King Henry grew up in an era and a family that prized education highly. His father Henry V had been taught music, literature, Latin, French and English, as well as the martial arts appropriate to a knight and prince of the realm. His uncle Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was renowned for his learning and indeed his library forms part of the Bodleain Library in Oxford today. Humphrey had a reputation as a patron of the arts and of literature. He was a patron of the poet John Lydgate and of the historian/hagiographer John Capgrave; both of whom enjoyed also the interest of King Henry. Duke Humphrey corresponded with leading humanists in Europe, and he commissioned translations of Greek and Latin classics.
It was the age of the schoolmen, with the foundation of schools and of university colleges. William Wykeham, the bishop of Winchester, established Winchester School in 1382. It was to be a prepartory school to the New College, Oxford, and was to be a model for King Henry's own foundations of Eton and King's College, Cambridge. Education was no longer the exclusive preserve of clerics and laymen like noblemen and merchants were inbibing learning appropriate to their station and professions. Grammar schools were appearing in towns all over England.
At the age of six and a half years King Henry was given his own separate household and on 1st June 1428 Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, was officially appointed to be the young King's governor and tutor by the minority council. The earl had been a friend and companion to Henry V in France, and he was respected for both his martial skills and his learning. The council instructed him:
….the said Earl shall do his endeavour and diligence to teach the King and make him be taught nurture, literature, languages and other manners of cunning (wisdom) as his age shall suffer him to comprehend such as it fitteth so great a prince to be learned of..... He was assisted by the King's confessor, royal clerks and chaplains. Even the King's physician, John Somerset, was a former master of the grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds. Henry would have been taught English, French and Latin, some form of history and rudimentary geography, perhaps even some basic mathematics like arithmetic and geometry. He would have been given religious instruction and Bible studies, as well as having instruction in government and basic English law. One may be sure that the warrior earl of Warwick would have seen to his training in the martial arts of knighthood, like horsemanship and swordplay. An inventory from the Tower of London listed: “…viii swords….some greater and some smaller, for to learn the King to play in his tender age. Item a little harness that the Earl of Warwick made for the King before he went over the sea (across the Channel to his French coronation), garnished with gold…. Item ii little coats of armour which…were made for him when he was but vii years of age.” Henry, however, showed little interest in, or aptitude for, such warlike pastimes. He did become a proficient horseman though, and at least in his youth he enjoyed hunting.
Like his uncle, Humphrey of Gloucester, King Henry had a considerable library. In 1435 he donated 77 books to the King's Hall in Cambridge, and in 1440 he made a similar donation to the newly founded All Souls' College at Oxford (of which he was co-founder with his godfather Archbishop Chichele of Canterbury). His warrant to the Keeper of the Privy Seal reads: “…that of our abundant grace we have granted unto the warden and scholars of our College of All Souls within our University of Oxford the books and volumes the names of which [have] been written and described in a schedule here enclosed for to have them of our gift and to remain perpetually to the use and profit and increase of learning of the warden and scholars in the said College for the time being.”
Attached was a list of twenty-seven books on civil and canon law, theology and philosophy. The King himself delighted in reading. John Blacman records his complain on being disturbed in his chamber by a great nobleman: “They do so interrupt me that by day or night I can hardly snatch a moment to be refreshed by reading of any holy teaching without disturbance.”
King Henry seems to have decided on making his own educational foundations fairly early, and by1439 he had decided on the parish of Eton, in sight of his castle of Windsor, as the site for his royal grammar school. He petitioned the pope for permission to found a school there, incorporating the Eton parish church. This was readily granted by Pope Eugenius IV in January 1440. King Henry took a personal interest in the drawing up of the regulations governing the school. He personally laid the foundation stone on 5th July 1441 and officially opened the school on 21st December 1443.
That same year he set the college at 10 fellows, 10 chaplains, 10 clerks, 16 choristors, 70 poor scholars and 13 almsmen. He took a personal interest in the building plans, as is testified by his initials “H.R.” in his own hand. He also took an interest as well as in the actual construction work, often riding over from Windsor to inspect the progress. Indeed, his interference and changes must have been a source of considerable annoyance to his master builders, just as they were also causes of repeated delays, but it shows that Henry was really wholeheartedly involved. Eton and King's were not just fashionable, prestige projects – the done thing!
Following the model of Wykeham, King Henry had planned to create a university college for his Eton students. On 12th February 1441 he issued letters patent for the foundation of “The College Royal of Our Lady and St. Nicholas” (Nicholas being the saint of his birthday). His choice of Cambridge over Oxford may have been influenced by John Langton, the chancellor of Cambridge, but was more probably the King's fear of heresy, since Oxford had been a hotbed of Wycliffe Lollardry in the not so distant past. Henry came personally to Cambridge to lay the first stone of his new college on Passion Sunday, 2nd April. According to the statutes issued by the King in 1443 (apart from chaplains, clerks and choristers) the college was to consist of a provost and seventy poor and needy scholars who were to “have received the first tonsure” and to be “adorned with good manners and birth, sufficiently grounded in grammar, honest in conversation, able and apt for study, desiring to proceed further in study, not already graduates, and not bound to any other college, except our royal college of Eton…” Of these, two were to study civil law, four canon law, two medicine, and the rest were to “hear and learn especially and diligently arts or philosophy and theology.”
Both Eton and King's College were endowed with lands and revenues to secure their existence and were given various papal benefits at the King's behest. Unfortunately, these provisions did not survive the Yorkist usurpation in 1461 and the King's murder in the Tower ten years later. The colleges suffered badly at the hands of Edward IV.
The King's own education, his dealings with ambassadors and ministers of state, his sustained personal interest in education all speak for an intelligent and cultured sovereign, and should more than disprove the astounding description of the King by some modern writers as a “simpleton”. King Henry was often otherworldly. He was trusting, forgiving and perhaps even naive on occasions, but by no stretch of the imagination could he be considered a “simpleton”!