ETON’S EARLY HISTORY
Eton is easily the world’s most famous school. How did Eton achieve this astonishing status and why is it held in such awe? Eton has produced 20 of Britain’s 48 Prime Ministers; Kings of Nepal and Thailand; several Olympic gold medalists; countless bankers; many writers; a bevvy of composers; scores of generals and a handful of film stars.
Amongst the British upper class people used to say ”everyone went to Eton. Except for those who went to Harrow of course.” Eton was THE school for the social elite. But this stellar image is an exaggeration of the reality. Eton is not as socially or financially exclusive as you might imagine. Furthermore, many aristocrats and billionaires attend schools that are much less renowned.
I do not come from an aristocratic family. I am bourgeois. A couple of generations ago we were working class. I am not English either – I am an Irishman. Yet I went to Eton in the 1990s.
Eton is has an aesthetic beauty to its architecture. It is surrounded by hundreds of hectares of beautiful grounds with just the right mix of manicured gardens and wilderness. It is beside the River Thames which is a river that has carried British History more than any other. Eton is 25 km from central London. Eton is almost in the shadow of Windsor Castle. This castle is the British Royal Family’s favourite – so much so that they take their name from it.
Eton was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. The king named the school ”The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor.” No one calls it by its lengthy official name. The school was endowed with fragments of wood that were believed to come from the True Cross. The school was allowed to grant indulgences (guaranteed entry to heaven) on the Feast of the Assumption). The school’s coat of arms show the white lily of the Virgin Mary, a gold lion passant of England and a gold fleur-de-lys of France on a midnight blue field. This is because Henry VI was King of France as well as England. He was the last king of England to rule France in fact as well as in title. Henry VI was 18 years old when he set up the school. He was exceptionally devout even for a deeply religious age. Education was almost incidental to the school’s foundation. Henry VI founded the school as a prayer factory. The boys were to pray in Latin for the souls of Henry VI’s parents forever. In fact this custom ceased in the 1970s.
Originally there were 70 poor scholars at the school. The school was run by a Head Master. Note that this is two words at Eton. At every other school it is a compound word – headmaster. This is just one of numberless Etonian quirks. The scholars are known as KSs or King’s Scholars. They even add the letters KS behind their names as in Pummell KS. The KSs lived in a boarding house called College. Gradually boys from wealth families came to attend the school and pay fees to do so. Those who paid fees lived in the town or ”oppidum” in Latin. They became known as Oppidans – derived from ”oppidum.” Over time the Oppidans became far more numerous than the King’s Scholars. Now the school contains 70 KSs and about 1 200 Oppidans.
Henry VI was religious to the point of insanity. Some people say his devoutness has been overplayed by his partisans. His Gracious Majesty was afflicted with what psychiatrists now diagnose as bipolar disorder. When the king was too depressed to get out of bed for days or so raving made that his courtiers thought it better not to let him out of his apartment in the palace an explanation was needed. Ambassadors and other dignitaries were told the king is at prayer. It was a means of trying to hide his mental illness.
Henry VI was overthrown, restored and then overthrown again. This was all part of the Wars of the Roses between two factions of the English Royal House: Lancastrians and Yorkists. Henry VI was a Lancastrian and their symbol was the red rose. Yorkists were his foes and their emblem was a white rose. The king and his son, Edmund of Westminster, were taken prisoner. His Majesty and his child were stabbed to death in the Tower of London on 21 May 1471. Every 21st of May, the anniversary of his death, a ceremony takes place in the chapel to commemorate the founder’s murder. In memory of Henry VI a rose is laid – a red rose of Lancaster. Roses are laid in Eton College Chapel and also at the Tower of London where His Majesty was ”most foully done to death.” The Provost of Eton also lays lily flowers. The lily is one of the emblems of Eton as it alludes to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lily white signifies her purity.
Boys usually came to Eton aged 9 and left aged 14. One boy came to Eton at the age of 6! Some ‘boys’ stayed on until the age of 20.
