Eton is the most illustrious public school in England; famous for educating the aristocracy, statesmen, and the royalty of countless countries. Founded in 1440, this historic school is usually out of bounds to all but the elite. In the last couple of years however, Eton has started offering guided tours of its historic buildings for one afternoon a week during the summer months. Fully booked in advance, you are likely to wait some time to get the opportunity to explore this most prestigious of British public schools.
Eton has often been described as the ‘chief nurse of England’s statesmen’, having educated 19 British prime ministers, countless ministers, royalty from England and further afield, as well as many great authors, actors, explorers and financiers. A boys only boarding school that takes boys from the ages of 13-18, which offers 30 different sports, 11 different languages, acting clubs, debating societies and so much more, it is said that boys leave here with the highest of academic accolades, a huge sense of self confidence and a network to last them for life.
Its traditional uniform of pinstripes, tailcoats and bow ties, (and top hats until World War II when they had to carry gas masks instead), combined with its historic setting next to Windsor Castle makes it one of the oldest and most venerable of British establishments. The guided tour focuses on the original medieval buildings, as well as providing much insight into the life of Eton school boys over the centuries.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF ETON SCHOOL
The school was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI who intended it to be primarily a religious institution and a place of pilgrimage, with mostly clergy and just 20 scholars. When he heard that the older revered institution Winchester College had 70 scholars, he increased the amount Eton would take to 70, as well as poaching their headmaster. To this day there are still 70 Kings Scholars amongst the 1300 pupils.
Originally they lived in very austere conditions, with a long freezing dormitory to house them all, several to a bed with three thin blankets, starting school at 6 a.m. every day with all of the subjects being taught in Latin. Other scholars lived in town, lodging with landladies, and they were known as Oppidans (from the Latin for town). Today, there are 24 boarding houses around Eton to house the Oppidans while the Kings Scholars still live in the (now much updated) Upper School, each with their own study-bedroom.
The school has evolved over the years from taking the children of paupers to taking the elite and wealthiest of British society. This is now being reversed again, with the school paying out £6,000,000 a year to help fund places for the most intelligent but less advantaged. The ‘Eton List’, where former pupils would put their children’s names down at birth, was finally disbanded at the turn of the century, so all pupils are now accepted only after intense and rigorous examination, rather than by birth right. These subsidies enable boys across the social divide to receive one of the best educations that England can offer. The fees are about £42,000 per year, before you add on the costs of uniform and sundries, making it the tenth most expensive school in the UK. For those with the ability though, it must be one of the best places to receive an education as it has so much on offer.
The tour starts in what is known as the Schoolyard, a large courtyard surrounded by medieval buildings on three sides with the chapel making up the fourth. In the centre stands a statue of the schools founder, King Henry VI.
Tradition dictates that the boys must always walk around the courtyard keeping the statue on their left, so that the King is kept closest to their hearts. It also meant that their sword arm was always on the outside, as the college was founded during the Wars of the Roses, and they were tempestuous times.
The courtyard may be recognisable to many as the courtyard in Chariots of Fire, which although was portraying the Great Court Run around Trinty College Cambridge, they refused to give filming permission, so it was filmed at Eton instead.
Opposite the statue is an incredible tall gatehouse to the schoolyard, commissioned in 1503. It has several unusual features, most notably a small statue of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by six angels (which denotes pilgrimage). It miraculously survived the reformation, when all forms of idolatry were destroyed, possibly because at the very top of the gateway, is the coat of arms of Henry VIII, an ingratiating gesture that probably allowed the Virgin Mary to survive.
Outside the chapel, at the bottom of the famous steps where presentations take place, and may be recognisable from the film Shakespeare in Love, is where the game of Eton Fives was invented. Standing around waiting for chapel, the boys used the configuration of the exterior to develop a handball game not dissimilar to squash. The game has been exported to several public schools in the UK and a few around the world, but keeps the same configuration of the Eton chapel, with three walls with one interrupted by a buttress halfway up.
On the fourth wall of the courtyard, under the colonnade, is the schools memorial to former pupils lost in the two world wars. Eton has a strong tradition of pupils joining the armed forces, and lost 1157 in World War I and 748 in World War II. 37 former pupils have received the most distinguished of all service medals, the Victoria Cross.
