The Medieval Grammar School
of St Albans
St Albans School, which exists to this day, started life as a medieval grammar school. Even if the claim that it was founded in 948 is not supported by evidence, there is no doubt that the school has been in existence since the turn of the 11th to the 12th century. We know that the first Norman abbot, Paul de Caen (1077-1093)  wanted to establish St Albans as “a centre of learning” and among other buildings built the scriptorium. Perhaps we can also thank him for the school.
The earliest evidence for the existence of the school is from the beginning of the 12th century. Then Paul de Caen’s successor, abbot Richard d’Albini (1097-1119), appointed the renowned scholar Geoffrey de Gorham (or de Gorron, a village in France) to the vacant position of master. However, Geoffrey took his time crossing the Channel. When he eventually arrived, the abbey had already appointed another master. He filled some time by teaching in Dunstable instead, before coming to St Albans after all. While at Dunstable, he composed a play and borrowed some vestments from St Albans for the performance. He was somewhat careless with these vestments and they got lost, and to make up for it he decided to become a monk at St Albans (he was a layperson, when he was first called to the school). After abbot Richard’s death, Geoffrey himself became abbot in 1119 (until 1146).
Another famous master was Alexander Neckam, who had been a student at the school. Like Geoffrey, he also spent time at Dunstable, until he could negotiate a position at St Albans. He was the author of various books, including a schoolbook, De Utilensibus. He remembered his schooldays in St Albans in a poem:
St Albans knew me when I was a boy
Those days of happiness and days of joy.
The liberal arts St Albans taught me then
The first beginning of my fame ‘mongst men.
With these famous masters, the school had a high reputation from early on. The Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani tells us that during the abbacy of John de Hertford (1235-1263) “many noblemen of the kingdom commended their children to his care to be educated”, and we may assume that they attended the school. Not all of these boys were local, there is evidence for one boy from Ely. These students had to pay fees “according to ancient custom”, probably 4 d. per term. As the quote from the Gesta indicates, boarding was initially only available for the fee-paying students in the monastery.
There were “bachelors” at the school. They had to be able to prove that they had studied at university. Some authors thought that these were actually teachers rather than students, but as they are expressly forbidden to “rage in school or make a noise” it seems more likely that they were older students, something like prefects.
In 1399, we hear of poor students living in the almonry. They were allowed to stay for up to 5 years “as this time is enough for them to become proficient in grammar”. They were to be tonsured like choristers, say the matins of Our Lady daily for themselves and every feast day the psalms for the convent and its founders. While some authors thought this indicated a separate school for the almonry students, it seems more likely that they were students of the school. We even have the names of two of these almonry boys. One was a Thomas Fayrman, who later, together with his wife Alice, was received “to the benefit of brotherhood of this house” in 1411. He was then a bailiff of the town and his brass is (or was at least in 1908) in the abbey church. The second is John Garnet, who became vicar of St Michael’s in St Albans in 1469.
The statutes of 1309, which had been drawn up by the schoolmaster and passed by abbot Hugh de Eversden (1309-1327), required all students to be registered. Some of these statutes make for quite interesting reading and show that many problems haven’t really changed. One article “forbids the carrying of arms in school or out ‘on pain of excommunication’”. Another instructs the usher or under-usher to sit at the door and “not let two or three scholars go out at once, unless for lawful and necessary cause”  – so no “visits to the bathroom” by groups of friends, which seemed to be happening all the time at my daughter’s school. When passing the statutes, Abbot Hugh added another clause granting a monopoly to the school “within our territory or jurisdiction”.
By the 15th century, most schoolmasters of a medieval grammar school were professional teachers, some of them clerics, some not, and their marital status varied. The school at St Albans though was a secular school right from the beginning, with secular masters and students not exclusively destined for the monastery.
Early in the 20th century, William Page discovered the will of a “John Marchall, schoolmaster of St. Albans”, who died in 1501. The existence and profession of John Marchall is confirmed by another document, the grant of a property from William Stepnethe,”John Marchall, schoolmaster” and others to Thomas West, merchant of Calais, and others. His will gives us some valuable information about what kind of man the schoolmaster would have been.
John Marchall was a layman and was married, as he left his property to “Joan his wife”. He seems to have been on good terms with the abbot (Thomas Ramryge, 1492-1521) and the monastic community as his executor was “John Killingworth, cellarer of the monastery, by licence of the abbot”. The school must have been of a reasonable size, as there was not just the schoolmaster but also an usher – his witnesses were the already mentioned “William Stepnethe, mercer, and William Smyth, usher of the school aforesaid”. Marchall wished to be buried in the chancel of the Church of St Andrew, “next the place where he was accustomed to sit”. This parochial church, dedicated between 1094 and 1119, was at the north-west corner of the abbey church. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the “Mayor and Burgesses” (see below) bought the former abbey church from Edward VI for £400 for use as their parish church and St Andrews fell into disrepair or was taken down. Even though the church no longer exists, this tells us that the schoolmaster must have had a high standing in the community, if his usual seat was next to the chancel and he could request to be buried in the chancel.