The Oppidans lived in houses run by middle aged or elderly women. These women had to be widows or spinsters. They were known as ‘dames’. The dames could not be too young or else the boys might take a shine to them! These women could not be married because otherwise they would not be totally dedicated to looking after the boys in their house.
Henry VI also founded King’s College, Cambridge. Initially KSs from Eton went on to King’s College, Cambridge. Nowadays very few boys from Eton go on to that particular College in Cambridge. Many go to other Colleges in Cambridge or Oxford.
There were only two teachers at first. The Head Master taught the older boys in a building called Upper School. The Lower Master taught the younger boys in Lower School. Classes were very big. There were easily over 100 boys in each class! Lessons were very unimaginative. Latin and Greek were read aloud and boys had to simultaneously translate. Construing these languages helped the boys develop a deeper appreciation for the finer points of their own language. Through Latin and Ancient Greek they learnt history and philosophy. In time more and more masters were added to the staff. Classes were made smaller and more subjects were added.
Lower School is a classroom that still exists. It is the oldest classroom in the world that is still used for its original purpose.
There were initially two terms in the school year. One ran from the start of August to mid December. The other ran from mid January to the end of May. June and July were holidays. Therefore the two terms were the two halves of the year. There were no half terms. There are now three terms but nevertheless a term is still called a ‘half’. It is one of many examples of delightful Etonian anachronistic illogic. Perhaps Eton is so fantastic that is packs one and a half years of learning into each year!
There was a curious tradition of August ramming. A ram was kept in Weston’s Yard. The ram was released in August and all the boys would chase it and beat it to death with their clubs.
Eton College was a Roman Catholic school because the state religion was Roman Catholicism at the time. In the 1530s England set up the Church of England. Eton therefore became a Church of England school. Henry VIII thought that Eton was a monastery and he considered dissolving it. Eton was a monastery inasmuch as there were a few monks. He was dissuaded from closing Eton because Eton was mainly a school and the monks were merely incidental. The monks were laicized but the school was permitted to continue. It was Eton’s first narrow escape!
The wood from the supposed True Cross was destroyed as an example of ‘Romish Superstition’. Images of the Blessed Virgin and other saints in the College Chapel were painted over in the 1540s. There was even an attempt to burn the Eton Choir Book. This sort of music and its hymns to saints and veneration of the Virgin were seen as mariolatry and almost polytheism by dour Protestants. Luckily, the men taking it away to be burnt accidentally dropped it as they rode away. The book feel out of a saddle bag as the men rode across a stream. A man saw it fall and decided not to mention it to the other. This man later returned to the stream to retrieve the book. It was only a little damaged by the water. The priceless handwritten tome was recovered and hidden for decades until it was safe to bring out.
The curriculum at Eton was very narrow in the early days. Boys learnt Latin, Ancient Greek and sometimes Hebrew so they could read the Bible in the original language. They sometimes learnt foreign languages such as French and Italian. They learnt a little History and Geography. They did almost no Maths or Science. Only in the late 19th century did Maths become a major part of the timetable. This was because the Head Master at the time had a brother who was a mathematician. The brother persuaded the Head Master to lay greater emphasis on the subject. Notice at Eton the words ‘Head Master’ are two separate words. In every other school it is one word ‘headmaster’.
People sometimes learned a few musical instruments. There was a choir. They boys had a lot of free time to play sports. The Oppidans lived well. They all had their own rooms. The dames set boarding fees. Some houses were more opulent than others. The quality of the food also varied depending on how expensive the house was.
Edward IV, who overthrew Henry VI, considered closing the school. He was dissuaded by his mistress Jane Shore. There is a society for the women of the Eton community called the Jane Shore Society. The name honours her as the saviour of the school. The Jane Shore Society is for women who work at the school or are married to those who work there.
The King’s Scholars lived in woeful conditions. One 18th century chronicler recorded, ”the inmates or a prison or a workhouse do not suffer the privations of the scholars of Eton College.” The boys were locked in at night. Thank goodness there was never a fire! They had no adult supervision at all. They lived in one very large dormitory called Long Chamber. It was said to be the scene of horrific bullying. On one occasion the boys managed to steal a sow and smuggle her into Long Chamber in the daytime. The aim was to slaughter the pig eat her at night. Before they could take a knife to the beast she gave birth to a litter of piglets. The boys consumed her farrow before later eating the swine herself.
