Thomas Arnold

Thomas Arnold (13 June 1795 – 12 June 1842) was an English educator and historian. Arnold was an early supporter of the Broad Church Anglican movement. He was the headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841, where he introduced a number of reforms that were widely copied by other prestigious public schools. His reforms redefined standards of masculinity and achievement.[1][2]

Thomas Arnold
Thomas Arnold, 1840
Born(1795-06-13)13 June 1795
Died12 June 1842(1842-06-12) (aged 46)
Resting placeRugby School Chapel
EducationLord Weymouth's Grammar School; Winchester College
Alma materCorpus Christi College, Oxford
OccupationEducator and historian
Known forReforms to Rugby School (immortalised in Tom Brown's Schooldays)
TitleRegius Professor of Modern History, Oxford
PredecessorEdward Nares
SuccessorJohn Antony Cramer
ChildrenMatthew Arnold, Tom Arnold, William Delafield Arnold

Early life and education

Arnold was born on the Isle of Wight, the son of William Arnold, a Customs officer, and his wife Martha Delafield. William Arnold was related to the Arnold family of gentry from Lowestoft.[3] Thomas was educated at Lord Weymouth's Grammar School, Warminster, Winchester, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. There he excelled at Classics and was made a fellow of Oriel in 1815. He was headmaster of a school in Laleham before moving to Rugby.

Career as an educator

Rugby School

Arnold's appointment to the headship of Rugby School in 1828, after some years as a private tutor, turned the school's fortunes around. His force of character and religious zeal enabled him to turn it into a model for other public schools and exercise a strong influence on the education system of England. Though he introduced history, mathematics and modern languages, he based his teaching on the classical languages. "I assume it as the foundation of all my view of the case, that boys at a public school never will learn to speak or pronounce French well, under any circumstances," so it would be enough if they could "learn it grammatically as a dead language." Physical science was not taught because, in Arnold's view, "it must either take the chief place in the school curriculum, or it must be left out altogether."[4] Arnold was also opposed to the materialistic tendency of physical science, a view deriving from his Christian idealism. He wrote that "rather than have [physical science] the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament. Surely the one thing needful for a Christian and an Englishman to study is Christian and moral and political philosophy".[5]

Arnold developed the Praepostor (prefect) system in which the sixth-form students were given powers over every part of the school (carefully managed by himself) and kept order in the establishment. The 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days portrays a generation of boys "who feared the Doctor with all our hearts, and very little besides in heaven or earth; who thought more of our sets in the School than of the Church of Christ, and put the traditions of Rugby and the public opinion of boys in our daily life above the laws of God."[6]

Arnold was no great enthusiast for sport, which was permitted only as an alternative to poaching or fighting with local boys and did not become part of Rugby's curriculum until 1850. He described his educational aims as being the cure of souls first, moral development second, and intellectual development third. However, this did not prevent Baron de Coubertin from considering him the father of the organized sport he admired when he visited English public schools, including Rugby in 1886. When looking at Arnold's tomb in the school chapel he recalled he felt, suddenly, as if he were looking upon "the very cornerstone of the British empire".[7] Coubertin is thought to have exaggerated the importance of sport to Thomas Arnold, whom he viewed as "one of the founders of athletic chivalry". The character-reforming influence of sport, with which Coubertin was so impressed, is more likely to have originated in the novel Tom Brown's School Days than exclusively in the ideas of Arnold himself.[8] "Thomas Arnold, the leader and classic model of English educators," wrote Coubertin, "gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. The cause was quickly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England."[9]

Oxford University

Arnold was involved in many controversies, educational and religious. As a churchman he was a decided Erastian, and strongly opposed to the High Church party. His 1833 Principles of Church Reform is associated with the beginnings of the Broad Church movement.[10] In 1841, he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.


Arnold's chief literary works are his unfinished History of Rome (three volumes 1838–42), and his Lectures on Modern History. Far more often read were his five books of sermons, which were admired by a wide circle of pious readers including Queen Victoria.[4]


Arnold married Mary Penrose, daughter of the Rev. John Penrose of Penryn, Cornwall. They had five daughters and five sons, including the poet Matthew Arnold, the literary scholar Tom, the author William Delafield Arnold and Edward Penrose Arnold, an inspector of schools.[11] One daughter died in infancy. The eldest daughter, Jane Martha, married William Edward Forster, and when William Delafield Arnold died in 1859, leaving four orphans, the Forsters adopted them as their own, adding their name to the children's surname. One of these children was Hugh Oakeley Arnold-Forster, a Liberal Unionist MP, who eventually became a member of Balfour's cabinet. Another of the children was Florence Vere O'Brien, a diarist, philanthropist, and craftswoman who lived in Ireland. Frances Bunsen Trevenen Whateley Arnold, the youngest daughter, never married and died at Fox How in 1923.[12]

Arnold had bought the small estate of Fox How, near Ambleside in the Lake District in 1832, and spent many of his holidays there. On 12 June 1842 he died there suddenly of a heart attack "at the height of his powers", a day before his 47th birthday.[11] He is buried in Rugby School chapel.

Thomas the Younger's daughter Mary Augusta Arnold, became a well-known novelist under her married name of Mrs Humphry Ward, whilst his other daughter, Julia, married Leonard Huxley, the son of Thomas Huxley. Their sons were Julian and Aldous Huxley. Julia Arnold founded in 1902 Prior's Field School for girls, in Godalming, Surrey.[13]


The biography Life of Arnold, published two years after his early death by one of Arnold's former pupils, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, is considered one of the best works of its class in the language and added to his growing reputation. A popular life of him by the novelist Emma Jane Guyton also appeared.[15] In 1896 his bust was unveiled in Westminster Abbey alongside that of his son, Matthew. The Times asserted that "As much as any who could be named, Arnold helped to form the standard of manly worth by which Englishmen judge and submit to be judged."[16] However, his reputation suffered as one of the Eminent Victorians in Lytton Strachey's book of that name published in 1918.

