Friday, 9 November 2018

Walter's Schooldays

Vicars Mead, on Hayes Lane, East Budleigh

We can guess that Raleigh may have received his early education from East Budleigh’s vicar, John Ford. After that, who knows? We have no hard evidence for such matters.

Some authorities believe that The King’s School at Ottery St Mary would have been the natural choice of his parents. It is ‘very possible’ that Walter and his elder brother Carew attended the school, writes biographer Raleigh Trevelyan, noting that Ottery St Mary is one of the many places where it is claimed that Raleigh had a house. ‘At all events it is perfectly acceptable to visualize them trudging with their satchels along that muddy lane from Hayes Barton.’

In Ottery itself there seems little doubt. There’s a fine building called Raleigh House, and The King’s School itself also has a house named after the Great Elizabethan.

Robert Neal, Chairman of Ottery St Mary’s Heritage Society, kindly contributed some information about the origins of the school, which I have edited as follows:

The Ecclesiastical College

Down to the year 1337 men were born, lived and died in this sleepy hollow, for the most part undisturbed by the rise and fall of kings, or the drums and trampings of civil wars.

The John Grandisson Triptych c. 1330 in the British Museum's collection, described as 'a superb example of a medieval ivory triptych. Its purpose was to aid meditation and prayer by beautifully illustrating truth. Left section - upper scene: Saint Peter holding a church in his left hand and a key in his right hand; lower scene: A young full-faced John Grandisson holding a bible in his right hand and an unidentifiable object in his left hand, with his coat of arms at upper right. Centre section - upper scene: The King of England and his queen, with his right hand raised in blessing his nation, his left hand holding an orb representing his temporal power; lower scene: Jesus of Nazareth being crucified, thus blessing the world, surrounded by men and women of varied emotions. Right section - upper scene: Saint Paul holding a bible in his dominant hand and a sword in his left hand (a sword of the Spirit); lower scene: An aged gaunt-faced Bishop Grandisson with his right hand raised in blessing in the same manner as the king, blessing his congregant, with his coat of arms at upper left. 

It was then that a new era began in the history of the town. John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter, purchased the Manor back from the Cathedral at Rouen to create, in Ottery, his Ecclesiastical College, his ‘College of Canons’.

St Mary's Church, Ottery St Mary  Image credit: John Salmon 
The small Norman church, dedicated to St Mary, was enlarged by him, so that it closely resembled his splendid Cathedral in Exeter.

The College, a fine example of medieval architecture flourished for the next 200 years. It was tremendously wealthy and occupied a large part of the town. In addition to
the splendid church, its buildings included the Gatehouse, Library, Chapterhouse, Cloisters, Choristers House, Choristers’ School, Secondaries’ House, Vicars' House, Wardens House, Ministers House, Chanters House, Sacrist’s House and Manor House. In addition there were four Canons' Houses, Gardens and Stabling.

The College grounds extended from beyond the Manor house north of the church, along North Street and Paternoster Row, down what is now Silver Street and along
Hind Street to beyond what we recognise as Canaan Way Car Park.

Like so much of the College, the Cloisters are no longer there, but we get a good idea of how they looked. Wells Cathedral is of the same period, and itinerant designers and masons are likely to have worked on similar buildings in the area. Their signature marks can be found in various parts of the structure even now.

This College was famous throughout the land. It brought royalty to Ottery St Mary, who visited this ecclesiastical foundation in one of the wealthiest towns in England.

Why was it wealthy?

It was an area much sought after by settlers even before Roman times; it was easy to farm, and it had all the infrastructure for healthy and sustainable living. A beautiful river valley, which has always been described as a gentle part of England, blest with soft valleys, warm crumbling loam, rich soil. This resulted in lush vegetation and healthy livestock.

The meandering river Otter was, of course, essential to generations of this thriving community. It was their life-blood.

It provided clean water for the town’s people and their livestock, for horticulture and the many communal industries along the river-banks – for washing and dyeing the wool, for
cleaning and tanning leather.

Men ground their corn in the water-powered town mill and dammed the river with a weir to create the mill-stream we see today.... And their jewel in the crown was, of course, the famous Ecclesiastical College, which, in one of England’s wealthiest towns, made Ottery a ‘place of eminence’.

During the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries carried out in the reign of Henry VIII, the college was dissolved, stripped of its considerable wealth, and partially demolished.  The rest of this grand College was allowed to fall into ruin, its valuable building materials recycled over the centuries. As an example, Cadhay House, a few miles outside Ottery, was partly constructed from ‘College materials’.

