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A Description of Elizabethan England.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter XVIII

Of Universities

[1577, Book II., Chapter 6; 1587, Book II., Chapter 3.]

THERE have been heretofore, and at sundry times, divers famous universities in this island, and those even in my days not altogether forgotten, as one at Bangor, erected by Lucius, and afterward converted into a monastery, not by Congellus (as some write), but by Pelagius the monk. The second at Caerleon-upon-Usk, near to the place where the river doth fall into the Severn, founded by King Arthur. The third at Thetford, wherein were six hundred students, in the time of one Rond, sometime king of that region. The fourth at Stamford, suppressed by Augustine the monk. And likewise other in other places, as Salisbury, Eridon or Cricklade, Lachlade, Reading, and Northampton; albeit that the two last rehearsed were not authorised, but only arose to that name by the departure of the students from Oxford in time of civil dissension unto the said towns, where also they continued but for a little season. When that of Salisbury began I cannot tell; but that it flourished most under Henry the Third and Edward the First I find good testimony by the writers, as also by the discord which fell, 1278, between the chancellor for the scholars there on the one part and William the archdeacon on the other, whereof you shall see more in the chronology here following. In my time there are three noble universities in England—to wit, one at Oxford, the second at Cambridge, and the third in London; of which the first two are the most famous, I mean Cambridge and Oxford, for that in them the use of the tongues, philosophy, and the liberal sciences, besides the profound studies of the civil law, physic, and theology, are daily taught and had: whereas in the latter the laws of the realm are only read and learned by such as give their minds unto the knowledge of the same. In the first there are not only divers goodly houses builded four square for the most part of hard freestone or brick, with great numbers of lodgings and chambers in the same for students, after a sumptuous sort, through the exceeding liberality of kings, queens, bishops, noblemen and ladies of the land; but also large livings and great revenues bestowed upon them (the like whereof is not to be seen in any other region, as Peter Martyr did oft affirm) to the maintenance only of such convenient numbers of poor men’s sons as the several stipends bestowed upon the said houses are able to support.…

Of these two, that of Oxford (which lieth west and by north from London) standeth most pleasantly, being environed in manner round about with woods on the hills aloft, and goodly rivers in the bottoms and valleys beneath, whose courses would breed no small commodity to that city and country about if such impediments were removed as greatly annoy the same and hinder the carriage which might be made thither also from London. That of Cambridge is distant from London about forty and six miles north and by east, and standeth very well, saving that it is somewhat near unto the fens, whereby the wholesomeness of the air is not a little corrupted. It is excellently well served with all kinds of provisions, but especially of fresh water fish and wild fowl, by reason of the river that passeth thereby; and thereto the Isle of Ely, which is so near at hand. Only wood is the chief want to such as study there, wherefore this kind of provision is brought them either from Essex and other places thereabouts, as is also their coal, or otherwise the necessity thereof is supplied with gall (a bastard kind of mirtus as I take it) and seacoal, whereof they have great plenty led thither by the Grant. Moreover it hath not such store of meadow ground as may suffice for the ordinary expenses of the town and university, wherefore the inhabitants are enforced in like sort to provide their hay from other villages about, which minister the same unto them in very great abundance.

Oxford is supposed to contain in longitude eighteen degrees and eight and twenty minutes, and in latitude one and fifty degrees and fifty minutes: whereas that of Cambridge standing more northerly, hath twenty degrees and twenty minutes in longitude, and thereunto fifty and two degrees and fifteen minutes in latitude, as by exact supputation is easy to be found.

