We have few records of formal education, of schools or schoolteachers in Hungerford prior to the 17th century. This does not mean necessarily that there was no organised system of education in the area. The town itself was a market town whose prosperity was steady if unspectacular, and the wider parish contained a number of substantial yeoman farmers or minor gentry. Early documents of the period indicate that various of its inhabitants could write or at least sign their names rather than make an individual mark. They must have acquired their reading and writing skills, however limited, from some local source. Such a source can hardly have been other than clerical. Education within the parish was one of the many social welfare functions which the pre-Reformation church carried out almost everywhere and accepted uncomplainingly (sometimes enthusiastically) as part of its responsibilities. There is no reason to think that the situation was otherwise in the parish of Hungerford. Hungerford was well supplied with clerics since in addition to the parish priest, and his curates and the parish clerk, there were at least three chaplains connected with the church, two being chantry chaplains and one the priory or hospital chaplain.
Any talk of a 'chantry school', however, is guesswork, since there are no documents relating to either of the two chantries or to the priory which give any indication that one of their functions was to provide schooling. In the case of the chantry of the Holy Trinity, endowed by Robert de Hungerford, a severe inquisition in 1337 into the terms of its foundation specifically sets out the chaplain's duties and there is no mention among them of schooling. When chantries were dissolved in 1547/8 the dissolution certificates in many parishes contained statements in favour of certain chantries that they were providing a source of local education. Not so with the Hungerford chaplaincies. Thus, although it is tempting to assume that the local clergy would have been, could have been or should have been also the local schoolteachers, we cannot find firm evidence for this in Hungerford.
We must also beware of looking at medieval and Tudor education in terms of our present day system with its much criticised academic bias. Instead, much education in past times was of a vocational kind -- religious, social or trade. Thus, boys intended for the clerical profession would be taught at a monastery or other ecclesiastical institution; young gentlemen would learn the 'arts' of being a gentleman and the skills needed in running an estate by living with, and being servant to, a family of gentry other than their own, preferably one richer or of higher social status. A formal apprenticeship to one skilled in his trade or craft awaited the potential craftsman.
These types of vocational or apprenticeship training may be illustrated from the history of a single Hungerford family. In 1558 Thomas Hydden was accepted as a scholar of Winchester College at the age of 11. His selection was the result of recommendation by an influential benefactor, and it was an opportunity quite untypical of the great mass of youngsters in the area at that time. Other members of the Hidden family followed the traditional path for lower gentry — thus Anthony, destined to inherit the manor of Hidden-cum-Eddington, was sent to live with Henry Clifford of Boscombe, a well-to-do gentleman who was an M.P. and allied by birth to the Cumberland Earls of Clifford. Anthony's brother Edward, for whom his father intended his Crown Inn business at Oxford, was appropriately apprenticed as servant to Robert Brabant, gentleman, the holder of the Bear Inn in Hungerford. Anthony's cousin John was placed in the domestic household of the Earl of Hertford at Wolf Hall, where a domestic chaplain acted as tutor to the family and most probably to its extended t members of domestic staff. William Hidden, brother of John, on the other hand, was sent to London to be apprenticed to a prominent London citizen and member of the Ironmongers' Company.
Below the class of lower gentry, the local merchant and artisan class were developing their material resources, as can be seen by a study of their wills between, say, 1550 and 1650. It was this class which, benefitting from the boost to the economy given by the dissolution of the religious houses and later the chantries, felt the need for the provision of an educational system which would open up greater opportunities for their children and grandchildren. Evidence that a school existed in Hungerford before the end of the 16th century derives from an unusual source. In his Latin poem Hungerforda written c.1574, Daniel Rogers paints a picture of the town, as it was before a great fire, "graced with church, school, houses, and numerous townsmen." Rogers' information about Hungerford is trustworthy and is almost certainly based on first hand knowledge.
Even after the Reformation the church authorities retained their traditional interest in education and all teachers had to be licensed by the diocesan bishop, in this case the bishop of Salisbury. Among other matters, the diocesan Visitations concerned themselves with the state of church and school. At the Visitation made in 1616 the Hungerford churchwardens reported that "concerning the church and the scholemaster we present omnia bene." The stock phrase 'all well' confirms that a licensed schoolmaster existed in the parish and implies that this was a normal circumstance.
Gentry who could afford to do so might retain a private tutor. Even he had to be licensed. Licensing was a means whereby the church and state authorities tried to ensure the domination of their particular religious and social ideologies. The Roman Catholic family of Curr based in Sandon were the leading recusant family in the parish. In 1631 a Catholic tutor resident in their home was presented by the churchwardens both as a recusant "and for teaching school in the same house, being unlicensed. "
[From "Early Schools and Schooling in Hungerford" by Mr. Norman Hidden, 2005]