top of page
  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

A Gentleman's Education in the 18th Century

Publication Date: Jan 1, 2020

Would the hero attend a local school, be sent to a private school, have a tutor, or...?

Painting of two boys at school

While we don't see the results of this research in significant ways in The Colonel and The Enchantress, I did fall down a rabbit hole regarding the education of young men in the late 18th century. We read quite a bit in historical romances that the hero attended Eton and Oxford, and at some point tootled off for the Grand Tour. But did the education for an heir look the same as that of his younger brothers' education? Did the education of aristocrats look the same as those of landed gentry? What did villagers do for education?

Let's answer these questions simply: the education not only differed for all parties, the means by which they were educated also differed.

Heirs would inherit, and thus they had to be prepared for what to do when that occurred, which could really be any minute, if we're speaking truthfully. Their education focused on their duties and roles, their virtues and morals, their behavior and manners, not to mention diplomacy, and their running of the estate and lands. Scholastic pursuits were important, but more so was their ability to lead, negotiate, network, and converse. The academic studies would include languages (written and oral) such as French, Latin, Greek, German, etc., as well as such subjects as music, history, geography, rhetoric, and more. It was rare that heirs were sent off to school, such as attending Eton. Instead, they had personal tutors from an early age. They were, essentially, home schooled, but by a tutor whose sole purpose was to educate the heir for inheritance. Not only did education by tutor assure the heir received bespoke lessons, but both the discipline and socialization would be monitored. We can't have the future duke socializing with someone below his station at school, now can we? It says a great deal about what the parents valued if they chose to send their heir or even the younger sons to a public school versus home school. A parent could, for instance, want their son(s) to mix with other classes. Something to think about, eh?

Painting of two boys in a tutoring session

And just to clarify, a school like Eton would be considered "public" because it was not exclusive to aristocrats. Anyone with means could attend, even the underprivileged (often for free if they showed sufficient talent). Eton comes with a hefty annual tuition which includes their room and board since students stay for most of the year. What we consider to be "private" would have been monastery schools. There were more exclusive public schools, but it would have been more reasonable to keep the son at home with a tutor. The typical age of first admission to Eton is age 13, although some may not attend until much older, say 16. While there were certainly more options than Eton, Eton was the more popular of choices since it was openly supported and promoted by the King.

Photography of Eton

While we're mentioning public schools, let's pause for a moment to mention village schools, which were certainly not in every village, but also not uncommon during the Age of Enlightenment. They were typically run by the local clergy. There was even mention in The Baron and The Enchantress of Dr. John Sharp holding school in Bamburgh Castle, if you'll recall, a mention based on truth, as Dr. Sharp really did hold a village school in the castle. If there was someone interested in holding classes, then pupils would attend, always free of charge, but not necessarily with regularity. The lower the family's status, the more likely the children would be working with little or no time for education (and really, some might ask what the point would be to have a scholarly education when you already knew your future trade and were either doing it or apprenticing in it. Putting food on the table was seen as far more important than learning Latin.).

The younger brothers (we're back to talking about aristocratic families, by the way) would have to fend for themselves in the world, and so were educated with the intention of leaving home to make their own way. They might at first have the advantage of their eldest brother's tutor, but at some point, they would more than likely be sent to a private or public school wherein they would learn the skills to become clerics, doctors, barristers, or even military officers. Academic pursuits at the public schools were not skimped on, as these students were still learning Latin, Greek, Horace, Virgil, studying law, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, languages, science, and other joys of a classical education. You can imagine, then, the difficulty of a young brother inheriting. The younger siblings, unless they were considered "the spare" and educated just in case, rarely received the same education as the eldest and heir. A younger son could spend the entirety of his youth studying to become a vicar only to end up with the entire inheritance in his lap--talk about unprepared!

Photograph of Oxford

Once the youthful schooling was out of the way, there was the option of attending university. Emphasis on option. Oxford was the more popular choice for aristocrats but not the only choice. We might find one of our heroes having attended Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, or any number of other universities. Oxford was especially popular with those families aligned with the Tories (Crown supporters), while Cambridge was associated more with the Whigs (parliament supporters). Historically speaking, especially in terms of our hist rom heroes, it's most likely that the heir and his brothers would attend Oxford, while the local landed gentry would attend Cambridge. That's not necessarily a class thing but a political thing (although the line between those two is rather thin). And of course, there are always exceptions when it comes to political leanings.

It was not uncommon for children or young adults to attend school abroad rather than at home, be it for their public schooling or for university. Often, sons attended the same university as their father and his father before him, but there were the occasional rebels who made sure not to follow in their father's footsteps. Gentry who wished to attend university but could not readily afford it or have the political connections could obtain a scholarship. With aptitude, anyone could attend university (and public school, for that matter). Degrees were of little importance, for there was not really a reason to earn a degree. The goal was the education itself, so those attending university stayed until they were satisfied or went broke. Some stayed a year, some two years, etc. all studying under the tutelage of learned individuals. It should be noted that the same did not apply to universities abroad, for many of those had strict curricula with terminal degrees. Someone wishing to become a doctor, for instance, would likely attend a medical university abroad.

Painting of Gentlemen in Rome by Katharine Read
Gentlemen in Rome by Katharine Read

The Grand Tour followed university and was not a frolic on the continent for drink and women, although I'm sure there was that in plenty. The Grand Tour served an educational purpose and typically lasted at least three years. It was the final component of education wherein they studied the culture and politics of other countries, networked with aristocrats abroad, examined architecture, embodied what they had been taught in terms of manners, language, diplomacy, and more. For many, this served as a sort of dissertation, thesis, or capstone project to finalize their education, a real test and testament to their education thus far. There were academic goals involved, and specific countries and sights they were encouraged to see as part of the journey. Visiting the courts was part of the experience, as well, not only to see the political workings of other countries but to be part of it as an educated and decorous representative of England. Purchasing furniture, clothing, art, etc. while on tour was part of the experience. It was not uncommon that their personal tutor traveled with them to continue the lessons and document their progress. Preparing for the trip was quite the undertaking and may prove a good post for another newsletter, for the passports, papers, and money was serious business for the Englishman traveling abroad for an extended time, especially if accompanied by his tutor, as would be more common than not.

We see in The Colonel and The Enchantress some discussion of education. Duncan's education is mentioned, and there are some hints to the education of other children, such as the heir of the Annick dukedom. These are areas in which Mary's background and Duncan's background greatly differ, not to mention how they might want to raise their children--village school? Private tutor? Eton? Oxford?


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page