Joan Greyndour and her 15th century school at Newland

A lecture given by Nicholas Orme Emeritus Professor of History, University of Exeter to the Friends of the Cathedral of the Forest and the Forest of Dean Local History Society at All Saints church in June 2015


It’s kind of you to let me to invite myself to lecture here today. This church is dear to me: I drive past it about once a year, and Newland is very important in my own history. In 1960, when I was nineteen and at university, my parents retired from Bristol to Aylburton near Lydney. I didn’t like Aylburton. We lived outside the village, had no car, and when I was there in vacations I knew no-one and couldn’t easily go anywhere. And Aylburton and Lydney were, to be blunt, rather shabby uninteresting places in those days. Then one day in the summer of 1961 a visiting brother came with a car, and said let’s go out and explore. And we came here. The church, of course, was fascinating, with the effigies and the free miner, but what surprised me most was the building next to the church with the name on the gate: the Old Grammar School. I was studying History at Oxford, and I had learnt lots about kings and popes and parliaments, but no one had ever mentioned schools. Why was there a grammar school here in the deep countryside and how old was it? I eventually learnt that it was founded in 1446, long before most modern people would suppose that there were such schools. A year later, I decided that I wanted to become a university teacher and to do research for a PhD. My tutor asked me what I would like to study, and I suggested medieval schools, which he approved. And I have been studying their history ever since!

 The Greyndour Family

The school at Newland was the creation of an impressive lady whose body lies a few feet away from where I am speaking, underneath her brass effigy and that of her first husband. Her Christian name was Joan and she had three surnames during her life. She was born a Ridge, married a Greyndour, and finally married a Barre. Joan’s father was Thomas Ridge, a minor gentleman of Chicklade in Wiltshire, which you pass along the A303 about halfway between London and Exeter. Joan’s mother Katherine was somewhat wealthier. She was a Bitton and had inherited three manors and two churches in the Avon valley between Bristol and Bath, with some smaller properties around Berkeley. The Ridges moved to live up there, and Joan was born at Charlcombe near Bath – we don’t know when, but probably in about 1400. She was the only surviving child of her parents, and therefore eminently marriageable. In about 1419 she married, no doubt by arrangement, Robert Greyndour, who owned an array of properties in and around the Forest of Dean. This was a further step up the social ladder for Joan, into the ranks of the wealthy gentry, and the two of them became leading members of Gloucestershire society, socially and politically, with their property on both sides of the Severn.

       The Greyndours too were a rising family. They had been coming up in the world for the previous sixty years. The first one of any importance was Laurence, who seems to have been a very minor landowner at Hadnock near Monmouth. Greyndour is apparently an English surname, taken from a place meaning ‘green valley’. Laurence entered the ranks of the lesser gentry by marrying Margaret Abenhall in the 1350s, the heiress of the manor of Abenhall near Mitcheldean. But the family’s fortunes really took off with their son John, who was born in about 1356. He had military skills and fighting experience. He went on Richard II’s Irish campaign in 1394 and was knighted soon afterwards. Then he attached himself to Henry IV and was made keeper of Chepstow Castle and Radnor Castle. He saw service with the Prince of Wales, later Henry V, against Owen Glendower. When Henry V went to France in 1415, Sir John Greyndour went with him leading a troop of ten men-at-arms, thirty foot archers, and 120 miners – doubtless from the Forest of Dean. Miners were valuable in siege warfare, and at a time when there was little coal mining, the iron miners of the Forest were in high demand in war time. They were probably used in the siege of Harfleur, which Henry V wanted to use as his base for conquering Normandy, and where he tried to seize the town by undermining its walls, but in the end the town surrendered voluntarily. Unfortunately during the long siege, the English army suffered a serious outbreak of dysentery, in which not only ordinary soldiers but several of the leaders died. It is likely that it killed Sir John as well, because he is not mentioned in connection with the battle of Agincourt that came later that autumn.

Sir John was succeeded by his only son Robert, born by about 1390 and therefore at least ten years older than Joan. Robert’s career was a more peaceful one than his father’s. Locally he was constable and chief forester of the Forest of Dean, constable of St Briavels Castle, and a commissioner of array responsible for organising the militia, steward of the manors of Chepstow and Tidenham. His fellow gentry elected him as member of Parliament for Gloucestershire in 1417, 1420, and 1423. His own and his wife’s possessions made him a rich man. As well as his rural properties, he owned urban property in Hereford and Monmouth, and at least one ship, the Trinity of Chepstow. He would have had a household of at least a couple of dozen servants at his chief residence at Clearwell, but he would also have travelled round his estates with some of his servants, staying at different manor houses. He had his own domestic chapel and a chaplain to say mass in it each day. But we know very little of his private life: what his religious tastes were, whether he read books, or collected valuable items like tapestries, clothes, and jewels.

