Philemon Holland and the Old Grammar School

As CovSoc looks forward to its delayed move to the Old Grammar School we came across the story of one of the famous characters associated with the building.

Philemon Holland was one of the most gifted scholars of his day and was famous for his translation of classical texts. He spent much of his life teaching at the Old Grammar School, which later became known as King Henry VIII School.

Philemon Holland was born in Chelmsford in 1552 and was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. He went on to study at Trinity College Cambridge where he obtained a BA and then a Fellowship. Later he also trained as a Medical Doctor and received the award of MD from Cambridge University.

After his marriage to Anne Bolt of Perry Hall in 1579 he moved to Coventry to become Usher (assistant master) at the Grammar School, which was founded in 1545 by John Hales. The position brought him a house and £10 a year. The school, which moved from its original site at Whitefriars Monastery, was basically a single room with about 80 pupils.

In 1585 he set up a medical practice in the city and appears to have carried out two careers in parallel.

Holland was admitted to the freedom of the city on 30 September 1612, and when King James visited the city on 2 September 1617, he was chosen to make a speech in the King’s honour. He wore a suit of black satin for the occasion, and his oration is said to have been “much praised”. It was later published as “A learned, elegant and religious Speech delivered unto His…Maiestie, at…Coventry.”

Holland’s fame came mostly from his translations of the classics. His translations included Pliny’s  History of the world, Livy’s History of Rome, Plutarch’s Moralia, Suetonius’s De Vita Caesarum. In 1610 Holland translated the 1607 edition of William Camden’s Britannia into English. The Corporation appears to have supported some of these works and received appropriate dedications. One such dedication reads “for the affectionate love that yee have alwaies borne to good literature…”

Amongst Holland’s pupils were George Berkeley (later Baron Berkeley) of Caludon Castle, the famous Warwickshire historian Sir William Dugdale, Christopher and John Davenport, who founded New Haven in Connecticut and Dr S Winter who became Provost of Trinity College Dublin.

School was not much fun in Holland’s days. The school day started at 6 a.m. and finished at 5 p.m. and there was no playtime, except on Thursday and Saturday afternoons.

Drawing courtesy of Paul Maddocks

In January 1628, when he was 77 years of age, the mayor and aldermen of Coventry appointed Holland head schoolmaster. It appears the position was given to him at his advanced age out of respect for his talents and service to the city, and in the hope of ameliorating his financial situation.

As Head Holland introduced a set of rules which effectively changed the “free school” into a fee charging school. The rules included the use of school monitors to check the behaviour of pupils out of school – “especially in Church and in the street” and also the use of the cane to punish children, in place of “hand and fist, about the head or pulling of hair, ears or suchlike”.

Drawing courtesy of Paul Maddocks

Pupils would pay a shilling for admission and also a quarterly sum to the school’s sweeper for ringing the attendance bell.

Coventry was at that time a rich trading and manufacturing town and the school’s fame saw students coming from across the Midlands to be taught there. At the turn of the 17th Century there was no English Grammar and children concentrated on Latin and Greek texts. However following the translation of the Bible into English, English Grammar became more important. Music was a key subject and mathematics was sometime taught.

Holland stayed as Head teacher for only 14 months, before asking to be relieved of his duties, due to ill health in 1628. The city gave him a small pension, as did Cambridge University.

He died on 9th February 1636 and is buried in Holy Trinity Church. The inscription on his tomb, which he wrote himself, is a pun on his name in Latin “(W)HOL(E)-LAND I WAS AND (W)HOL(E)-LAND SHALL I BE”

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