By the 18th century Eton had established itself as the premier school for the British upper class. Henry VI had donated a lot of land to the school. The school rented this land out and used the extra income for more buildings and so on. The aristocrats who attended the school often made munificent donations to the school. Some past pupils went into banking or became highly successful lawyers and more than a few of them gave generously to their old school. Eton produced so many politicians partly because the upper orders dominated politics but also because there were so many debating societies. In the 18th century the United Kingdom was experiencing a craze for debating.
Boys became well versed in political matters and also grew accustomed to speaking in public. Boys had plenty of time to spend on their hobbies because lessons and homework were not time-consuming or demanding. Eton was almost like two schools. The King’s Scholars who were middle class or working class boys selected for their phenomenal intellects. These King’s Scholars were radically different from the Oppidans who were drawn from the most privileged classes. A few Oppidans were bright and hard-working but most were not. Oppidans did not need to worry about passing exams since they came from wealthy families and their futures were assured.
In the 18th century boys would process from the school to St Catherine’s Hill in Slough which was several miles distant. This ceremony was called ad Montem – that is Latin for ‘To the mountain’. Many people came to watch them. The crowds became huge in the 1840s due to the advent of the railway. The school ceased to do montems.
In the 18th century some Americans started to attend the school. Among them were Thomas Lynch and Thomas Nelson. Both of them signed the Declaration of Independence.
Boys started to row on the River Thames. The Thames was much wider and wilder back then because there were few locks or dams. The river was liable to flood. There were many water rats that carried diseases. Many boys could not swim. Because of all these factors rowing was dangerous. Rowing was forbidden but many boys did it. They hid their boats or hired boats from local people. Only in the 19th century was rowing allowed and regulated.
King George III reigned 1760-1820. He was a great fan of the school. He gave gold coins to schoolboys. He spent much of his time just across the river from Eton in Windsor Castle. When he died in 1820 the school went into mourning. Eton tailsuits are black. People say this is in mourning for George III. That is not so since a painting several years after George III’s death depicts boys in coats of many different hues. Nonetheless the uniform is black.
George III’s birthday was 4th June. Eton’s main festive day is the Fourth of June. This event is almost never celebrated on the actual 4th of June. It is usually the Wednesday before. This is like an open day or an exhibition. There are displays of art and sports. There are informal concerts. People picnic on the lawns. The highlight is the Procession of Boats. Boys in 19th century sailors’ uniforms row along the river in old fashioned heavy rowing boats. They stand up and hold their oars upright. They wear straw boater hats decked in flowers. They shake their flowers out onto the river in salute.
In the reign of George III an Irish boy named Arthur Wellesely attended Eton. This boy was to become known to the world as the Duke of Wellington. The Duke of Wellington won his fame for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo and becoming Prime Minister. The duke supposedly said, ”the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” This apocryphal quotation is probably bogus since the duke only attended Eton for a year. He despised the school so much that he moved to another school – in France!
Boys were not allowed to leave the school grounds. They did so more and more. The school unofficially adopted a policy of turning Nelson’s eye to this. If a boy was in the nearby town of Windsor and he saw a master the boy would turn his face to the wall and the master would pretend not to see him. Then the school decided this was ridiculous. There was a total volte face. Boys were allowed to go to town on certain days. If a boy saw a beak he was to take of his hat to him. The beak would do likewise. Boys wore top hats back then. This doffing a topper with a flourish degenerated into less and less energetic removal of hats down to tipping the hat. Top hats have long since been abolished. Boys still raise their index finger to the height of their right eyebrow to tip an imaginary hat.
Eton in the late 18th and early 19th century was a shockingly disorderly place. Attendance at lessons was more or less voluntary. There was no legal minimum age for drinking. The Thames water was too foul to drink. Boys drank small beer even at breakfast. This was beer with a very low alcohol content because brewing water cleansed it. One house is called the Hopgarden since hops for beer were grown there. Boys frequented taverns and often got themselves into a crapulous state. One barmaid had to take a lawsuit out against a boy who had sired a child by her.