Robert Greyndour died in 1443, in about his fifties. Joan was a good deal tougher – she lived on for another 42 years – and died in her eighties. The two of them had only one surviving child, a daughter Elizabeth who was born in about 1421. As she stood to inherit a very large collection of lands, she was a very attractive proposition indeed in the marriage market, and it is not surprising that she continued the family’s social rise by being snapped up by a member of the peerage, Reynold West, Lord de la Warr, who had been married before. They had no children, and when he died in 1450, she was even more attractive because she was awarded a third of his properties in dower to hold for her life. She was then courted by an even richer and more powerful peer, John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, whom she married in 1451. At the age of thirty Elizabeth was still capable of having a family, and through her, Joan might have become the ancestress of a great Yorkist and Tudor family, because John Tiptoft was a notable scholar, soldier, and constable of England. But Elizabeth died giving birth to her first child in September 1452, and Tiptoft was executed in 1470 during the Wars of the Roses.

That was the end of Robert and Joan’s family. Joan kept her own property and a third of Robert’s for life, and a few years after his death, she remarried. Again she went up a step socially by marrying a knight, Sir John Barre of Rotherwas near Hereford, who was a widower with a daughter. I suspect that there was a little bit of convenience about the marriage – it gave her security and made him richer – because when they died, they were not buried together, but each with their previous partner. She was too old to have more children by the time of this marriage, and when her daughter died, the question arose what would happen to all her properties when she died. The answer was that they went off to seven different heirs, reflecting their varied origins. The Greyndour properties in the Forest went via Robert Greyndour’s younger half-sister Joan who had married William Walweyn, and by the time that our Joan Greyndour died in 1485, the Walweyns had married into the Baynham family, so Thomas Baynham succeeded to the Forest of Dean properties. He was the father of Sir Christopher Baynham who later used the Greyndour tomb for himself.

 Newland School

I have said nothing so far that marks out Joan from hundreds of other gentry heiresses in the fifteenth century who were relatively wealthy and of whom almost nothing is known except for their marriages and their property. But Joan is different. Between 1443 when Robert died and her remarriage to Sir John Barre between 1447 and 1449, she founded a chantry and endowed a grammar school here in Newland. And that was a very unusual thing to do. There were, of course, hundreds of schools in fifteenth-century England. Most were small elementary schools in private houses or churches, teaching children to read in return for a few pence. Grammar schools were less common. They were for older boys and taught Latin. Most were situated in towns and they too were fee-paying schools. Education was something you expected to pay for, like food, clothes, or transport, and a fee-paying grammar school then as now charged a lot more than a fee-paying elementary school. Furthermore, as there were few grammar schools in the countryside, you had to send your son to a nearby town to go to such a school, and pay the high additional costs of boarding him in a private house.

During the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an idea grew up of endowing grammar schools so that the teaching would be free. Those who endowed these schools often claimed that they were helping the poor, but in truth they were helping what are now known as the squeezed middle classes. A truly poor boy would rarely be sent to a grammar school even if the teaching was free, because there were other costs like decent clothes, paper, ink, and schoolbooks. When most people think of early endowed grammar schools, they think of Winchester and Eton, but these two foundations were wildly untypical. They were large very expensive schemes, one due to a rich bishop of Winchester and the other to King Henry VI, and they remained the only schools of their kind until the second half of the sixteenth century. In 1384, however, Lady Katherine Berkeley, a rich widow, endowed a small grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge in the Cotswolds, which still exists. She transferred land to support a chantry priest to say mass for her soul every day in Wotton church, and also to teach a grammar school near the church, free of fees, to any boy who wished to attend – in practice, as I’ve said, from the more prosperous ranks of society. A project of this kind cost about £250 – quite a lot of money, but within the means of the wealthy gentry.

