough’s corporation records. In 1597 Langdale retired from his post and was replaced on the same terms 
by Gregory Dickinson. The new headmaster’s appointment was noted in the minutes of the Common Hall where the High School is said to have 20 scholars each paying an annual fee of 10 shillings.

Dickinson’s term was indefinite. When Langdale died in 1602 and was succeeded as vicar by William Wood, Master of Arts, Dickinson remained in charge of the school until at least 1626. Periodically, his tenure was renewed by the Common Hall on condition that “he behaved himself in that 
place”.

And Dickinson had a teaching monopoly. No other school for boys above the age of seven was permitted in the borough. He alone was allowed to teach Latin and English there. He had a deputy or usher, Francis Lowson, who was warned by his employers on Sandside that if he did not write out the orders of the school in a fair hand on parchment and display them in a wooden frame he would be dismissed. Finally, parents who failed to pay their boys’ school fees were threatened with fines or distraint of goods. Scarborough now had 
a permanent grammar 
school, but unlike most of its kind in Yorkshire it was not free even to the sons of burgesses.