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Shakespeare & Beyond

Elizabethan education and Ben Jonson's school days

Portrait of Ben Jonson

Portrait of Ben Jonson, 1640. Folger STC 14771

While Ben Jonson’s talents as a dramatist may indeed have been uncommon, the renowned author of dozens of plays, masques, and poems was typical in one respect. Like other boys of his age and station, he had to endure the rigors of an Elizabethan education.

Ben Jonson was born in 1572 and grew up in the household of his stepfather, a bricklayer who lived on Hartshorn Lane in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. His schooling began in the petty or elementary school at St. Martin’s, and it is here that we first encounter young Ben, seated with his classmates on a hard wooden bench.

Short on comfort and cheer, Elizabethan classrooms were big drafty spaces, often converted from chapels; they were noisy and dirty, freezing in winter, and dark at both ends of the  school day. Pupils furnished not only their own writing paper, notebooks, quills, and sharpening knives, but were also expected to contribute fuel to stave off the chill and candles to see their way through long hours of study.


Hornbook. London?, 1630. Folger STC 21.7

Reading by the Hornbook

Children generally started petty school as young as four or five years old. Here they learned their ABCs using a hornbook, a paddle-shaped piece of English oak with a paper or parchment alphabet protected by transparent horn laminate. And because one of the purposes of Elizabethan education was to create a new generation of good Anglicans, the hornbook also contained the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and sometimes the Ten Commandments. In fact, according to Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, a primary reason for educating children in Elizabethan England was “to fit them to take part in church services.”

Elementary school teachers were largely untrained and, as historian David Cressy notes, many “were little more than child-minders.” Some, however, took a more professional approach and recorded their techniques for posterity. Their teaching methods consisted mainly of repetitive oral drills, with children encouraged to associate sounds with shapes and figures. “The usual way to begin with a child when he is first brought to school is to teach him to know his letters in the horn book,” wrote educator Charles Hoole in the mid-seventeenth century, “until he can tell any one of them which is pointed at.”

Children who mastered their letters then honed their spelling and reading skills with the ABC with the Catechism and then the Primer, which contained Psalms, prayers, litanies, and liturgical offices. Hoole, however, allowed some secular material to filter in, “so the matter of it be but honest.”

Catechismus woodcut

Catechismus, 1593. Folger STC 18733.2

Matters of Penmanship

Writing was taught later in petty school, mainly as a means of reinforcing reading skills. Penmanship was a complicated process that required mastery of papers, rulers, inks, penknives, and goosefeathers, all alien to students who did not grow up with such materials in their homes. It was also a messy business—and not an easy proposition for clumsy little hands. Children would begin by imitating written letters, syllables, and words they had learned orally until they could reproduce them without following a copy. Oddly (to us, at least), one thing Ben and his peers would not have been encouraged to write was their names. In fact, according to Cressy, “none of the educators of pre-industrial England recommended children to learn to write their own names… since [personal names] did not conform to the rules of spelling that the teachers were trying to instill.” So when Renaissance people were unable to produce a signature, it did not necessarily mean that they were illiterate.

Somewhere between the ages of eight and eleven, boys graduated to grammar school. Very few Elizabethan girls progressed beyond petty school, although those in the middle and upper classes sometimes continued their education at home. In Jonson’s case, he made the leap at only seven, thanks to a benefactor who secured him a spot at Westminster School. Officially called the Royal College of St. Peter’s, Westminster was so prestigious that Queen Elizabeth herself attended the school Christmas play and was known to drop in on the occasional class. While Jonson’s patron remains unknown, it is recorded that his first teacher was William Camden, who was not only one of the leading schoolmasters of his day but also an eminent linguist, historian, and author. Jonson would later write an epigram to this “most reverend head, to whom I owe / All that I am in arts, all that I know.”

“Traitors to Boys’ Buttocks”

Unlike petty school teachers, grammar masters were expected to have gone to university and all were required to pass the Queen’s muster. According to a Royal Injunction of 1599, a schoolmaster should be “found meet, as well for his learning and dexterity in teaching as for sober and honest conversation, and also for right understanding of God’s true religion.” And Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of Merchant Taylors’ School in London and author of the seminal Elementarie (1582), further decreed that teachers ought to cultivate, “lightsomeness to delight in the success of his labor, regard to think each child an Alexander, and courteous lowliness in himself.” Predictably, not all educators met these high standards. Jonson later commented of one schoolmaster that he spent his days “sweeping his living from the posteriors of little children.”