Wotton-under-Edge school was very slow to inspire imitations. A similar school was founded at Durham in 1414 and another at Oswestry in about 1420, but these were the only three such schools in existence in 1440. They had not made an impact. And then in that year, Henry VI founded Eton and education became fashionable at court. Henry was a pretty hopeless king, but he is the only one in English history who has been interested in schools, and his courtiers found it politic to get interested in them as well, rather as Hitler’s henchmen pretended to be interested in architecture and Wagner. So during the 1440s other small endowed grammar schools were founded, and now at last a movement developed which continued for the next couple of centuries and led to England being peppered with these kinds of schools, chiefly in towns. The relationship of Newland to this movement is difficult to pin down. Robert and Joan were not courtiers but country gentry. Nor can we be quite sure which of them first thought of endowing a grammar school. Did Robert get the idea, between the foundation of Eton and his death in 1443? The school was set up very soon after his death. Was it Joan’s idea? Or an idea suggested to Joan by someone else? All we can say is that she embraced the idea, made the foundation, and took a close interest in the school thereafter.

Robert died in November 1443. The legal business following his death took until the summer of 1444, and it was not until the following year that Joan approached the crown for permission to make the foundation. She had to pay a hefty fee of £35 to get permission, and there had to be a public enquiry about the lands that she proposed to give to endow it. But everything was ready by the spring of 1446, when statutes were drawn up in Latin, approved by the bishop of Hereford, and copied into his register – the Forest of Dean being then in Hereford diocese. The statutes were similar to those of Wotton, so Joan or her advisors must have done some research there. The endowment was to pay a priest to say mass every day for the souls of Robert and Jane in this church, in the chapel of St John and St Nicholas, in other words the chapel at the east end of the south aisle. He was also to teach a school, for which Joan provided a building, partly schoolroom, partly schoolmaster’s lodging, called Blackbrook, the site of which I don’t know for sure but probably on the site of the existing Old Grammar School. The appointment of the master was to belong to Joan and her heirs.

Although the school was endowed, it was not entirely free of fees. There were to be two classes. The lower one, taught by an assistant master, was to teach the alphabet and reading from the matins book and the psalter. Children at this date still learnt to read from Latin prayer books. This meant that they could decipher and pronounce the Latin, but could not understand it. However, once you have learnt to read letters in one language, it is not difficult to use your skill to read them in another, and most boys and girls who learnt to read used their skill to read texts in English, which were becoming more common by this time. The charge for learning to read in Newland school was to be not more than 4d. per term, a shilling a year.

The upper class was taught by the priest-schoolmaster and that, as I have said, would have been for older boys only, from about the age of ten. They were to pay not more than 8d. per term, two shillings a year, not much less than in a fee-paying school. Joan’s school was therefore not so much original in providing free education as in being situated in a relatively remote place. No fee-paying grammar school could easily recruited enough pupils in Newland, and Joan’s endowment made this possible – though to repeat what I’ve said before, her school would have been for the comfortably-off in society. And of course anyone coming from (say) Lydney or Cinderford would have had to board in Newland at their own cost, at least during the week.

Joan did not specify what the school should teach, apart from reading and grammar. This is typical of the period: even the founders of Winchester and Eton didn’t do so. A school was a school was a school. But we can envisage what the school taught. In the lower class, the alphabet from a little board, followed by reading from little primers containing prayers, or the book of hours – which is another name for the matins book, or the psalter. Old copies of church books were often used to teach children. Then in the grammar class, the pupils learnt the grammar of Latin, how to read and write Latin prose, how to speak in Latin, and how to read and write Latin verse. Latin authors were also read – not classical Latin authors who were too difficult to understand by this time, but medieval ones. Textbooks were still relatively few at this time, before printing, although shorter Latin ones were coming into use, but the longer ones would be owned by the master alone and dictated. However, paper was available, and it was easily possible for grammar-school boys to copy notes from dictation and write down their daily exercises. We possess about a dozen manuscripts of notes and exercises written by boys in fifteenth-century schools.

Joan’s statutes did, however, lay down the structure of the school day, and they are the earliest school statutes to do so. That was because clocks were much more common by the 1440s and people were beginning to think in clock-time, as we do, rather than by the passage of the sun as they had done previously. Joan didn’t specify the time for starting school, but it was probably at daybreak – six in summer, seven in winter. Lessons stopped at nine for breakfast, a break of about half an hour, and then resumed until about twelve. Then there was a longer break of at least an hour, followed by afternoon school until five, making a school day of at least eight, perhaps nine, hours. The children were expected to pay for their subsidised education with prayers for Robert and Joan. These were said in school before breakfast at nine and after school at five. And Joan also laid down when the holidays were to be. These were copied from Wotton school and were very similar to modern school holidays, which are derived from those of the middle ages. The school year began in September, a little later than nowadays, on 14 September. Michaelmas term was from then until 21 December. Then a two-week Christmas holiday. Christmas term from Epiphany to Palm Sunday. A two-week Easter holiday. Easter term from the Sunday after Easter to 1 August, with a week’s half-term at Pentecost, and a long vacation of six weeks from 1 August to 14 September.

