• Jill Durnford

From Birch to Bard

"You must cut your Meat into small Pieces, and not put great Gobbets into your Mouth that may bunch out your Cheeks like a Monkey."


So says the Rules of Civility (1703), just one of the quirky books you can view at the Grammar School in Hawkshead.



Nestled beneath Hawkshead Parish Church, it was once the most prestigious school in the north of England.  It was founded in 1585 by Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York but whose family can trace their Cumbrian roots back to the 13th Century.  With his early education at Furness Abbey, it is not perhaps surprising that he entered the clergy - the best means of ‘getting ahead’ in those days if you weren’t a natural soldier.  Education and religion were closely aligned in Sandy’s time and he combined his ecumenical role with that of Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University; from which he had graduated as a Doctor of Divinity a few years earlier.


Forced into exile following his escape from Marchalsea Prison during the reign of Mary Tudor, he was able to return once the Protestant Queen Elizabeth was on the throne.  It was as a result of this experience that he became increasingly concerned about the importance of education in order to uphold religion and in particular to ensure that both Protestants and Catholics could speak to each other on an equal footing.


With Cambridge University excelling at mathematics, it is unsurprising that this was one of the three main subjects taught at the Grammar School.  Along with Latin and Greek, this was sufficient for the 16th century boy to ‘go up’ to Oxford or Cambridge at 14.


By the time William Wordsworth attended the school (1779 - 1787) the leaving age had risen to 17.  Boarding in the village with Ann Tyson from the age of 9, the school and the local environment had a profound impact on the young poet which became the subject of part of his long autobiographical poem The Prelude.


Discipline and the way of life of the school seem somewhat strange by modern standards.  Smoking was considered “good for one’s health”; drinking 3 pints of beer every day was “essential” (this was normal as the water was unsafe) and betting on cock-fighting was a normal and acceptable pastime.  The boys were allowed to carry knives with which they could carve their names into the desks - this practice was tolerated if not exactly encouraged and there is barely an inch of wood that has not been scribed upon!  However, moral standards were to be upheld at all times:  10 lashes with the birch for lying or swearing and 20 for missing church on Sunday without prior permission.  How times have changed!

With up to 100 boys in a fairly small room being taught different subjects at the same time, the noise must have been incredible.  Most learning was by rote with boys chanting Latin and Greek verbs or performing algebra on slates.  The older boys were taught upstairs by the Headmaster whilst his assistant and some of the older boys taught the younger ones downstairs.



Despite the Victorian changes, it is still possible to imagine how this school operated 400 years ago.  It’s packed full of history and the caretaker, Mr Warren really brings the experience to life with tales of school life down the ages.


I can’t recommend this place enough - it’s one of my very favourite places to take a group in Cumbria.


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©2020 by Jill Durnford