The Wesleys Go to School

In this episode, we follow young John Wesley to Charterhouse and young Charles Wesley to Westminster before we give an overview of what Oxford University was like in the early 18th century.

Episode 31

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: The Wesleys Go To School.

John Wesley left home in Epworth on January 28, 1714, at the age of 11. He journeyed south to London to join the Charterhouse School as a foundation scholar after being nominated by the Duke of Buckinghamshire, who was the former Marquis of Normanby and patron of South Ornsby who had given Samuel Wesley a parish some twenty years before.1

Henry Rack, in his definitive biography of John Wesley, mentions that only “a few trivial and dubious stories survive from this period.”2 These stories come mostly from John Wesley’s early biographer, Luke Tyerman. One story has young John running around the schoolyard every morning three times to preserve his health.3 Another concerns a time when John was asked why he hung out with younger boys as opposed to boys his own age. John apparently quoted John Milton’s Paradise Lost in saying, “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”4

Tyerman writes of Wesley’s time at Charterhouse in a hagiographic way, saying: “Wesley entered the school as the poor child of an impoverished parish priest, and had to endure wrongs and insults neither few nor small; but, though he was only sixteen years of age when he left, he had, by his energy of character, his unconquerable patience, his assiduity, and his progress in learning, acquired a high position among his fellows.5

But what was Charterhouse and what was it like in the 1710s?

The first purpose of Charterhouse was a cemetery for plague victims in the 14th century. Thirty years later, it became a Carthusian monastery. Carthusians were contemplatives focused on a solitary life of prayer and community together. The word charterhouse comes from the anglicization of Carthusian. Chartreuse is the French version of the word. Students at Charterhouse are still to this day referred to as ‘carthusians’.

After Henry VIII abolished the monasteries, Charterhouse became a mansion for British Lords until Thomas Sutton bought it in 1611 and offered two unique missions for Charterhouse. The first was as a refuge for up to 80 brothers “either decrepit or old captaynes either at sea or at land, maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck of other calamity”, the second was as a school. Many famous Englishman were Governors of the Charterhouse School, including James I, Wellington, Gladstone, and Cromwell.6 Sutton died near the end of 1611 and left his fortune made in the coalfields of Newcastle to the Charterhouse Foundation.

The Master of Charterhouse at the time of John Wesley’s entrance was a man named Thomas Burnet. Burnet had been at Charterhouse since 1685. Some were concerned at his appointment because he often dressed as a layperson and not as clergy. Burnet quickly became notorious for standing up to James II when the king wanted to name a Catholic as a pensioner of the Sutton Hospital connected to Charterhouse. When William III came to the throne, Burnet was highly favored and given a position in court, but in 1695, he resigned from the court to focus on Charterhouse. He published many works on the bible and posthumously published a critique of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Burnet died almost two years into John Wesley’s stay in September of 1715, after the accession of George I. The next Master of Charterhouse was John King, who had attended Christ Church, Oxford, and had been the preacher at Charterhouse before he became Master. King’s brother was a Member of Parliament from Kent.

John King was a pious man who often carried a copy of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ with him, a book that had a profound impact on John Wesley.

As a foundation scholar, Wesley would be supported by a stipend of 20 pounds a year once he entered Oxford. The stipend was referred to as an exhibition at the time. At one point in Oxford, Wesley accidentally received a double stipend. Young John at 18, wrote a letter to Charterhouse trying to clear up the mistake. John King received the letter and noted of Wesley that he “is studious and of good behavior.”7

John did not forget his time at Charterhouse. He visited the school on a number of occasions and met with fellow students multiple times that he noted in his Journal.8 He also served as a steward for a founder’s day dinner in 1727.9

