In 1453, Constantinople, so long the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, was captured by the Turks. The Turks were ruthless barbarians, and the Greek scholars who had lived in Constantinople now fled from the city. They fled westward, and chiefly to the cities of Italy, for so many ages the home of scholarship and the nobler arts. They brought with them much learning and knowledge, and many books which were new to Western Europe. From Italy, this new knowledge gradually passed to countries further west and north, and at length to England. So began the great movement called the Revival of Learning. It stirred the nations as the wind stirs the leaves and branches of a forest. Life of the mind came where there had been death, and energy where there had been stagnation. The invention of the printing press carried the new knowledge far and wide, and with this new movement, the Revival of Learning, we seem to enter upon a new age in the World's history. We leave what is often called the Middle Age, and enter upon the Modern Age, to which we ourselves belong.
We should not expect to see many signs of the beginning of such a movement in so small a town as Reading, but there happen to be two such signs, both of them of interest. We find that one of the exiled scholars of the East took refuge in Reading Abbey, and was living there in 1499. He bore a Greek name, Serbopoulos, and he seems to have spent his time in the Abbey copying Greek manuscripts and writing Greek books. The other sign in Reading of the Revival of Learning is the refounding, in 1486, of the Free School, sometimes called the Grammar School, and now known as Reading School. A school had existed in the Abbey long before the fifteenth century. It has accordingly been argued that Reading School is entitled to trace its origin to this Abbey School, which was in existence about 1135. If this view be accepted, Reading School becomes one of the most ancient in the kingdom.
According to the traditional story, Henry VII was passing through Reading in 1486. He noticed the old Hospital of St. John, which stood upon the site of the present municipal buildings, and he noticed that this Hospital was deserted. He was told that one of the Abbots had closed the Hospital some six years before. The Abbot had told his neighbours that he thought of making this old house into a free school. This was a capital idea, but all that the Abbot had done so far had been to use the income of the Hospital for his own purposes.
King Henry now urged the Abbot to establish the school without further delay and he promised himself to contribute £10 a year out of his own property at Reading towards its support. At the same time, a rich servant of the Abbey offered to give the sum of two hundred marks for the establishment of the school. So the school was started. In 1560, Queen Elizabeth handed over to the Corporation the Crown property in Reading, and she also gave them the right of appointing the master of the school, provided that they paid his yearly salary of £10. In the charter, which she granted to the town in that year, it is stated that the purpose of the school is "to educate the boys of the inhabitants of the borough, and others, in literature."
It would seem that the school was first established in the old hospitium or guest-hall of St. John's Hospital. About 1578, the upper part of this hall was made into a Town Hall, and the school had to be content with the lower portion. Except for an interval, during the Siege of Reading in 1643, when the schoolhouse was used as a magazine for arms, the school stayed in this ancient building until it was pulled down in 1786. In this old schoolroom was a picture of King Henry VII, who had so large a share in its foundation, and there was a collection of books of which, according to the old fashion, the most valuable were fastened to the shelves by chains.
The school was intended, as we have seen, chiefly for the boys of the burgesses of Reading. It was usually called the Free School, and for two hundred years the schooling was either free or the fees did not exceed more than about two shillings and sixpence a quarter. Small as it was, the school produced not a few noted men. Thomas White, son of a Reading clothier, was one of these. He became Lord Mayor of London and was knighted by Queen Mary for his services in putting down a dangerous rebellion. At Oxford, he is honoured as the founder of St. John's College. He provided two scholarships at this college to be held by boys from his old school at Reading. Another famous man who received his education at the Free School was William Laud, also the son of a Reading clothier. William Laud rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Among other noted Free School boys were John Blagrave, well known for his books on mathematics, and Thomas Turner and William Creed, both sons of Reading burgesses. Turner became Dean of Canterbury, and his son was one of the famous seven bishops who protested against the misgovernment of King James II in 1688. Creed became King's Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford.
By the seventeenth century the school had a very good name. "Divers good scholars have been bred there," wrote one of the secretaries of state under King Charles I, "Very able men," added Archbishop Laud, "to do God, the King, and the Church service."
In these early days, this is how a scholar was chosen to receive one of Sir Thomas White's scholarships to be held at St. John's College, Oxford. When one of the scholarships fell vacant, it was the duty of the President of the College, within forty days, to write to the Mayor and aldermen of Reading. The Mayor and aldermen had then to choose a boy "fit to undertake the study of logic" in the University of Oxford. For example, in 1610, members of the Town Council, accompanied by the Vicar of St. Laurence's Church and the schoolmaster, and "others intelligent and judicious," went into the Free School to choose the fittest scholar. On this occasion, the previously mentioned Thomas Turner proved to be the best boy and therefore his name was sent up to St. John's College.
The Corporation took a deep interest in their school. Often they helped poor scholars to proceed from it to the University, or sent them timely presents of money. For example, one scholar at Oxford, born of poor parents in Reading, received £3 to enable him to take his degree of bachelor of arts, and also to buy a new suit of clothes in which to attend the public ceremony at which the degrees were conferred.
Edited from W.M. Childs' "The Story of the Town of Reading" (1905)
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