An inspirational head master in the early 19th century was Dr John Keate. He was an Old Etonian himself. Dr Keate at pains to modernise the school and improved discipline. To this end he was an inveterate beater of boys’ behinds. Notice that this Dr John Keate is not the poet John Keats whose lifetime overlapped with the head master of a very similar name.
Eton was a fairly rough place in the 19th century. Sports did not have many rules. Boys invented their own manly sports such as the Wall Game and the Field Game. The Wall Game is a scrum beside a wall for an hour. The Field Games is a curious mixture of rugby and football. Boys fought duels – mercifully it was with their fists and not swords or pistols. But in one such duel two brothers fought each other and one of them Francis Ashley ended up killing his younger sibling Wood Ashley.
Bullying was widespread. Older boys would oblige younger boys to carry out menial tasks for them. The school decided this could not be extirpated so ought to be regulated. A system called fagging was created. A fag was a younger boy who was a servant. As the pupils were mostly upper class it made them empathise with the working class. They would then know what it is like to perform chores. They would learn to receive orders as well as give them.
In the late 19th century sports codified by other bodies started to be played at Eton. Among these is football. Because the Football Association drew up the rules the 1st XI at Eton is called the Association.
By that time Harrow School and Winchester College were regarded as Eton’s main rivals. Eton, Harrow and Winchester played cricket against each other at Lord’s: the main cricket stadium at the time. It was a three day event and a red letter day in the social calendar. One year the Wykehamists (boys from Winchester) behaved so atrociously that Winchester was no longer allowed to play at Lords. Well over 100 years later the ban still stands! The Wykehamists sniffily named their main cricket pitch ‘Lords’. The Eton-Winchester match is the most important day in Winchester’s summer term.
The Eton-Harrow match still takes place at Lords. However, it is not the ‘must be seen’ event it once was. Both sides are desperate not too lose and adopt a very cautious strategy. This usually results in a draw.
In the 1860s Napoleon III was ruling France. People feared he might try to invade the United Kingdom. The school founded the Officer Training Corps. This provided army training to boys. This is now called the CCF – Combined Cadet Force. It is CCF because it combines the army and the air force. There was a naval section but not since the 1980s.
A high majority of the boys came from London or southern England. in the early days. Soon the upper class from the whole of Great Britain looked to Eton as the most desirable school. So many Scottish noble families had their sons at Eton that in the 19th century the Prime Minister Gladstone decided to found a school in Scotland to be Eton;s equaivaent. It is called Glenalmond and it was established to prevent Scotland losing so many of its sons to Eton. This effort met with only limited success. The British Flag was planted on every continent. Colonial governors of the largest colonies were usually Old Etonians. Eton’s glory was soon known throughout the British Empire. In the 1880s the first Indian boys attended the school – they were all sons of Maharajahs.
In the late 19th century Maths and Science became a larger part of the curriculum. This was in no small measure because one head master had a brother who was a mathematician. The mathematical brother convinced the head master that Maths ought to assume a much larger role in the boys’ schooling. Eton remained a Church of England school but Roman Catholics were readmitted for the first time in 320 years. Jewish boys were then also allowed into the school.
In the late 19th century it was decided that dames should no longer run houses on their own. It was difficult for an elderly woman to control 50 boys especially as some of these boys were aged 18. Therefore in the 1890s Eton started to buy houses from dames and build more houses. A man, called a housemaster, was placed in charge of each house. The dame was still there as a matron. But she was ancillary to the housemaster. The idle dame was the widow of an army officer. She could have children but they needed to be grown up and therefore not in need of much motherly care. The dame was to provide the feminine touch to the house.
- In what year was Eton founded?
- What is a dame at Eton?
- Is Eton a boarding school?
- Which country is Eton in?
- What is an Oppidan?
- What does KS stand for?
- Are there girls at Eton?
- What religion is Eton?
- Which kings went to Eton?
- What castle is the school near?