Women, education and literacy in Tudor and Stuart England


By Professor Jackie Eales, published 4th December 2013

To booke and pen: Women, education and literacy in Tudor and Stuart England

As a student in the early 1970s, I became acutely aware that formal provision for women's education was a relatively recent development. I was at Bedford College, which originated in 1849 as the first higher education institution for women in the UK. James Allen's, the school I had previously attended, had been founded in 1741 to teach poor boys ‘to read and such' and poor girls ‘to read and sew', with the implication that they would have had no use for writing. In the mid-eighteenth century education was still strongly class driven and vocational. The poor girls would have wielded their needles in domestic service, in the clothing trade or as housewives. Most likely, they would also have displayed their reading skills by sewing samplers containing the alphabet, an improving motto and a variety of stitches. They would also have been expected to read the Bible.

It was only when I began to teach an undergraduate course on Tudor and Stuart women in the 1990s that I began to think more systematically about the education and literacy of women. I was fascinated by my students' response to the subject, as they were astonished to discover just how modern the concept of a national curriculum is. They were also taken aback by the differences between the education of better-off boys and girls in the early modern period. They knew that girls had been excluded from the grammar schools, the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge and from training for the professions, at the Inns of Court as lawyers for example. They also knew that girls from the higher social classes would have been educated at home by parents, male tutors and female governesses. They were surprised, though, by the scarcity of any formal education for girls and by the reasoning of Tudor and Stuart educationalists that girls had less aptitude for learning than boys...

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