ABC and a London school

I WAS HAPPY TO find a reprint of “History and Antiquities of Highgate” by Frederick Prickett, first published in 1842. He wrote in detail about the early history of Highgate School, which was founded in 1565 and which I attended between 1965, when the school celebrated its 400th anniversary, and 1970. While not wanting to reproduce all he wrote, I will present several aspects of his history of the early years of my ‘old school’, which attracted me.

Part of Highgate School

The story of Highgate School begins at Muswell Hill, one and a third miles north of Highgate. In mediaeval times, there was a holy well located there in what was an outpost of the central London Parish of Clerkenwell. Also, there was an image of Our Lady of Muswell, to which many pilgrims were attracted. The chapel associated with it was established in 1112 by the then Bishop of London. Pilgrims travelling from London to Muswell Hill would have had to ascent the steep slope of Highgate Hill. At the summit, there used to be a chapel or hermitage established some time before Robert de Braybrook (died 1404), Bishop of London, gave it to the poor hermit William Lichfield in 1386. Pilgrims could stop at the chapel to say prayers or rest in a small room attached to the chapel.

In 1531, Bishop John Stokesley (c1475-1539), the Roman Catholic Bishop of London and opponent of Lutheranism who christened the future Queen Elizabeth I, granted the hermitage/chapel to William Forte, the last hermit of Highgate. In 1565, the firmly Protestant Bishop Edmund Grindall (c1519-1583), who was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1576 and 1583, granted the chapel and “ houses, edifices, etc., gardens and orchards”,  to the ‘Grammar School’. It is at this point that we need to meet Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565).

According to Prickett, Sir Roger:

“…turned his attention to the law, and so effectually that he became successively reader in Lincoln’s Inn, a bencher of that society, serjeant at law, king’s serjeant, chief baron of the exchequer, and, finally, chief justice of the Kings Bench.”

Disaster struck when Queen Mary (reigned 1553-1558) came to the throne. Sir Roger was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in drawing up the will of King Edward VI and for signing Lady Jane Grey’s instrument of succession as queen, and his daughters were disinherited. On his release, he settled in Hornsey, did not resume any of his former governmental positions, and worked as a barrister.

Sir Roger was a self-made success, not having relied on parental assistance. Out of gratitude to God, he:

“… he entertained the desire, participated in by many other pious and distinguished Protestants, of endowing a public grammar school, for the diffusion of knowledge and maintenance of true religion …”

He founded what was to become Highgate School in 1565, shortly before his death that year and left money in his will to support its existence.

In December 1571, the school’s six governors, one of whom was Sir Roger’s son, Jasper Cholmeley Esq., signed the school’s rules, laws, and statutes. There were thirteen of these regulations, the first of which included the words:

“ … there be an honest and learned schoolmaster appointed and placed to teach the scholars coming coming to this free school; which schoolmaster that so shall be placed, be Graduate of good, sober, and honest conversation, and no light person, who shall teach and instruct young children in their ABC and other English books …”

The ‘ABC’ mentioned was not, as I first thought, a simple introduction to the alphabet, but, as Prickett points out:

“… a black letter book, called the ABC with the Catechisme: that is to say, an instruction to be taught and learned of every child before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop…”

Prickett wrote that the “ABC with the Catechisme” was written by King Henry VII and then reprinted in the reign of Edward VI. Ian Green suggests that the text in this booklet first appeared as a section in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and then later separately (https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/03-3/rev_bru2.html#).

The school is no longer a ‘free school’ and has not been so for a long time. By the 1820s, the school, like many others in England at that time, had declined considerably, both materially and pedagogically. New classrooms and school buildings were built.  Then, in 1824, the statutes were modified considerably. Forty scholars chosen by the governors, and no more than this, from Highgate, Holloway, Hornsey, Finchley, Kentish Town, and other close areas, were to be admitted free of charge. Boys had to be between 8 and 18 years old. Each pupil, on being admitted to the school, had to pay twenty-one shillings (£1.05) towards the library. In addition to the forty scholars, other boys could attend the school for an annual fee of £12 and 12 shillings (£12.60).

How times have changed, Today, the school admits children between the ages of 3 and 18, both boys and girls. Sir Roger de Cholmeley would be pleased to learn that recently the school he founded has been recognised as the winner of ‘The Independent School of the Year 2020’ award. However, he might be shocked to learn that the annual fees for his ‘free school’ are in excess of £21,000