It’s usually difficult to know how much is due to a philanthropist and how much to his or her advisers and agents, but in Joan’s case it can be shown that she took a close interest in the school and wanted everything in it to work properly. This is because in 1454, only eight years after the foundation, she had a new set of statutes drawn up, approved by the bishop of Hereford, and again copied into his register. The new statutes contained various small changes suggested by how the school had been working: small changes which show how punctilious Joan was. Then in 1465, eleven years later, she had a third set of statutes drawn up, approved, and copied into the bishop’s register. This was to make arrangements so that if her nearest heirs the Walweyns died out, the school should be governed by Flaxley Abbey, which turned out never to be necessary. There is a clear sign of a patroness closely involved in her foundation and, one might say, fussing about its details. Still, she set it up well, and it ran smoothly until the Reformation when the Protestant government of Edward VI decided to abolish chantries in 1548. The government promised to safeguard every grammar school attached to a chantry, but in fact they seized Newland’s endowment and replaced it by an annuity of money paid by the crown. This was paid up to about 1553, and then the disruptions caused by the succession of Mary Tudor and then Elizabeth Tudor caused the payments to lapse, and the school seems to have come to an end. It was later refounded and re-endowed by Edward Bell in about 1576.

 Joan’s Will

There is one other source that tells us about Joan’s personality and interests, and that is her will, which she made on 3 February 1485, a few months before her death on 17 June. It is lengthy and precise, mirroring her precise school statutes, and shows her to have been a grande-dame of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire society, and very conscious of the fact as well. First of all, there was to be an elaborate funeral in Newland church, where she was to be buried alongside Robert in the grave where she lies today. Twenty-eight poor men wearing black gowns and hoods were to carry large candles known as torches and tapers as her body was taken to the church, and the torches were to burn round her hearse during the funeral and at subsequent services for her soul. Every priest and clerk who came to her funeral was to receive money – a shilling for a priest – which makes it likely that all the Forest clergy were there. £40 was allocated to buy gowns for the gentry and yeomanry who turned up, and food and drink for them and for everyone else who came, clergy or laity. But the funeral was not the end of it. Every month, on the day that she died, there was to be a requiem mass said by the clergy of Newland church. Two extra priests, as well as the chantry priest of the school, were to say masses for her soul and Robert’s, one for one year and one for three. A thousand masses were to be said as soon after her death as possible, at a penny per mass: that meant her executors bargaining with all the local clergy to have her name mentioned in their daily masses for however many days it took. Another eight hundred masses were ordered – these were more complicated, because they involved prayers to the Cross, Our Lady, St Michael, and other devotions, and they were costed at a shilling each. Fifty poor men and women were to say 50 rosaries for her soul, and they were to get a shirt or a smock and 2d. each. A hundred other poor folk were to receive gowns, coats, or cloaks, in return for their prayers. The total outlay on the funeral and the masses after death was intended to be well over £100. It must have been one of the grandest events at this church in the fifteenth century, perhaps ever.

       Next the will moved on to her charities. First there was her chapel in Newland church, ‘my chapel’, which reminds us that chapels in churches were private places, usually screened off, so that the owners of the chapel alone could go inside while the general public could only watch a mass being celebrated by looking through the screen. This chapel was to receive a crucifix, a censer, a pair of silver cruets, and various vestments, towels, curtains, and altar cloths. Another vestment went to the chapel of Our Lady on the north side of the nave, and still others to the chantry chapel near Hereford where Sir John Barre was buried. Then there were bequests to religious houses, in all of which she was a ‘sister’, in other words an associate member or as we would say a ‘friend’ and where she was being prayed for. In Hereford the cathedral and the Franciscan and Dominican friaries. In Gloucester the Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite friaries, the hospital of St Bartholomew, and an anchorite. The Cistercian abbeys of Flaxley and Tintern. Further afield Taunton Priory, Somerset; Tilsford Priory, Warwickshire; the hospitals of St Thomas and St Anthony in London, and the palmers’ guild of Ludlow. Two of her ancestral parish churches near Bath got bequests and so did thirteen individual clergy including Robert Warren the ex-vicar of Lydney. He was given 26s. 8d. ‘for the array of his body’, to buy him new clothes, and 6s. 8d. ‘to put in his purse’, meaning a bit of pocket money.

