In 1440 Henry VI founded ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor’ and, a year later, King’s College Cambridge, which was to be supplied with scholars from Eton. The school was to be part of a large foundation which included a community of secular priests, 10 of whom were Fellows, a pilgrimage church, and an almshouse. Provision was made for 70 scholars to receive free education.
To this end Henry lavished on Eton a substantial income from land, and a huge collection of holy relics among which were fragments of what were supposed to be the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns. He even persuaded the Pope to grant a privilege unequalled anywhere in England: Eton was to have the right to grant Indulgences to penitents on the Feast of the Assumption.
Henry’s close personal interest in the building led to frequent changes of plan. In 1448 the partially constructed church was demolished to make way for another church that was to be on a far grander scale. Meanwhile the accommodation for the school along the north side of School Yard was completed (1443), a single class room below (Lower School) and a large dormitory (Long Chamber) above; College Hall, where priests, Head Master, and scholars could eat, was in use by 1450. Cloister Court, providing residential accommodation for priests and Fellows, was completed about the same time.
Progress on the new church was, however, interrupted when the Lancastrian Henry VI was deposed in 1461 by the rival Yorkist claimant, Edward IV. Parliament annulled all grants of lands made by the Lancastrians: the College had its lands, ornaments, and relics transferred to St George’s, Windsor. Tradition has it that Edward’s celebrated mistress, Jane Shore, interceded on behalf of the College and saved it from extinction by persuading Edward to restore some of its lands. The College was indeed saved but the greatly reduced income necessitated the abandonment of the almshouse and a reduction in the number of priests.
At this time, the early 1470s, the pilgrimage church was far from finished: the choir had no roof and the building of the nave had not yet commenced. A former Provost of Eton, Bishop Waynflete, came to the rescue of the College and arranged for the choir to be roofed in wood and for the west end to be completed by the addition of the Antechapel (1479–82). This is the Chapel that we now have, a fine example of the Perpendicular Gothic style, noble in its unity and simplicity of design, but only a part of what might have been one of the largest and finest churches in the country if Henry’s plans had been fully executed.
The third side of School Yard to be completed in its present form was Lupton’s Range with Lupton’s Tower in the centre. It was built in 1520 by Henry Redman whose work is also to be seen at Hampton Court. Lupton’s Range provided extra accommodation for the head of the College, the Provost. The fourth side of School Yard, the west, was added by Provost Allestree in 1665 but was rebuilt 1689–94 because it became unsafe. Its main feature is Upper School on the first floor, Eton’s second and largest classroom. In the middle of School Yard stands the fine bronze statue of the Founder in Garter robes. It was erected in 1719 by Provost Godolphin and is the work of Francis Bird.
More than five and a half centuries after the foundation, having educated so many great men, the school has a fame that is second to none. From the 70 scholars for whom Henry provided, the school has expanded to about 1,290 boys aged from 13 to 18. The scholars are admitted by competitive examination. The remainder, known as ‘Oppidans’, are distributed between 24 boys’ houses. Besides a large part-time staff, there are 143 masters and there is a Governing Body composed of a resident Provost and Vice-Provost together with 10 non-resident lay Fellows, successors from 1869 of the 10 priest-Fellows of the original foundation.
Click here for a list of Provosts since the foundation, and here for a list of Head Masters since 1442.
These excerpts (with slight amendment) from the lavishly illustrated Pitkin Guide to Eton College written by Nigel Goodman are reproduced by kind permission of Pitkin Unichrome Ltd and the copyright holder. Copies of the Guide may be obtained from the Gift Shop.