But the church was spared as the parish church. King Henry appointed four local inhabitants as Governors to care for the church and its properties, and ordained that these governors should have succession forever. This ‘Church Corporation’ has continued to the present day.

The Choristers’ School, founded in 1337, which became The King’s Grammar School in 1545. The photo was taken shortly before its demolition in 1884.

In place of the former Choristers’ School, in 1545 Henry founded the ‘Kynges Newe Grammer Schole’, an important centre of learning for the whole county.

Unfortunately, the beauty of the church did not escape the turmoil of the Reformtion, including the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, a counter-Reformation revolt in which, it is said, six hundred men were slain in a bloody skirmish between Catholics and Protestants at nearby Fenny Bridges. In 1559 the Protestant Queen Elizabeth ordered the altar screen to be defaced and the original niches and canopies were destroyed. The church was stripped bare!

Sir Walter Raleigh was a former pupil of King’s School around 1560. A prolific writer, his famous poems include ‘What is our Life’ and ‘The Lie’, which expresses his general contempt for the World.

Raleigh House

Swete’s sketch of Walter Raleigh’s house, 1794

As for Raleigh’s house in the town, we have a copy of this sketch by the Reverend John Swete (1752-1821), published in 1794 and entitled ‘Ancient Mansion of Sir Walter Raleigh’. It looks remarkably like the Chapter House of the defunct College; we suspect that it was built with recycled materials from the ruins ‘up the road’. There is no evidence for this but it seems the most likely source.

Here we are looking at architecture from two different periods; the castellated stone porch and adjacent turret in the sketch are probably all that remained of Walter Raleigh’s grand residence, which he would have occupied around 1590.

The slate-roofed dwelling attached to these remains is of a later period, probably constructed on this site around 1690. By 1794 when this sketch was made, this later addition was itself in poor condition. It was all destroyed by fire a few years after.

The Raleigh House we recognise today, pictured above,  was erected to the left of the original house, with its offices and stabling annex on the original footprint.

This new Raleigh House was occupied by a surgeon, Thomas Davy and his wife Elizabeth. Their youngest son, Edward Davy, was born here on 1806, later to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He is famed as Ottery’s designer and pioneer of the British Electric Telegraph system.


Returning to the history of the school, now we begin to unearth what appears to be a bit of skulduggery. By 1868, The King’s School, run by Rev. George Smith, had experienced rapid decline. According to the report of the Endowed Schools Enquiry of that year, the school was then ‘useless and cannot be said to be doing any work whatever’. There were only four boys in a dilapidated room, and what should have been the boarders’ dining room was occupied by two carriages.

This, remember, is the famous Kings School, founded by King Henry VIII!

During this same period, by a strange coincidence, a private school was operating successfully at ‘Priory House’, home address of the said Rev. George Smith. The proprietor of this independent establishment was a certain Rev. W C Frost BA.

The ‘Priory House School’ was here throughout the 1870s, and a Trades Directory of 1878 still shows the proprietor as Rev W. C. Frost. Were these two Reverends one and the same person? Because it was still the home of Rev. George Smith!

It took until 1881 for the Church Governors to remove the Rev. Smith from his post, and even then he managed to secure a handsome ‘golden handshake’ of £480.

But, would you believe, it would seem he still continued to live at Priory House and run his school from there!

A new home for ‘The Kynges Newe Grammer Schole’

Above: A contemporary drawing of the failing King’s School in the 1880s.

The original school building used to set up ‘The Kynges Newe Grammer Schole’ of 1545 during the reign of King Henry VIII, dated back to the construction of the College in 1337, so by the late 1800s, to say the least, the building was past its best.

The Charity Commissioners responsible for King’s produced a scheme in 1883 under which the Old King’s School buildings were to be sold and new premises provided. However, the original Old Schoolhouse was demolished the following year. Nothing remains of this historic building, but we do hold photographs.

The Priory House, Ottery St Mary

For the next ten years, the school was without a building and, apparently no pupils. Then, in 1894, the Church Governors decided to purchase the Priory House from the
aforementioned  Rev. Smith. After all, here was a ready-made school complete with pupils.

This fine Georgian house was conveyed to them for £1,100. The Royal Assent was obtained to reopen the King’s School there, and it opened for business in 1896, where it flourished in its more spacious and luxurious accommodation at Priory House from 1896 to 1912.

In 1912, The King’s Grammar School moved from Priory House into brand new premises in Barrack Road, which is its present site.

The coat of arms of The King's School, Ottery St Mary 

Although the school with its ancient history occupies a different site today, it continues to flourish as a comprehensive school with over 1000 pupils.



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