A medieval grammar school, especially a major one like at St Albans, would have had a variety of books. While initially the boys probably had to share books, after 1400 each boy had individual books in most schools. Some of these were their own, while others belonged to the school. School libraries were stocked with books left to them by schoolmasters, but they also bought books themselves. St Albans is known to have had quite a library. In this context it is also important to remember that one St Albans schoolmaster started his own printing press, publishing 8 books between 1479 and 1486.
It is not known where the school was initially located, but there is evidence that it was in the borough of St Albans rather than the abbey during the time of Neckam’s successor Warren. By 1286 a school and master’s house was given to the scholars and their masters, on the condition that the 16 poorest students were educated for free. This house was near the abbot’s house on a street opposite the present school going up the hill. In the early 15th century a tenement was bought for £23 opposite the “Great Gate”. According to Mr Page it was not far from where Romeland House stands today (an 18th century building now occupied by the offices of the Mack Brooks Group).
After the dissolution of the monasteries, the school seems to have gone into abeyance but was re-established in 1549. Like many other monastic towns, St Albans was then chartered for the first time. In 1553 a corporation, “The Mayor and Burgesses of the Borough of St Albans”, was established. It was this corporation’s responsibility to run the school and provide a “convenient place” for it, which was then housed in the Lady Chapel of the former abbey church. It remained there until 1871, when it moved into the gatehouse. The present buildings were first built during the interwar period.
When we lived in the area in the 1990s, I used to attend the monthly German Lutheran service, which is held in the Lady Chapel. I always found it difficult to imagine this quiet, spiritual space as a classroom filled with noisy boys! At that time, some of the regulars attending the service were teachers at the school and so we could enjoy a cuppa and company after the service in the present building.
Should all this talk about schools, education and schoolmasters have encouraged you to seek study assistanc, either for yourself or your children, why not give Star Tuition a ring? Their experienced tutors assist school and university students, and can help business people with their marketing problems.
1. All dates for abbacies are from Roberts, E., pp.263-264,
2. Freeman, M., p.50; Roberts, E., p.35; Orme, N., p.365
3. Orme,, N. p.204; ODNB ‘Gorham , Geoffrey de (c.1100–1146); ODNB ;Neckam , Alexander (1157–1217)
4. VCH, p.48
5. Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani, p.397, translation by Orme, N., p.285
6. Orme, N., p.132-133
7. Leach, N.F., p.184
8. VCH, p.51
9. VCH, p.53
10. VCH, pp.54-55
11. Leach, N.F., pp.184-187
12. VCH, p.52
13. Orme, N., pp.163-173
14. Galbraith, V.H., p.64
15. For the will and its contents: Page, W., ‘St Albans School and its Schoolmaster Printer’
16. Lyle, J.V., p.11
17. Roberts, E., pp.58+154, Freeman, M., p.146
18. Orme, N., pp.152-154+181
19. VCH, p.48
20. Leach, N.F., p.184
21. VCH, p.49; ‘Romeland House’, Mack Brooks Group. URL: http://www.mackbrooks.com/contact/romeland-house/ [last accessed 22 Oct. 2015]
22. Freeman, M., pp.137-138+271
Clark, J.G., ‘Gorham , Geoffrey de (c.1100–1146)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [accessed online 16 Oct. 2015]
Freeman, M., St Albans – a history, Carnegie Publishing, 2008
Galbraith, V.H., The Abbey of St. Albans from 1300 to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Stanhope Essay, 1911. B. H. Blackwell, Broad Street, 1911 (available at http://lollardsociety.org/pdfs/Galbraith_StAlbans1300on.pdf)
Goering, J., ‘Neckam , Alexander (1157–1217)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 16 Oct. 2015]
Leach, N.F., The Schools of Medieval England. London, 1916 (available at https://archive.org/stream/schoolsofmediev00leac#page/n239/mode/2up)
Lyle, J.V., ‘Report on the Muniments of the Gape Family, now Deposited at the Hertfordshire County Museum’, SAHAAS (1905) (available at http://www.stalbanshistory.org/documents/1905_Gape_Muniments.pdf)
Orme, N., Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. Yale University Press, 2006
Page, W., ‘St Albans School and its Schoolmaster Printer’, in: The Home Counties Magazine, Vol.3 (1901). Forgotten Books, 2013 (Original work published 1901), p.79
Page, W. (ed.), ‘St Albans School’, The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire, Vol. 2. London, 1908, pp.47-69 (available at https://archive.org/stream/victoriahis02page#page/46/mode/2up)
Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani, ed.by Henry Thomas Riley. Vol I, A.D.793-1290. London, 1867
Roberts, E., The Hill of the Martyr, an Architectural History of St Albans Abbey. The Book Castle, Copt Hewick, 2008 (original work published 1993)