The school over the New Gate

How did teachers liven up their lessons in the 15th century? We have a voice from the classroom for one Bristol school.

Bristol Grammar School celebrates its 475th anniversary this year. Yet it was not the first school in Bristol. From the 12th century onwards schools sprang up in English towns and cities, open to all who could afford the fees. They taught the sons of merchants and gentry who could see the advantages of an education. The literate merchant could keep accounts, write to trading contacts and draw up contracts. Knowledge of Latin unlocked the worlds of literature and law, and opened the door to university, where all the teaching was in Latin.

Robert Londe

This beautiful brass memorial to Master Robert Londe was lost in the bombing of St Peter's Church. He died on 23 February 1462.

Medieval schools were generally run by a single schoolmaster. One such school was started in Bristol by Robert Londe. He was a cleric, trained at Oxford by one of the finest grammarians of his day, John Leylond. Londe is first recorded as a chaplain in St Peter's Parish in Bristol in 1419. One way to supplement his income was by teaching. In about 1426 Londe set up a school in a room over Bristol's New Gate.

Most schools of the time had a single classroom. Pupils of all ages from elementary to senior would share the space. The youngest could be learning the alphabet while the eldest were being coached for Oxford. It is hard to imagine how one master managed it all. Thanks to the notes made by a young man called Thomas Short, we have some intriguing insights into Londe's teaching methods.

A key feature was translation. Pupils would be given a sentence or two in English to render into Latin. A good teacher devised exercises which would keep pupils interested and amused, even as they struggled with tricky Latin syntax. Picture the wry smile with which Londe set his pupils to translate I come to school in the morning sorry, but go to dinner merry and glad. Longing for holidays emerges in We are the children that shall walk in flowery meadows and delectable places in holy days, followed by I am sleepy for the weather is sleepy.

Complaints heard in the classroom seem to be scooped up into the lesson, from tight shoes pinching to the agony of Latin construction. It was taken for granted that boys would be beaten in school. If John my fellow were beaten as often as he deserves, without doubt he would become a good child. Still Londe's pupils were promised that if they had a good will to learn, the master would inform them diligently and treat them fairly.

Londe worked in local references, such as I can ride to Bath in a day. More interesting though are the hints about his pupils. Many would have been local. My father dwelleth a stone's cast hence. Others came from further afield. Some gay squire of Devonshire shall wed my daughter, the which go to school upon the New Gate. The Bishop of St David's is praised for supporting poor scholars, so perhaps Welsh children had been sent to school in Bristol.

New Gate on Millerd's Map

The New Gate can be seen at the east end of Wine Street on Millerd's map of Bristol in 1673. It was demolished in the 18th century. Our modern version is a bridge from the Galleries to Castle Park.

Collections of such translation exercises were valuable teaching aids. Thomas Short gathered useful teaching material in the New Gate school and elsewhere. Hidden within the binding of his collection is a fragment of a previously unknown play in English. Did Short pick up that scrap at the New Gate school? We might expect a school play to be in Latin, but this one is in English. It is based on a bidding prayer, but has a satirical flavour. Christ's curse is called forth upon summoners, deans, rascals and whores. Summoners were unpopular figures. They summoned people to the ecclesiastical courts. Deans enforced the rules in colleges. So this was just the sort of subversive stuff to keep a bunch of schoolboys giggling.

Londe's death in 1462 seems to have brought an end to his school. The New Gate was turned into a prison in 1470. Another school sprang up over the Frome Gate, and was later transferred to Bristol Grammar School, founded in 1532.

We owe our detailed knowledge of Robert Londe's school to Nicholas Orme. He explored its history in Education in the West of England 1066-1548 (1976) and published the translation exercises in Education and Society in Medieval and Renaissance England (1989).