The tour then goes inside the school, starting with Upper School. This is a large long classroom where the headmaster would teach 200 boys at a time, carpeted with the largest single-woven Axminster carpet in the UK and with busts of famous alumni (known as Old Etonians) on the walls.
What strikes you the minute you walk in is the sheer volume of ‘graffiti’ carved into the wooden panels that line every wall. Here we learnt about the tradition of pupils carving their names in capital letters around the school. It was fascinating to look at, with dates going back centuries. I particularly liked the inscription done by Percy Bysse Shelley, whose name is under his bust - he was the only one to write his name in lowercase, just to be different from the others.
Pupils carving their own names was banned in 1870, and since then, pupils have had to pay to get it done for them, currently £5 per letter. Outside the room on the panelling are the names of Princes William and Harry, the only royals directly in line for the throne who have attended school here.
Joining the busts of the alumni is those of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and King George III. Apparently King George spent a lot of time at Windsor Castle, only a short walk away, and would regularly visit Eton, walking down the High Street and chatting to people. He is remembered as a very kind and nice man, and so on his birthday of June 4th, the boys of Eton hold celebrations in his honour.
Specially composed speeches in classical languages are orated, and a procession of boats moves up the Thames, stopping mid-stream at Eton in front of the picnicking guests on the riverbank, with the rowers precariously standing up, holding an oar aloft in one hand, shaking garlands of flowers from their boating hats with the other. Brass bands play, the boating song is sung, and of course, they sing Happy Birthday for George III. Our tour guide gave us a very wonderful rendition of the boating song later on in the tour, which was fascinating to hear.
The tour then leads to Lower School, our tour guide informing is we were in for a real treat as we entered a truly spectacular room, a classroom beneath the original long chamber for Kings Scholars. This room has been in continuous use as a classroom since 1450, a truly amazing thing to contemplate.
The room was bare, with dark wooden pillars, pale floorboards and rows of dark wooden desks, all the wood so old that it was smooth-edged, heavily engraved and shining. It was hard to consider just how many boys had been taught in here. Desks are filled with etchings, more carved names and some with deep fissures, where boys would carve out rivulets in the wood, pour ink at the top and see which ink would win the race to the bottom.
The room was really cold and one can only imagine what it must have been like for the scholars all those centuries ago. It was truly something special and there was definitely an air of awe amongst our tour group. We heard how amongst other things, Eton has a priceless collection of antiquities which include a Gothenburg bible, the prayer book of Mary Tudor, a 9th century Koran and a land deed from the time of William Rufus dated 796. The sense of history here is palpable.
A brief visit to the Verey Gallery followed, where exhibitions are held. The current one was Unseen Portraits, with some incredible works of art that are usually hidden away in private places such as boarding houses, where few people get to see them. There were many leaving portraits, a tradition which began in the 1750s, where selected pupils would present the headmaster with their portrait. The collection includes one of Gladstone by the child prodigy John Everett Millais and one of a very young King of Siam, the last absolute and first constitutional monarch of what is now Thailand.
Next we visited the inside of the chapel, where the choir were just finishing rehearsals, and some truly angelic voices came out of the quire as we stood waiting in the antechapel. The chapel was built in 1441 by King Henry VI, stopping in 1461 when he was deposed and resuming in 1469. It was originally intended to have a nave of 168 feet, but this was never even started, and the chapel now consists of just the quire and the antechapel.
The first thing I noticed in the antechapel were the beautiful, colourful gold painted pipes of the organ which are over the arch through to the quire, as well as several rather faded and ancient flags hanging above us from the walls. Many of these are from the Eton College Rifle Corps, but there is also a very tatty French tricolour recovered from behind German lines by the Od Etonian and ex-master, W.G. Fletcher.
There are two ‘idolatrous’ statues of St. George and St.Edmund from 1510 that probably survived the reformation purely because they are so high up that nobody could reach them. The back wall is covered in brass plates of assorted sizes, all of which commemorate individual brave and selfless acts of heroism by old Etonians. There is one there to Lawrence Edward Oates, otherwise known as Captain Oates, who gave up his life on the failed south polar expedition with the famous words, ‘I’m just going outside, I may be some time.’
We sat down in the quire and learnt more about Henry VI’s vision for the church. Set up as a place of pilgrimage, churches were unable to charge admission but could make money by granting indulgences to penitents, a huge accomplishment which Henry managed to get from Pope Eugene IV, the only establishment in England to achieve this right.