       The next part of the will contains an inventory of Joan’s goods in her principal house at Clearwell, intended for her heirs, Thomas and Alice Baynham. This is valuable because although all executors were supposed to draw up inventories and have them checked, the inventories rarely survive from the middle ages. We are able to get some idea of what the Clearwell house was like. The public part consisted of a great hall decorated with two hanging cloths – either tapestries or painted cloths – one depicting the Wheel of Fortune and the other the famous but mythical knight of romance, Sir Guy of Warwick. The hall was where most of the household ate their meals and spent their spare time. Near the hall were a kitchen, a brewery, and a pantry, all with appropriate vessels and implements. Beyond the hall were a series of private apartments: a parlour, a great chamber, and two other chambers. Each chamber contained a bed with bedclothes and sometimes curtains, but the chambers were not only bedrooms because they were used for socialising and often for eating – chairs and trestle tables being brought in as necessary. Finally there was a chapel, and certainly while Robert was alive there had been a domestic chaplain. The chapel had a portable altar – Robert had obtained a papal licence for this – and the altar had an alabaster ‘table’ or reredos behind it. There was an image of St John the Baptist, who seems to have been the family’s patron saint (perhaps adopted by Sir John Greyndour) and also one of St Anne. There were vestments, a chalice, a great mass book, and even a little organ. Here, no doubt, Lady Joan was wont to pray each day and to attend mass at least whenever a priest was available to celebrate it.

She was undoubtedly literate. She owned what she called ‘my great matins book’ and another matins book – these are identical with the book of hours, simple Latin services, which pious wealthy people read while mass was going on. But she was probably more skilled in liturgy than that, because she owned a church calendar which would have allowed her to predict Lent and Easter for example, and in her parlour window she kept a portuous. Now a portuous is a breviary, the text that a priest had to read every day, containing the daily services other than the mass. We sometimes encounter lay people owning breviaries and even mass books, which shows that they tried to say some of the same services as the clergy would say. It would be interesting to know if she read other kinds of books – saints’ lives, devotional works, romances. She doesn’t mention any such books in her will, but that could just mean that she assumed that they would go with all her unbequeathed possessions to the Baynham family.

Then the servants are mentioned – about twenty-six of them, although at least two of these were retired and probably lived outside the household. There was a hierarchy of servants in terms of their social ranking, and the bequests they got reflected this. The senior servant was Richard Rede, ‘my gentleman’, who got £4. He would have been a gentleman usher or steward, no doubt responsible for running the household. There were two clerks, probably responsible for keeping records; a butler and an assistant dealing with ale and wine; a cook and a slaughterman; a baker who made the bread and a pantler who cut it and served it; a yeoman of the brewery and a yeoman of the stable; a laundress; and a personal chamber servant, a man; oddly no woman servant is mentioned. There was a bailiff who supervised the family property in the area. The ordinary servants got bequests of £1 or 13s. 4d, two thirds of a pound.

And so, in June 1485, just before the battle of Bosworth, Joan went to her everlasting rest in this church. Her effigy and that of Robert are off-the-peg productions from a brass workshop possibly in London. He has a short Henry V haircut, just at the point when hair-styles were becoming long again, as they were from 1440 to 1510, and she is wearing a horned headdress. Both are shown as if they were in their maturity, as was done on all brasses. Something more about her survives in her school statutes and her will. She was sharp, attentive to detail, fussy, determined to get things right, conscious of her status, generous to religious houses and parish clergy, and to those who did what she wanted. If they didn’t, she cut them off. Any servant who left her service before her death was to lose the bequest made to them in her will. Her most original achievement was her school foundation. We don’t know who first got the idea, and how much she relied on agents to carry it out. But she undoubtedly embraced the project, and took a close interest in how it developed. She is one of a handful of women who founded schools: Lady Katherine Berkeley the pioneer foundress at Wotton in 1384, Gwenhyfar Holbach at Oswestry round about 1420, Thomasine Percival in Cornwall in 1510, and most famously Lady Margaret Beaufort at Wimborne in 1497. But there are not many of them, and it was chiefly for this reason that I managed to get her included in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where she will be added to the online edition this coming September. There she will be with Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and Margaret Thatcher, not to mention Dr Crippen and Jimmy Savile, because the dictionary includes the low and the bad as well as the great and the good. But she will be in there and I think she would be pleased. Yes, she’d say, that’s quite right. Here’s 6s. 8d. to put in your purse.

 Copyright Nicholas Orme, 2015

Further Reading: Nicholas Orme, Education in the West of England, 1066-1548, Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1976.

The Victoria County History of Gloucestershire, vol v, ed. N. M. Herbert, London, Institute of Historical Research, 1996.