The colleges of Oxford, for curious workmanship and private commodities, are much more stately, magnificent, and commodious than those of Cambridge: and thereunto the streets of the town for the most part are more large and comely. But for uniformity of building, orderly compaction, and politic regiment, the town of Cambridge, as the newer workmanship, exceeds that of Oxford (which otherwise is, and hath been, the greater of the two) by many a fold (as I guess), although I know divers that are of the contrary opinion. This also is certain, that whatsoever the difference be in building of the town streets, the townsmen of both are glad when they may match and annoy the students, by encroaching upon their liberties, and keep them bare by extreme sale of their wares, whereby many of them become rich for a time, but afterward fall again into poverty, because that goods evil gotten do seldom long endure.…

In each of these universities also is likewise a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, wherein once in the year—to wit, in July—the scholars are holden, and in which such as have been called to any degree in the year precedent do there receive the accomplishment of the same, in solemn and sumptuous manner. In Oxford this solemnity is called an Act, but in Cambridge they use the French word Commencement; and such resort is made yearly unto the same from all parts of the land by the friends of those who do proceed that all the town is hardly able to receive and lodge those guests. When and by whom the churches aforesaid were built I have elsewhere made relation. That of Oxford also was repaired in the time of Edward the Fourth and Henry the Seventh, when Doctor Fitz James, a great helper in that work, was warden of Merton College; but ere long, after it was finished, one tempest in a night so defaced the same that it left few pinnacles standing about the church and steeple, which since that time have never been repaired. There were sometime four and twenty parish churches in the town and suburbs; but now there are scarcely sixteen. There have been also 1200 burgesses, of which 400 dwelt in the suburbs; and so many students were there in the time of Henry the Third that he allowed them twenty miles compass about the town for their provision of victuals.

The common schools of Cambridge also are far more beautiful than those of Oxford, only the Divinity School of Oxford excepted, which for fine and excellent workmanship cometh next the mould of the King’s Chapel in Cambridge, than the which two, with the Chapel that King Henry the Seventh did build at Westminster, there are not (in my opinion) made of lime and stone three more notable piles within the compass of Europe.

In all the other things there is so great equality between these two universities as no man can imagine how to set down any greater, so that they seem to be the body of one well-ordered commonwealth, only divided by distance of place and not in friendly consent and orders. In speaking therefore of the one I cannot but describe the other; and in commendation of the first I cannot but extol the latter; and, so much the rather, for that they are both so dear unto me as that I cannot readily tell unto whether of them I owe the most goodwill. Would to God my knowledge were such as that neither of them might have cause to be ashamed of their pupil, or my power so great that I might worthily requite them both for those manifold kindnesses that I have received of them! But to leave these things, and proceed with other more convenient to my purpose.

The manner to live in these universities is not as in some other of foreign countries we see daily to happen, where the students are enforced for want of such houses to dwell in common inns, and taverns, without all order or discipline. But in these our colleges we live in such exact order, and under so precise rules of government, as that the famous learned man Erasmus of Rotterdam, being here among us fifty years passed, did not let to compare the trades in living of students in these two places, even with the very rules and orders of the ancient monks, affirming moreover, in flat words, our orders to be such as not only came near unto, but rather far exceeded, all the monastical institutions that ever were devised.

In most of our colleges there are also great numbers of students, of which many are found by the revenues of the houses and other by the purveyances and help of their rich friends, whereby in some one college you shall have two hundred scholars, in others an hundred and fifty, in diverts a hundred and forty, and in the rest less numbers, as the capacity of the said houses is able to receive: so that at this present, of one sort and other, there are about three thousand students nourished in them both (as by a late survey it manifestly appeared). They were erected by their founders at the first only for poor men’s sons, whose parents were not able to bring them up unto learning; but now they have the least benefit of them, by reason the rich do so encroach upon them. And so far has this inconvenience spread itself that it is in my time a hard matter for a poor man’s child to come by a fellowship (though he be never so good a scholar and worthy of that room). Such packing also is used at elections that not he which best deserveth, but he that has most friends, though he be the worst scholar, is always surest to speed, which will turn in the end to the overthrow of learning. That some gentlemen also whose friends have been in times past benefactors to certain of those houses do intrude into the disposition of their estates without all respect of order or statutes devised by the founders, only thereby to place whom they think good (and not without some hope of gain), the case is too too evident: and their attempt would soon take place if their superiors did not provide to bridle their endeavours. In some grammar schools likewise which send scholars to these universities, it is lamentable to see what bribery is used; for, ere the scholar can be preferred, such bribage is made that poor men’s children are commonly shut out, and the richer sort received (who in time past thought it dishonour to live as it were upon alms), and yet, being placed, most of them study little other than histories, tables, dice, and trifles, as men that make not the living by their study the end of their purposes, which is a lamentable hearing. Beside this, being for the most part either gentlemen or rich men’s sons, they often bring the universities into much slander. For, standing upon their reputation and liberty, they ruffle and roist it out, exceeding in apparel, and banting riotous company which draweth them from their books unto another trade), and for excuse, when they are charged with breach of all good order, think it sufficient to say that they be gentlemen, which grieveth many not a little. But to proceed with the rest.

