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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIX. English Universities, Schools and Scholarship in the Sixteenth Century

§ 1. Universities under Edward VI and Mary

THE HISTORY of the English universities to the end, approximately, of the Middle Ages has been dealt with in a previous volume of this work. The period treated in the present chapter falls into two unequal sections. The dividing line may be best fixed at the visitation of 1559, when twelve years of perilous unrest give place to an era of constructive growth, uncertain at first, but keeping step uniformly with the increasing national stability.

It is not unreasonable to regard the foundation of Trinity College, Cambridge, and of the new regius professorships, as setting the seal to the transition from medieval to modern ideals in the universities and in learning. Just as the “college” henceforth dominates the university, so humanism, nationalism and the reformation supersede the Catholic idea in theology, politics and law. When Henry VIII died, the noteworthy group of Cambridge humanists, headed by Smith and Cheke, gave promise of high distinction for English scholarship. The abortive Chantries Act of 1546, which included the universities, was of evil omen in days of financial urgency, but it expired with the king, and Somerset astutely omitted universities and colleges, including Eton and Winchester, from the purview of his new bill of 1547, to be dealt with separately. The governing power, whether Somerset, Gardiner or Elizabeth, realised that English universities, like Paris and Wittenberg, were not merely seats of learning, but that from them passed religious and political influences which profoundly affected the national life. From them, as seminaries of the ministry and nurseries of the civil service, the country drew increasingly its leaders and administrators in church and state, and moulded opinion through the parson, the schoolmaster and the justice of the peace. Hence, Oxford and Cambridge became objects of high policy in exact proportion as they intertwined themselves with the several strands of English life and thought. It was not by way of compliment that Somerset, Gardiner and Cecil were elected university chancellors.

The standing difficulty of the historian of the time confronts the enquirer in this field also. The bitter temper of the age makes it well nigh impossible to determine facts. To Ascham, the arch-enemy of English learning was the Catholic restoration. At Oxford, Anthony à Wood has no hesitation in ascribing the miserable decay of letters to the Edwardian visitors. Yet, if Cheke, Ridley and Smith formulated the eminently reasonable statutes and injunctions of 1549, militant reformers like Latimer and Lever agree in deploring the evil case of education—“the devilish drowning of youth in ignorance”—since protestant courtiers had the ear of the crown. A whole library, we know, was to be had at Oxford for forty shillings when visitors were about, so heavy was the hand that was laid upon “superstition.” “Purgings” of this college and that were followed by the forced intrusion of new zealots. To Oxford was sent, to teach divinity, Peter Martyr, the fighting Zwinglian, a far less attractive spirit than the wide-minded Bucer, disciple and friend of Melanchthon, who filled the corresponding chair at Cambridge.

Thus, controversial theology overshadowed all else and both universities were drawn into the whirlpool of politics. But political divinity has rarely stimulated learning. If, at Cambridge, for a year or two, undergraduates kept their numbers, in seriousness of temper they showed marked decline. At Oxford, in 1550, there were “a bare thousand on the books,” and most of these were not in residence. The stream of benefactions dried up. Pluralism and sinecures abounded. Farseeing men abandoned university life for service in church and state. Ascham, though public orator at Cambridge, spent years at court or abroad. Sir Thomas Smith, while professor of civil law, left the university for political life. At best, it was the function of the university to supply the professions; learning, as such, was ignored. The “university” declined, the “college” was not as yet systematised or disciplined. Disputations—the one test of proficiency—were neglected, the schools deserted; few graduated even as bachelors; the higher degrees were rarely sought. It is much that the old comity of learning did not entirely die. As Thomas Smith taught at Padua, and Caius at Montpellier, so German theologians, Dutch Hebraists, or Italian lawyers could hold English posts. It is of more weight still, that the Edwardian statutes mark a genuine advance in administration and in the concept of learning. They breathe the renascence spirit, they evince sound judgment and first-hand knowledge of the needs of the universities. Elizabeth’s advisers found little to alter in them, and they stood till the Laudian era. Philosophy—in humanist fashion—was held specifically to include politics, ethics and physica: Plato and Pliny were prescribed alongside of Aristotle. Dialectic covered not merely the text of Aristotle, but, also, that of Hermogenes and of Quintilian—implying that interrelation of logic and rhetoric which was the very core of humanist doctrine. Mathematics included cosmography; Euclid, Strabo, Pomponius Mela and Cardan were the authorities. The Greek professor had to interpret Homer, Euripides, Demosthenes and “Socrates.” To civil law, to be read, like medicine, in the original texts, was added a study of “the Ecclesiastic Laws of this Kingdom.” For undergraduates, the first year course was mainly in mathematics (Elizabethan statutes substituted rhetoric); the second year in logic; the third in rhetoric and philosophy. The master’s degree required three years’ residence, with reading in Greek, philosophy, geometry and astronomy. To a doctor alone was complete freedom allowed. But, gradually, the colleges imposed their own courses. Thus, the first year man at Trinity began logic, read Cicero and Demonsthenes, wrote prose and verse. He was probably, we remember, a boy of 12 to 15 years of age. Plato was added in his second year; after graduation, he took up Hebrew. Much, perhaps most, of all this was on paper only. Circumstances, whether fiscal, political or religious, were equally adverse. Greed, polemics, dynastic insecurity kept learning stagnant in schools and universities alike.

Not that Mary herself was indifferent to learning, any more than Northumberland had been. But it was inevitable that Gardiner should revoke the new statutes, and turn adrift heads and fellows “to eat mice at Zürich.” Peter Martyr promptly crossed the seas. In Oxford, Magdalen was “thoroughly purged,” but Thomas Pope founded Trinity (1556), and White, St. John’s (1555). Gardiner was hard on Trinity and St. John’s at Cambridge, but Caius re-founded Gonville (1558). Reginald Pole was no obscurantist; with Sadoleto, his ideal was a humanism suffused with the spirit of a finely tempered Catholicism. The statutes of the two Marian foundations at Oxford are such as the scholarly bishop of Carpentras himself might have settled. “I remember,” says Sir Thomas Pope, “when I was a young scholar at Eton, the Greek tongue was growing apace, the study of which is now much decayed.” St. John’s was built to serve “sacred theology, philosophy, and good Arts,” including civil and canon law. At Cambridge, Caius, a devout Catholic, was, none the less, a friend of Melanchthon; a student and a teacher in many continental universities; a Grecian of distinction, yet a pupil of Vesalius. Like Smith and Savile, he represents the versatility and enthusiasm which marked the larger minds of the revival in England. Yet, to judge from Ascham’s lament—and Caius confirms it—we must assume that Cambridge, already predominantly protestant, reached its lowest depths under the Catholic régime; that teachers and students alike forsook the university; that degrees were seldom conferred, and, too often, gained by dispensation: between 1555 and 1559, only 175 proceeded to the bachelor’s standing at Cambridge, and 216 at Oxford, less hostile to the dominant powers. Of all the causes which reacted unfavourably upon the universities, none made so deep an impression on the country as the Oxford and Smithfield martyrdoms.