Young Charles Wesley went to a different school than his brother. Charles followed their older brother, Samuel Jr., to the Westminster School, which started as a charity school for the monks of the Benedictine Monastery at what is now Westminster Abbey. With the dissolution of the monasteries, the Westminster school survives thanks to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The most important headmaster at Westminster was Richard Busby, who began in 1638 as a firm royalist and supporter of Charles I. He stayed in that position until his death in 16@95, maintaining his leadership through the civil war, the protectorate, the restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. Many of the famous artists and writers of the Restoration period, studied at Westminster, like John Dryden, John Locke, Henry Purcell, and Christopher Wren. Busby published popular Greek and Latin grammars as well as grammars on Arabic and Hebrew. He also emphasized corporal punishment

Charles came to Westminster at 8 years old in 1716 while his brother, Samuel, was an usher there. The headmaster at the time was Robert Freind. He was well-liked by many and published English and Latin verse in many periodicals.

Charles was made a King’s Scholar in 1721 and elected as Headboy in his final year of 1725, before he followed John to Christ Church, Oxford.

So let us move, then, northwest of London a few miles to Oxford and the famous university there.

A number of difficulties had befallen Oxford University after the accession of King George I. As mentioned in our last episode on the Hanoverians, many Tories were suspicious of George and many Tories occupied positions of influence at Oxford. There was, in fact, a riot on May 28th, 1715, when the Constitution Club, a Whiggish establishment, tried to celebrate the King’s birthday. A crowd gathered and started chanting, “Down with the Whigs” and “No George; James Forever.” As Vivian Green writes, “The mob not unnaturally got out of hand, broke all the illuminated windows they could find, and sacking the Presbyterian meeting-place, seized its pulpit to use it as the main source of fuel for a bonfire at Carfax.”10

There were threats from George’s government to regulate the University more, which were not taken well by the colleges. It is easy to see a connection between Oxford’s political tensions and the Wesley brother’s Tory sensibilities. Samuel and Susanna were already Tories and Oxford only served to cement that inclination in their children.

Christ Church College was the largest and most distinguished College at the time.His first tutor was George Wigan. Wigan was a Greek scholar who edited part of John Ernest Grabe’s multi volume edition of the Septuagint, Greek Old Testament. Wesley did not work with Wigan long, since the clergyman retired to the country in the middle of Wesley’s stay. Wesley writes to his mother about a small-pox outbreak at the time which may have led to Wigan’s departure. Wesley connected more with Wigan’s replacement, even borrowing 10 pounds from him in August of 1724.11 Another mentor, Jonathan Colley, was chaplain of the college. When the crown sent a Whig, Bradshaw, to be the new dean. On May 29, 1715, the day many at Oxford celebrated the restoration of King Charles II (and the day after King George I’s birthday, which was not celebrated), Colley led a penitential anthem at church which Thomas Hearne writes, “enraged the Dean Dr. Bradshaw to that degree, that after the service he sent for [Colley] and reprimanded him.”12

As far as the education itself goes, Oxford in the 1720s was as much medieval as it was modern. The exercises which students had to pass in order to earn a degree followed the Laudian codes of 1636 for the most part, but as L.S. Sutherland notes, “well before the eighteenth century began, however, the system of university instruction which these exercises were intended to test had broken down, and the tests were recognized to be unsatisfactory in themselves and laxly administered.”13

The curriculum mostly followed medieval methods of scholastic disputation, though an innovation of an oral exam with great stress on expressing thoughts in Latin and translating English into Latin. To earn a Bachelor of Arts, a student had to live within the college for four years or 16 terms, though there were some exceptions. Sutherland, in the History of Oxford University, gives a great account of the practice of this curriculum. He writes:

