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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XV. English and Scottish Education. Universities and Public Schools to the Time of Colet

§ 12. William of Wykeham, Winchester and New College

To William of Wykeham is due a fresh extension of the educational conception of both university and college.

Throughout England, in all the chief towns, were to be found grammar schools, attached to convent or to cathedral, where boys were instructed in the rudiments of learning. Many of these schools were, probably, established in and around Oxford and Cambridge. In Cambridge, the local schools seem, as was noted above, to have been under the rule of a Magister Glomeriae, who, as a nominee of the archdeacon, attempted, for a time, to hold his own against the chancellor. The pupils of the grammar master were mere children. While still juveniles, they were wont to secure admission to the university.

William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, the favoured chancellor of Edward III, whose personal literary acquirements papal supporters and the holy father himself had not hesitated to call in question, was inspired to establish in Oxford a college which should outrival the most splendid foundation of the university of Paris. In 1379, he obtained a royal licence for the execution of his project; and, in 1386, after some years of building, the warden and society entered into possession of the magnificent erection of “Seint Marie College of Wynchester in Oxenford.”

The “New College” was conceived on grand lines, alike in its architecture and in the numbers and life of its students. It combined the features of a society of learning with those of a collegiate church. A warden and seventy “poor indigent scholars, clerks” composed the academic society, and were assigned to the usual studies of philosophy, theology and canon and civil law, with a slight intermixture of medicine and astronomy. Ten priests, three stipendiary clerks and sixteen choristers were designated for the conduct of Divine service in the chapel, which was a conspicuous feature of Wykeham’s design. All members of the society were to proceed to priest’s orders within a limited time. The allowances for the maintenance of the scholars and the upkeep of the college were fixed upon a most generous scale.

Had William of Wykeham proceeded no further, he would have enhanced that reputation as an architect which had won him royal approval and consequent wealth, and would have gained the name of a munificent patron of letters and of Oxford. He took, however, the forward step which makes the man of genius. He conceived the idea of linking his college with a particular preparatory institution, and, by the creation of “Seint Marie College at Winchester,” became the founder of the first great English public school.

The school, already in existence in 1373, but settled, finally, in buildings erected between 1387 and 1393, reproduced the features of Wykeham’s college. There were the warden and the seventy poor scholars, and there were the ten priest fellows, three priest chaplains, three clerks and sixteen choristers. But, whereas the instruction of the junior members of the society was, at New College, entrusted to specially salaried senior fellows, the teaching of the scholars of Winchester was assigned to a school master and an under-master or usher. And the studies of Winchester were confined to grammar alone. From the ranks of the Winchester scholars were to be filled up vacancies in the numbers of the scholars of New College as they occurred, each nominated scholar passing a two years’s probation in the university before his final admission.