Every one of these colleges have in like manner their professors or readers of the tongues and several sciences, as they call them, which daily trade up the youth there abiding privately in their halls, to the end they may be able afterward (when their turn cometh about, which is after twelve terms) to shew themselves abroad, by going from thence into the common schools and public disputations (as it were “In aream”) there to try their skill, and declare how they have profited since their coming thither.

Moreover, in the public schools of both the universities, there are found at the prince’s charge (and that very largely) fine professors and readers, that is to say, of divinity, of the civil law, physic, the Hebrew and the Greek tongues. And for the other lectures, as of philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and the quadrivials (although the latter, I mean arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, and with them all skill in the perspectives, are now smally regarded in either of them), the universities themselves do allow competent stipends to such as read the same, whereby they are sufficiently provided for, touching the maintenance of their estates, and no less encouraged to be diligent in their functions.

These professors in like sort have all the rule of disputations and other school exercises which are daily used in common schools severally assigned to each of them, and such of their hearers as by their siill shewed in the said disputations are thought to have attained to any convenient ripeness of knowledge according to the custom of other universities (although not in like order) are permitted solemnly to take their deserved degrees of school in the same science and faculty wherein they have spent their travel. From that time forward also they use such difference in apparel as becometh their callings, tendeth unto gravity, and maketh them known to be called to some countenance.

The first degree is that of the general sophisters, from whence, when they have learned more sufficiently the rules of logic, rhetoric, and obtained thereto competent skill in philosophy, and in the mathematicals, they ascend higher unto the estate of bachelors of art, after four years of their entrance into their sophistry. From thence also, giving their minds to more perfect knowledge in some or all the other liberal sciences and the tongues, they rise at the last (to wit, after other three or four years) to be called masters of art, each of them being at that time reputed for a doctor in his faculty, if he profess but one of the said sciences (besides philosophy), or for his general skill, if he be exercised in them all. After this they are permitted to choose what other of the higher studies them liketh to follow, whether it be divinity, law, or physic, so that, being once masters of art, the next degree, if they follow physic, is the doctorship belonging to that profession; and likewise in the study of the law, if they bend their minds to the knowledge of the same. But, if they mean to go forward with divinity, this is the order used in that profession. First, after they have necessarily proceeded masters of art, they preach one sermon to the people in English, and another to the university in Latin. They answer all comers also in their own persons unto two several questions of divinity in the open schools at one time for the space of two hours, and afterward reply twice against some other man upon a like number and on two several dates in the same place, which being done with commendation, he receiveth the fourth degree, that is, bachelor of divinity, but not before he has been master of arts by the space of seven years, according to their statutes.

The next, and last degree of all, is the doctorship, after other three years, for the which he must once again perform all such exercises and acts as are before remembered; and then is he reputed able to govern and teach others, and likewise taken for a doctor. I have read that John of Beverley was the first doctor that ever was in Oxford, as Beda was in Cambridge. But I suppose herein that the word “doctor” is not so strictly to be taken in this report as it is now used, since every teacher is in Latin called by that name, as also such in the primitive church as kept schools of catechists, wherein they were trained up in the rudiments and principles of religion, either before they were admitted unto baptism or any office in the Church.