A more recent public-school headmaster, Michael McCrum of Tonbridge School and Eton College in the 1960s to 1980s, also a churchman and Oxbridge academic (Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Vice-Chancellor), wrote a biography and reappraisal of Arnold in 1991. He had briefly been a master at Rugby and was married to the daughter of another former headmaster.

More recently, a biography entitled Black Tom was written by Terence Copley. Both McCrum and Copley seek to restore some lustre to the Arnold legacy, which has been under attack since Strachey's sardonic appraisal.

A. C. Benson once observed of Arnold, "A man who could burst into tears at his own dinner-table on hearing a comparison made between St. Paul and St. John to the detriment of the latter, and beg that the subject might never be mentioned again in his presence, could never have been an easy companion."[17]

Depictions on screen

Arnold has been played several times in adaptations of Tom Brown's School Days, including by Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the 1940 film version, Robert Newton in the 1951 film version, Iain Cuthbertson in the 1971 television version and Stephen Fry in the 2005 television version.


  • The Christian Duty of Granting the Claims of the Roman Catholics (pamphlet) Rugby, 1828.
  • Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Rugby School, London: Fellowes, 1850 (first edition, 1832).
  • Principles of Church Reform, Oxford: Fellowes,1833.
  • History of Rome, London: Fellowes, 1838.
  • Introductory Lectures on Modern History, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1842.
  • Sermons: Christian Life, its Hopes, Fears and Close, London: Fellowes, 1842.
  • Sermons: Christian Life, its Course, London: Fellowes, 1844.
  • As translator: The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, (3 vols.) London: Fellowes, 1845.
  • The Interpretation of Scripture, London: Fellowes, 1845.


  1. Simon Heffer, High minds: the Victorians and the birth of modern Britain (2013) pp. 1–30.
  2. Fabrice Neddam, "Constructing masculinities under Thomas Arnold of Rugby (1828–1842): Gender, educational policy and school life in an early‐Victorian public school", Gender and Education 16.3 (2004), pp. 303–326.
  3. Muskett, J. J.: "The Arnold Family of Lowestoft". In: Suffolk Manorial Families, being the County Visitations and other Pedigrees from The Manorial Families of Suffolk (Exeter, 1900–1914).
  4. Strachey, Lytton (1918), Eminent Victorians, p. 173
  5. J. J. Findlay (ed.), Arnold of Rugby: His School Life and Contributions to Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), p. xvii.
  6. Thomas Hughes (1857), "7", Tom Brown's Schooldays, archived from the original on 28 June 2001
  7. Beale, Catherine (2011). Born out of Wenlock, William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the Olympics. DB Publishing. pp. 118–119. ISBN 978-1-85983-967-6.Coubertin would be better known for promoting the first International Olympic Games of 1896.
  8. Muddied Oafs, The Soul of Rugby, Richard Beard, Yellow Jersey Press, 2004, ISBN 0224063944
  9. Physical exercises in the modern world. Lecture given at the Sorbonne, November 1892.
  10. Timothy Hands, Thomas Hardy: Distracted Preacher? London: Macmillan Press, 1989, p. 3.
  11. Hopkinson, David (1981) Edward Penrose Arnold, A Victorian Family Portrait
  12. Ancestry site
  13. Prior's Field School – A Century Remembered 1902–2002 by Margaret Elliott, published by Prior's Field School Trust Ltd, ISBN 978-0-9541195-0-8.
  14. A. J. H. Reeve, ‘Arnold, Thomas (1795–1842)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 accessed 6 Nov 2017
  15. Worboise [Guyton], Emma Jane: The Life of Thomas Arnold D. D. (London, 1859).
  16. Sir Joshua Fitch (1897), Thomas and Matthew Arnold and their influence on English education, London, Heinemann, pp. 1, 56
  17. J. A. Gere and John Sparrow (ed.), Geoffrey Madan's Notebooks, Oxford University Press, 1981.

Further reading

  • Copley,Terrence. Black Tom: Arnold of Rugby: The Myth and the Man, New York: Continuum, 2002
  • Ellis, Heather. "Thomas Arnold, Christian Manliness and the Problem of Boyhood' Journal of Victorian Culture (2014) 19#3 pp 425–41 online
  • Grilli, Giorgia. "English public schools and the moulding of the'Englishman'." History of Education & Children's Literature 10.1 (2015)
  • Heffer, Simon. High minds: the Victorians and the birth of modern Britain (2013) pp 1-30.
  • Jann, Rosemary The Art and Science of Victorian History (1985) pp. 1–32 online free
  • McCrum, Michael. Thomas Arnold, Headmaster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Neddam, Fabrice. "Constructing Masculinities under Thomas Arnold of Rugby (1828-1842): Gender, Educational Policy and School Life in an Early-Victorian Public School" Gender and Education (2004) 16#3 pp.303-326.
  • Puccio, Paul M. "At the Heart of" Tom Brown's Schooldays": Thomas Arnold and Christian Friendship." Modern Language Studies (1995): 57-74. JSTOR 3195488
  • Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, (London, 1918), online, famous negative interpretation
  • Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D. D., late head-master of Rugby school and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford (2 vol. 1877) famous biography by a former student. online
  • Wymer, Norman. Dr. Arnold of Rugby (1953)
  • Winn, William E. "Tom Brown's Schooldays and the Development of 'Muscular Christianity'" Church History (1960) 29#1 pp. 64-73 JSTOR 3161617

Primary sources

Arnold, Thomas. Arnold of Rugby: His school life and contributions to education (1897) online.

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