To attract the pilgrims, the chapel was housed several relics which are said to have included a part of the brain of Thomas Beckett, part of the Crown of Thorns, a thumb of the Virgin Mary and a sliver of the true cross.
What was truly remarkable though, are some paintings that cover a third of the back of each wall, that look as if they are painted in black and white chalks and which depict miracles of the Virgin Mary on one wall and the stories of a mythical Empress on the other.
These are apparently the most important medieval Flemish paintings north of the Alps. Created in 1479-1488, they are the work of at least four artists and are painted in grisaille monochrome directly on to the stonework rather than on to plaster. In 1560 during the Reformation, the college barber was paid six shillings to whitewash over them where they stayed until 1847 when new stalls were erected in the chapel. The builders had already scraped off the upper register of each painting before the timely arrival of a college fellow who managed to stop them from removing the rest. The top ones however had been totally obliterated. Deemed to be slightly too risqué, they were covered with wooden canopies until 1923 when the canopies were removed and the significance of the murals was finally realised. They are truly incredible works of art and as photography is not allowed anywhere inside the chapel, you will just have to take my word for it!
The chapel also has a wonderful vaulted fan ceiling, which we learnt was actually made of concrete in 1959, as the original wooden roof had been eaten by death watch beetles. The stained glass windows too were more modern, as a delayed action time bomb had dropped near the school during World War II, and had shattered all but one of the windows.
They now have modern stained glass, the central one behind the altar depicting the crucifixion and the last supper by contemporary artist, Evie Hone, made in 1952. There are some beautiful William Morris tapestries behind the altar, and a brass lectern from 1480 which was made specifically for the chapel and which has a double reading desk so that it can hold both the Old and New Testaments.
The tour ends in the Museum of Eton life, a fairly small but comprehensive and well-presented museum with details of school life over the centuries. There were fascinating recreations of a boy’s room in 1920s, which is how I still imagine them to be living, but I was quite disappointed to see one of their rooms now, which looks very plain and modern, although comfortable. The museum has information on the food, their house colours, the boating traditions, sports, assorted prestigious alumni and was a fascinating glimpse into this unique and privileged world.
The whole tour was a fascinating experience, and one I highly recommend if you ever get the chance, to gain an insight into this rarefied and exclusive world, once the stronghold of the elite and wealthy and now the bastion of brilliant academic minds. The sense of history that pervades the place is incredible and to see the boys walking around in their pinstripes, tailcoats and bow ties whilst you are exploring the medieval buildings was a truly memorable historical experience.
Visiting Eton College
Available Friday afternoons from April - August each year at 2pm and 4pm
Booking details on their website >>
£10 plus a booking fee
No Under 7's
Good to Know
Arrive at least ten minutes early to have your bag searched and to be issued with a lanyard which you must wear for the duration of the tour. No large bags can be brought on the tour.
Eton College has three museums which are open to the public with free access on Sunday afternoons between 14h30 and 17h00. The Natural History Museum, Museum of Antiquities and the Museum of Eton Life which we visited in the guided tour.
THE ETON WALKWAY
The Eton Walkway is a self-guided tour that takes you down Eton High Street, through one of the many playing fields and some of the other notable sites of the town. There is a large plaque outlining the walk at the start of the high street. We did try it, although were hampered by some of the viewpoints being under scaffolding, one of the access gates being locked and a shortage of markers in the pavements, which we had been told to expect at every stopping point. It was hard to follow the map on your mobile and we couldn’t find a way to print it out at home beforehand, so get a copy from tourist office if you can. However, if you can make it work, it’s a good starting point to explore the town of Eton before you visit the actual school.
Eton High Street is a curious place. Bedecked with union jacks and shops that are gentleman’s outfitters, barbers and a few restaurants, it seems eerily quiet compared to other high streets in the UK. At break times it suddenly swarms with earnest looking boys in tailcoats and bow ties, or masters in their flowing graduate gowns, before falling silent again when they go back into lessons.
Windsor Castle is just over the bridge and forms a back drop to the whole high street; with wonderful buildings from medieval onwards lending the town a rather eclectic air. The town seems to be solely geared up towards the school, with even the local church now co-opted as a medical centre, which must make a visit to the doctors a rather unnerving affair when you have to walk past gravestones on your way in.