Thus we see that from our entrance into the university unto the last degree received is commonly eighteen or twenty years, in which time, if a student has not obtained sufficient learning thereby to serve his own turn and benefit his commonwealth, let him never look by tarrying longer to come by any more. For after this time, and forty years of age, the most part of students do commonly give over their wonted diligence, and live like drone bees on the fat of colleges, withholding better wits from the possession of their places, and yet doing little good in their own vocation and calling. I could rehearse a number (if I listed) of this sort, as well in one university as the other. But this shall suffice instead of a large report, that long continuance in those places is either a sign of lack of friends, or of learning, or of good and upright life, as Bishop Fox sometime noted, who thought it sacrilege for a man to tarry any longer at Oxford than he had a desire to profit.

A man may (if he will) begin his study with the law, or physic (of which this giveth wealth, the other honour), so soon as he cometh to the university, if his knowledge in the tongues and ripeness of judgment serve therefor: which if he do, then his first degree is bachelor of law, or physic; and for the same he must perform such acts in his own science as the bachelors or doctors of divinity do for their parts, the only sermons except, which belong not to his calling. Finally, this will I say, that the professors of either of those faculties come to such perfection in both universities as the best students beyond the sea do in their own or elsewhere. One thing only I mislike in them, and that is their usual going into Italy, from whence very few without special grace do return good men whatsoever they pretend of conference or practice, chiefly the physicians who under pretence of seeking of foreign simples do oftentimes learn the framing of such compositions as were better unknown than practised, as I have heard often alleged, and therefore it is most true that Doctor Turner said: “Italy is not to be seen without a guide, that is, without special grace given from God, because of the licentious and corrupt behaviour of the people.”

There is moreover in every house a master or provost, who has under him a president and certain censors or deans, appointed to look to the behaviour and manners of the students there, whom they punish very severely if they make any default, according to the quantity and quality of their trespass. And these are the usual names of governors in Cambridge. Howbeit in Oxford the heads of houses are now and then called presidents in respect of such bishops as are their visitors and founders. In each of these also they have one or more treasurers, whom they call bursarios or bursars, beside other officers whose charge is to see unto the welfare and maintenance of these houses. Over each university also there is a several chancellor, whose offices are perpetual, howbeit their substitutes, whom we call vice-chancellors, are changed every year, as are also the proctors, taskers, masters of the streets, and other officers, for the better maintenance of their policy and estate.

And thus much at this time of our two universities, in each of which I have received such degree as they have vouchsafed—rather of their favour than my desert—to yield and bestow upon me, and unto whose students I wish one thing, the execution whereof cannot be prejudicial to any that meaneth well, as I am resolutely persuaded, and the case now standeth in these our days. When any benefice therefore becometh void it were good that the patron did signify the vacation thereof to the bishop, and the bishop the act of the patron to one of the universities, with request that the vice-chancellor with his assistants might provide some such able man to succeed in the place as should by their judgment be meet to take the charge upon him. Certainly if this order were taken, then should the church be provided of good pastors, by whom God should be glorified, the universities better stored, the simoniacal practices of a number of patrons utterly abolished, and the people better trained to live in obedience toward God and their prince, which were a happier estate.

To these two also we may in like sort add the third, which is at London (serving only for such as study the laws of the realm) where there are sundry famous houses, of which three are called by the name of Inns of the Court, the rest of the Chancery, and all built before time for the furtherance and commodity of such as apply their minds to our common laws. Out of these also come many scholars of great fame, whereof the most part have heretofore been brought up in one of the aforesaid universities, and prove such commonly as in process of time rise up (only through their profound skill) to great honour in the commonwealth of England. They have also degrees of learning among themselves, and rules of discipline, under which they live most civilly in their houses, albeit that the younger of them abroad in the streets are scarcely able to be bridled by any good order at all. Certainly this error was wont also greatly to reign in Cambridge and Oxford, between the students and the burgesses; but, as it is well left in these two places, so in foreign countries it cannot yet be suppressed.

