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

The artist and the reformer: Cranach and Luther

IT IS ALWAYS FUN TO MAKE new discoveries. Yesterday, we braved incessant rain and the mist on the motorway to drive to Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, the county where William Shakespeare was born. Our main reason for visiting this lovely 18th century house was to see a special exhibition devoted to the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472-1553). He was born in Kronach in the then predominantly Roman Catholic Holy Roman Empire. He was an extraordinarily successful painter. Also, he was a prosperous businessman: he had his own printing business and was also an apothecary. Cranach painted religious as well as mythological subjects in addition to court (and other) portraits.

Cranach became the court painter for the electors of Saxony in the town of Wittenberg. The electors in Wittenberg were supporters of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a professor of theology (at the University of Wittenberg) who rejected Roman Catholicism and became a ‘father’ of Protestantism. When Luther arrived in Wittenberg in October 1512, Lucas Cranach was already running a prosperous workshop (studio) in the town. Cranach made a portrait (engraving?) of Luther in 1520, which shows the reformer in priest’s garb with his head shaved to create a tonsure. This picture of Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk, was not on display at Compton Verney. However, one room of the exhibition is dedicated to prints (designed by Lucas) and pamphlets (written by Martin) produced on Cranach’s presses. These works were all produced to promote Luther’s then revolutionary ideas.

Cranach’s courtly patrons in Wittenberg were supporters of Luther and Protestantism. The British historian, an expert on the Reformation, Andrew Pettegree wrote (in “Apollo”, 15th October 2016):

“From the beginning Cranach was a firm and important supporter of the Reformation. This was a relationship of mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual benefit. Cranach provided the Reformation with some of its most memorable images…”

Cranach became one of Luther’s important allies:

“… not merely because of his artistic talents. By this point he was one of Wittenberg’s leading citizens, firmly established among the city’s ruling elite. He would play a crucial role in this regard when Luther was absent from Wittenberg in 1521, and over-enthusiastic supporters, led by Andreas Karlstadt, pressed for radical changes to the order of worship that Luther would not have approved. Cranach, civic leader and artistic entrepreneur, was one of the rocks on which the Wittenberg Reformation was built. He also had the managerial skills and resources to conceive a solution to the problem that might otherwise have stopped the Reformation in its tracks: how to build a mass movement from a small place with extremely limited infrastructure.”

Part of that solution was Cranach’s high-quality printing works that were able to produce large editions of publications either written by Luther or by authors promoting his cause. The exhibition at Compton Verney has several examples of Cranach’s printed pro-Luther propaganda tracts and prints on display.  In one of them, facing pages depict the contrast between Protestantism and Catholicism. For example, an image of the pure Christ rising towards Heaven faces an image of the corrupt Pope burning in Hell. For those not able to read, this was a graphic illustration of Luther’s objections to Catholicism.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Four years later, Luther, the erstwhile priest who had taken the vows of celibacy, decided to marry. His bride was Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), a nun who had fled to Wittenberg from a convent near the town of Grimma along with eight other nuns. Luther had undertaken to find them husbands or to find families for them to join so that they could enjoy ‘normal’ lives. At first, Katherine joined the household of Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach (the Elder). Luther tried hard to find her a husband. His friends tried hard to get Luther to marry. In the end, he married Katherine. Lucas Cranach was one of a few close friends who were present when Martin and Katherine took their wedding vows. Luther’s Roman Catholic enemies were quick to claim (according to Richard Marius in his “Martin Luther”) that:

“… all Luther ever wanted was sex, and since he had married a former nun, it seemed he had now lived out yet another of the bawdy stories told of nuns and monks lusting for one another…”

Popular legend of the time predicted that the Antichrist would be born to a monk and a nun, but Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote in connection with this:

“How many thousands of Antichrists had the world already known!”

Katherine and Martin produced six children.  Cranach married Barbara Brengbier. They had several children including Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), the painter, one of whose works is displayed in the exhibition at Compton Verney. In 1517, Luther stood as a godfather to the last of Cranach’s children. Later, when Luther married, Cranach became godfather to some of his children.

Before visiting Compton Verney, I was already familiar with the fine paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but I had no inkling of Cranach’s close connection with Martin Luther and the promotion of Protestantism. Also, I did not know that Cranach had had other business interests apart from producing works of art. I came away from the splendid exhibition at Compton Verney pleased to have had my eyes opened to an important episode of history about which I was only dimly aware.

Travelling to Compton Verney on a rainy day fulfilled what Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad”:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In other words, travel broadens the mind. Our journey to Compton Verney did, despite inclement weather conditions, did precisely that.