During these years candidates had to present themselves for three exercises in the traditional disputations, and one oral examination in the new style. It was also intended that they should regularly attend the public disputations and the public lectures on which their examination was based. Though these requirements had fallen into desuetude well before the period began…the exercises in which candidates had personally to take part continued to be strictly required. After a man had been in residence for at least two years he was expected…to dispute on grammar and logic in parciso both as opponent and respondent under the moderatership of a BA or senior sophister. These disputations were held three days a week during full term and regent masters, proctors, pro-proctors and, up to the earlier years of the century, the vice-chancellor himself were expected to intervene to ensure that they were well conducted. When a candidate took part in them in the course of qualifying himself, he said to so pro forma, and when he had successfully completed the exercise, he was created a ‘general Sophister.’ In the eighteenth century the process was usually described as ‘doing the Generals’. Thereafter he was supposed to take part in the same disputations at least once a term until he graduated…Finally he had to ‘answer under Bachelor’ in the elaborate Lenten disputations in which those who had recently graduated were said to ‘determine’, an exercise necessary to make the BA degree more than a courtesy title, and which was essential for those who wished to proceed to the MA. The undergraduate ‘answering under Bachelor’ had to respond twice to a BA (known as his ‘father’) in logic and rhetoric…The [oral] examination for the BA was taken separately and usually late in the undergraduate’s career. The senior proctor was responsible for nominating and swearing in three regent masters as examiners…apart from the processions for spoken latin, [the subjects] were only indirectly define. These were to be determined by the content of the compulsory masters…The subjects were grammar and ‘selected heads out of Greek and Roman Antiquities’; rhetoric (based on Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and Hermogenes); and, after the end of the first year, logic and moral philosophy, both on strictly Aristotelian lines…After the end of the second year they were to attend the first part of the lectures, primarily intended for BAs, of the Savilian professor of geometry and of the Regius Professor of Greek. This last was to lecture on Homer, Demosthenes, Isocrates, Euripides and others of the ‘more ancient and classical authors’; these too were intended primarily for the BAs. No provision was made for teaching in divinity, which was explicitly left to college tutors and lecturers.

When John Wesley entered Oxford in 1720, he later writes that “I still said my prayers, both in public and private; and read, with the Scriptures, several other books of religion, especially comments on the New Testament. Yet I had not all this while so much as a notion of inward holiness; nay, went on habitually and, for the most part, very contentedly, in some or other known sin’ though with some intermission and short struggles, especially before and after the holy communion, which I was obliged to receive thrice a year.’14 Wesley wrote light verse in Latin like other students (and like his father before him). Wesley was also not in great health, writing his mother in 1723 about a violent bleeding episode. John also had money problems, like his father, and wrote many letters concerning fiscal issues and ways of getting out of debt.

What is curious in the many letters we have between John and his family is that none of them concern ministry in the church until 1725. Tyerman even claims that “there is no evidence to show, that, when Wesley went to Oxford, he intended or wished to become a minister of the Established Church.”15 Rack agrees, as well. Rake writes of John’s early Oxford period, saying that “his own and family letters suggest a cheerful and dutiful son with no pressing religious problems.”16

So what changed in 1725? Why did a cheerful scholar decide on a lifetime of ministry in the church? Next time on the History of Methodism.


Henry Rake, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (Epworth, 1989).

Luke Tyerman, The life and times of the Rev. John Wesley, M. A., founder of the Methodists (1876)

V.H.H.Green,Young Mister Wesley: A Study of John Wesley and Oxford (1961)

Samuel Rogal, The Financial Aspects of John Wesley's British Methodism (1720-1791) (2002)

L.S. Sutherland, The History of Oxford University Vol. 5: The Eighteenth Century(1988)

  1. Rack, 58. ↩︎
  2. Rack, 58. ↩︎
  3. Tyerman 1:19. ↩︎
  4. Tyerman I:20. ↩︎
  5. Tyerman, 20. ↩︎
  6. ↩︎
  7. Notes & Queries, Fifth Series: 82. ↩︎
  8. History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, I:40. ↩︎
  9. Green, 55. ↩︎
  10. Green, 22. ↩︎
  11. Samuel Rogal, The Financial Aspects of John Wesley’s British Methodism (1720-1791), 61. ↩︎
  12. Thomas Hearne, 310. ↩︎
  13. Sutherland, 469. ↩︎
  14. Quoted in Tyerman, 24. ↩︎
  15. Tyerman, 31. ↩︎
  16. Rack, 69. ↩︎