Besides these universities, also there are great number of grammar schools throughout the realm, and those very liberally endowed, for the better relief of poor scholars, so that there are not many corporate towns now under the Queen’s dominion that have not one grammar school at the least, with a sufficient living for a master and usher appointed to the same.

There are like manner divers collegiate churches, as Windsor, Winchester, Eton, Westminster (in which I was some time an unprofitable grammarian under the reverend father Master Nowell, now dean of Paul’s), and in those a great number of poor scholars, daily maintained by the liberality of the founders, with meat, books, and apparel, from whence, after they have been well entered in the knowledge of the Latin and Greek rongues, and rules of versifying (the trial whereof is made by certain apposers yearly appointed to examine them), they are sent to certain special houses in each university, where they are received and trained up in the points of higher knowledge in their private halls, till they be adjudged meet to shew their faces in the schools as I have said already.

And thus much have I thought good to note of our universities, and likewise of colleges in the same, whose names I will also set down here, with those of their founders, to the end the zeal which they bare unto learning may appear, and their remembrance never perish from among the wise and learned.

  • Years of the FoundationCollegesFounders
    15461 Trinity CollegeKing Henry 8.
    14412 The King’s CollegeKing Henry 6, Edward 4, Henry 7, and Henry 8.
    15113 St. John’sLady Margaret, grandmother to Henry 8.
    15054 Christ’s CollegeKing Henry 6 and the Lady Margaret aforesaid.
    14465 The Queen’s CollegeLady Margaret, wife to King Henry 6.
    14966 Jesus CollegeJohn Alcock, bishop of Ely.
    13427 Bennet CollegeThe brethren of a Popish guild called Corporis Christi.
    13438 Pembroke HallMaria de Valentia, Countess of Pembroke.
    1256 9 Peter CollegeHugh Balsham, bishop of Ely.
    134810 Gundewill and Caius CollegeEdmund Gundevill, parson of Terrington, and John Caius, doctor of physic.
    135411Trinity hallWilliam Bateman, bishop of Norwich.
    132612 Clare HallRichard Badow, chancellor of Cambridge.
    145913Catherine HallRobert Woodlark, doctor of divinity.
    151914Magdalen CollegeEdward, Duke of Buckingham, and Thomas, lord Audley.
    158515 Emanuel CollegeSir Walter Mildmay, etc.
  • Years of the FoundationCollegesFounders
    15391 Christ’s ChurchKing Henry 8.
    14592 Magdalen CollegeWilliam Wainfleet, first fellow of Merton College, then scholar at Winchester, and afterwards bishop there.
    13753 New CollegeWilliam Wickham, bishop of Winchester.
    12764 Merton CollegeWalter Merton, bishop of Rochester.
    14375 All Souls’ CollegeHenry Chicheley, archbishop of Canterbury.
    15166 Corpus Christi CollegeRichard Fox, bishop of Winchester.
    14307 Lincoln CollegeRichard Fleming, bishop of Lincoln.
    13238 Auriel CollegeAdam Broune, almoner to Edward 2.
    13409 The Queen’s CollegeR. Eglesfeld, chaplain to Philip, queen of England, wife to Edward 3.
    126310 Balliol CollegeJohn Balliol, king of Scotland
    155711 St. John’sSir Thomas White, knight.
    155612 Trinity CollegeSir Thomas Pope, knight
    131613 Excester CollegeWalter Stapleten, bishop of Excester.
    151314 Brasen NoseWilliam Smith, bishop of Lincoln
    124915 University CollegeWilliam, archdeacon of Duresine.
    16 Gloucester CollegeJohn Crifford, who made it a cell for thirteen monks.
    17 St. Mary’s College
    18 Jesus College, now in handHugh ap Rice, doctor of the civil law.
  • There are also in Oxford certain hotels or halls which may right well be called by the names of colleges, if it were not that there is more liberty in them than is to be seen in the other. In my opinion the livers in these are very like to those that are of the inns in the chancery, their names also are these so far as I now remember:

