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Locke 1

Locke's Life up to his meeting with Lord Ashley in 1666

Locke was born in Wrighton to Puritan parents of modest means. His father was a country lawyer who served in a cavalry company on the Puritan side in the early stages of the English civil war. His father's commander, Alexander Popham, became the loca l MP, and it was his patronage which allowed the young John Locke to gain an excellent education. In 1647 Locke went to Westminster School in London.
Richard Busby
The importance of Westminster school in the intellectual life of the seventeenth century can scarcely be exaggerated. Richard Busby, who taught Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert South, and a host of judges and bishops as well as John Locke, was the Headmaster from 1638 until his death in 1695. Although Busby orignally gained his position because his political and theological beliefs were in accordance with Archbishop Laud (a Royalist and Anglican), Busby continued in his position because of sheer excellence. The King's Scholars were a small group of special boys who had the privledge of living in the school and who received a stipend for two or three years before standing for election for either Christ Church College, Oxford or Trinity College Cambridge. While the "major e lections" were probably political, the "minor elections or "challenges" were among the most genuinely competitive admissions processes in English schools of the period. Locke did not succeed in the challenge until 1650.

South face of Christ
Church College, Oxford
From Westminster school he went to Christ Church College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1652 at the age of twenty. (In this respect Locke was unusual -- many students came to the universities at age fourteen.) Oxford had been a Royalist stronghold during the civil war. Christ Church had housed the King's court. In 1646 Oxford fell to the Parliamentary army, and many Puritans wished to abolish the universities. Instead, they were purged. At Christ Church, only thirty five Senior students remained, after seventy resigned rather than take an oath of submission to the new authority. Cromwell's Chaplin, John Owen, became Dean. Many of the dons were replaced by Cromwell's friends and relations, other places being given to curates and poor scholmasters trooping in from the country. As Westminster school was the most important English school, so Christ Church was the most important Oxford college. Planned in 1525 by Cardinal Woolsey to be a far bigger and better college than any that then existed, it was revived by Henry VIII.
Wren's Tom's Tower
Christ Church College,
Oxford
In Locke's years as an undergraduate, the buildings of Christ Church were unfinished. There was no Peckwater quadrangle or Library, nor was Wren's Tom's Tower put over the gate-house until later in the century. Only the Cathedral, the Hall, the small quadrangles, and three sides of the great quadrangle, were there as they are today. A chapel to rival the great chapel at King's College Cambridge never rose above its foundations.

Education at Oxford was medieval. Reform came, but not in Locke's time there. The three and a half years devoted to getting a B.A. was mainly given to logic and metaphysics and the classical languages. Conversations with tutors, even between undergraduates in the Hall was in Latin. Locke, like Hobbes before him, found the Aristotelian philosophy he was taught at Oxford of litle use.

There was, however, more at Oxford than Aristotle. Science had arrived. John Wilkins, Cromwell's brother in law, had become Warden of Wadham College. The group around Wilkins was the nucleus of what was to become the English Royal Society. Many of Wilkins associates were people interested in pursuing medecine by observation rather than the reading of classic texts. One of Locke's friends from Westminster school, Richard Lower, introduced Locke to medecine and the experimental philosophy being persued by the virtuosi at Wadham.

 

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