Getting a degree in the sixteenth century

So you want to get a college degree? More likely, your parents want you to get one. If they really intend for you to matriculate Bachelor of Arts or better, they must intend you for a career in the church or to perhaps to go on to become a physician or Doctor of civil law. Maybe a career in government, as for instance the secretary of a Privy Council member, but you don’t really need a degree for that. A few years with a strong emphasis on rhetoric and a few terms at an Inn of Court or Chancery getting up to speed with your legal jargon and you’d be qualified, as far as objective qualifications go.

Aristocrats and the upper gentry distinctly did not want their sons to get degrees, but they did want them to acquire the culture that was increasingly becoming a shared, national one. Everyone who was anyone had read the same classical works and could discuss them with flair. “For eloquence was a display skill…. alongside other display skills… dress, swordplay and deportment.” (Morgan, p. 134.)

Let’s assume your intentions are clerical. First, you have to choose a university and a college within that university. Hot Protestants would head for Cambridge. Oxford had a reputation for being more friendly to the unregenerate Catholic, although there were Calvinists there and Catholics at Cambridge.

The choice had more to do with region and influence than politics. My West Country protagonist, Thomas Clarady, would probably have gone to Oxford, where Walter Raleigh served a term or two. Sorting by region was by no means an absolute rule, but it made practical sense as well as political. Dialect differences were much, much greater in those days than they are in our time of mass aural media. You’d want tutors and study buddies whom you could understand.

Your father will consult the highest ranking persons he can reach. Your mother’s connections will help as well. This person might be their parish priest, a business acquaintance, or a distant relative. That person would write a letter to a specific teaching master asking him to take you on. This man is a master in the literal sense of have attained a Master of Arts degree. You paid him for teaching you. He also managed the money you owed to the college for board and lodging. There weren’t any college tuition fees per se at this time. All scholars were required to have a tutor. “Tutors should diligently teach their pupils, correct them, and not allow them to wander loosely in the city.” (Source forgotten, alas.)

John_Whitgift_from_NPG_wikiYou lived with your master, if he had room. Francis Bacon lived in the house of his tutor, John Whitgift, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the head of Trinity College at Cambridge University in Bacon’s time. Trinity was noted for excellence in the area of civil and canon law, which is doubtless why Bacon’s father sent him there instead of to his own alma mater, Corpus Christi College.

If your college is crowded, as most of them were in the late Elizabethan period, and you were not the son of anyone in particular, like scholarship boy Christopher Marlowe, you would be housed in a makeshift space with a group of other scholarship boys. Less attention, a smidgen more freedom, perhaps.

You arrive at the start of a term, any term will do. Christopher Marlowe started his academic career in early December, which would be the end of Michaelmas term. Time was less of the essence in those days. All scholars were required to matriculate (formally begin) within a fortnight of arriving in their college and to attend all prescribed lectures and acts. Flout the rules and risk expulsion. There were plenty of masters resident in the college to keep an eye on you and a gatekeeper at the only entrance. I can’t imagine it being difficult for agile adolescents to get in and out more or less at their pleasure, however. Jump out the window! cambridge_window_jumper

Now you must attend lectures and disputations for four years. Same number as our typical sojourn. They were on the quarter system:

  1. Michaelmas (aka Winter, Autumn, and Christmas): from day after feast of St. Denis, 9 Oct to ‘O Sapienta’, 16 Dec.
  2. Lent (Hilary, Easter and Annunciation): from the day after the feast of St. Hilary, 13 Jan to the Friday before Palm Sunday.
  3. Easter (Summer, Ultimo, and St. John the Baptist): from Wednesday after the first Sunday after Easter to 6 July, the Vigil of the Translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury.
  4. Long Vacation (terminus autumnalis): No ordinary lectures, but work was done that could count towards graduation


After two years, you reached the stage of sophista generalis, the midpoint. You’re a sophomore. Now you can take a principal role in disputations. You can act as the respondent, responding to the arguments of the opponents, who are students of the same rank. They made a little fuss about achieving this stage. There was a ceremony and payment of 2s to the beadle, followed by “the sophisters’ gaudy.” Everyone dress up and go dance with a bunch of boys. Lots of beer, possibly a play… could be fun.

When you’re ready to take your BA, you have to stand as a questionist; that is, complete an exercise called “responding to the question.” You have to pay communa of 12d to the university chest. On the day (late Jan, early Feb) the beadles lead the questionists to the Common Schools. The presiding master takesthe respondent seat, with the questionists lined up facing him. After the commendaciones (often humorous and in rhyme), the beadles place hoods on the students (like our academic hoods) and the master poses questions to the scholars.

Everyone answers correctly; that’s not the point. If you’re not ready, you don’t get to do it. Then you supplicate the congregation of regent masters for permission to take your degree. If they agree, they grant you a grace. Sometimes, as in Marlowe’s case, they change their minds about your fitness and take it back later. He had to petition the Privy Council in late June to be allowed to commence in July.

The final hurdle is the disputation. Disputations are important in my book, Death by Disputation, although that’s not where the murder takes place. But Tom has to stand up in the Common Schools, the building where many classes and most university-wide functions took place, and dispute questions of philosophy with any comers. These were questions like “whether there is a plurality of worlds” or “whether it is better to be single or married.” Anyone from any college can come try you and you have an audience. Oh, and you do all this disputing in Latin.

That sounds challenging! Give me a good old standard, sit-down all alone, GRE any day. But the display and the articulate thinking on your feet is what the Elizabethans valued most. They could not have cared less if you could perform curious little logic exercises (Mary can get flour on Thursday and apples in July…) or answer multiple choice questions about short essays at speed.

Peforming the disputation is what makes you a Bachelor of Arts. If you weren’t one before, you are, technically, now a gentleman. Commencement took place the second week in July at the church of Great St. Mary’s. The ceremonies described by Damian Riehl Leader in his  1988. A History of the University of Cambridge. Volume I: The University to 1546 (Cambridge University Press) sound even more stultifyingly snooze-worthy than our modern commencement ceremonies. Although the costumes haven’t changed much, apart from our modern style of color-coding colleges and degrees.


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