  • Brodegates.
  • Hart Hall.
  • Magdalen Hall.
  • Alburne Hall.
  • Postminster Hall.
  • St. Mary Hall.
  • White Hall.
  • New Inn.
  • Edmond Hall.
  • The students also that remain in them are called hostlers or halliers. Hereof it came of late to pass that the right Reverend Father in God, Thomas, late archbishop of Canterbury, being brought up in such an house at Cambridge, was of the ignorant sort of Londoners called an “Hostler,” supposing that he had served with some inn-holder in the stable, and therefore, in despite, divers hung up bottles of hay at his gate when he began to preach the gospel, whereas indeed he was a gentleman born of an ancient house, and in the end of a faithful witness of Jesus Christ, in whose quarrel he refused not to shed his blood, and yield up his life, unto the fury of his adversaries.

    Besides these there is mention and record of divers other halls or hostels that have been there in times past, as Beef Hall, Mutton Hall, etc., whose ruins yet appear: so that if antiquity be to be judged by the shew of encient buildings which is very plentiful in Oxford to be seen, it should be an easy matter to conclude that Oxford is the elder university. Therein are also many dwelling-houses of stone yet standing that have been halls for students, of very antique workmanship, besides the old walls of sundry others, whose plots have been converted into gardens since colleges were erected.

    In London also the houses of students at the Common Law are these:

  • Sergeant’s Inn.
  • Gray’s Inn.
  • The Temple.
  • Lincoln’s Inn.
  • David’s Inn.
  • Staple Inn.
  • Furnival’s Inn.
  • Clifford’s Inn.
  • Clement’s Inn.
  • Lion’s Inn.
  • Barnard’s Inn.
  • Newmann.
  • And thus much in general of our noble universities, whose lands some greedy gripers do gape wide for, and of late have (as I hear) propounded sundry reasons whereby they supposed to have prevailed in their purposes. But who are those that have attempted this suit, other than such as either hate learning, piety, and wisdom, or else have spent all their own, and know not otherwise than by encroaching upon other men how to maintain themselves? When such a motion was made by some unto King Henry the Eighth, he could answer them in this manner: “Ah, sirra! I perceive the Abbey lands have fleshed you, and set your teeth on edge, to ask also those colleges. And, whereas we had a regard only to pull down sin by defacing the monasteries, you have a desire also to overthrow all goodness, by subversion of colleges. I tell you, sirs, that I judge no land in England better bestowed than that which is given to our universities; for by their maintenance our realm shall be well governed when we be dead and rotten. As you love your welfares therefore, follow no more this vein, but content yourselves with that you have already, or else seek honest means whereby to increase your livelihoods; for I love not learning so ill that I will impair the revenues of any one house by a penny, whereby it may be upholden.” In King Edward’s days likewise the same suit was once again attempted (as I have heard), but in vain; for, saith the Duke of Somerset, among other speeches tending to that end—who also made answer thereunto in the king’s presence by his assignation: “If learning decay, which of wild men maketh civil; of blockish and rash persons, wise and goodly counsellors; of obstinate rebels, obedient subjects; and of evil men, good and godly Christians; what shall we look for else but barbarism and tumult? For when the lands of colleges be gone, it shall be hard to say whose staff shall stand next the door; for then I doubt not but the state of bishops, rich farmers, merchants, and the nobility, shall be assailed, by such as live to spend all, and think that whatsoever another man hath is more meet for them and to be at their commandment than for the proper owner that has sweat and laboured for it.” In Queen Mary’s days the weather was too warm for any such course to be taken in hand; but in the time of our gracious Queen Elizabeth I hear that it was after a sort in talk the third time, but without success, as moved also out of season; and so I hope it shall continue for ever. For what comfort should it be for any good man to see his country brought into the estate of the old Goths and Vandals, who made laws against learning, and would not suffer any skilful man to come into their council-house: by means whereof those people became savage tyrants and merciless hell-hounds, till they restored learning again and thereby fell to civility.