A grammar school pupil’s first order of business was learning Latin; his second was avoiding the birch. As Rosalind Miles notes in her biography of Jonson, “Tudor schools were harsh, monuments to pedantry and rigidity, with discipline maintained at a level indistinguishable from cruelty.” Beatings were common, and the slightest infraction was likely to incur the use of a birch rod or a ferule, a sort of ruler used to whack the outstretched palms of the miscreant. If not himself a victim, Jonson must at least have witnessed such treatment, for he later advocated on behalf of schoolboys: “from the rod or ferrule I would have them free, as from the menace of them, for it is both [degraded] and servile.”

Nor was flogging the only threat to young bottoms. “Sitting still and dissecting sentences does not come naturally to boys of seven or eight,” writes Cressy, “and the discipline that kept them to it may have soured them on learning for life.” That was certainly the case for a character in a satirical masque by Thomas Nashe, who declares, “Nouns and pronouns, I pronounce you as traitors to boys’ buttocks…you are tormentors of wit and good for nothing but to get a schoolmaster twopence a week.”

A Heroic Effort (to Stay Awake)

The school day began at six o’clock in the summer and seven in winter, and for eight to twelve hours every day, including Saturdays, students were drilled in Latin grammar—memorizing, reciting, translating from English to Latin and back again, and copying classical authors. As Miles notes, “The pupils spent their years in a constant struggle with the classics… For most boys the work consisted of the painful production of bad to mediocre Latin exercises and the heroic effort of reproducing the much-admired convolutions of Ciceronian prose.” Facility in Latin was considered a requisite skill for educated Elizabethans and, in the upper forms, was the only language spoken in the classroom. Even boys so exhausted that they fell asleep at their desks (“homework” frequently lasted well into the night) were required to obtain permission to dor—from the Latin dormire, to sleep.

The effects of such a harsh introduction to learning clearly lingered in Jonson’s psyche. Later in life, he wrote, “A youth should not be made to hate study, before he know the causes to love it.” But he was also quick to recognize the value of his tutelage under Camden and his schooling at Westminster. Inveighing against education by private tutor, he wrote, “to breed [children] at home is to breed them in a shade, where in school they have the light and heat of the sun.”

Jonson left Westminster when he was about sixteen but, without a scholarship, was unable to go on to university—a circumstance that rankled for the rest of his days. Education was one way to lay claim to being a gentleman (being well-born was the other). So unlike Christopher Marlowe, who attended Cambridge University on scholarship, Jonson was unable to pursue that route to upward mobility. He nonetheless built on the strong roots of his early schooling, continuing to educate himself throughout his life, and becoming one of England’s greatest dramatists, a highly respected man of letters, and eventually the recipient of honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Not bad for a bricklayer’s stepson from Hartshorn Lane.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Folger Magazine.


Very interesting and informative article. I have connections with BJ, in that I played ‘Volpone’ as a final-year student at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1964 (with sadly, late, actor John McEnery as Mosca); have also devised a two-hander based on William Drummond’s ‘

Frederick Robinson — September 4, 2019

(./.) ‘Conversations’ recording BJ’s visit to Drummond’s Hawthornden Castle in 1618/19; and worked with Patrick Stewart during a season at the BOVTheatre on graduating. I played in The Dream, but with Patrick in Anouilh’s ‘Poor Bitos’ and an end-of-season revue led by actress Amanda Barrie. Happy days!

Frederick Robinson — September 4, 2019

Wonderful post–thank you. As you said, petty school came before grammar school. That’s not generally well known. Many students who were able to attend petty school stopped with that, and did not go on to grammar school.

In terms of what was “typical” in that era, we need to remind ourselves that adult male literacy rates in England in the 1570s were dismally low–perhaps 25% or less. Yes, grammar school was theoretically free for the poor, but few could be spared by their families, who needed them to work.

Ben Jonson was a wonderful exception!

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — September 4, 2019

An interesting article. Along with Ben Jonson, I would include all the major Bankside playwrights including Will Shakespeare, the author of the plays, sonnets and narrative poems. There is no point to include Edward de Vere who was terrible at Latin and whose poems are mediocre to say the least.

A.R. Lyon — October 3, 2019