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School Life in the Early Days

The earliest records of life in the school date from the mid-16th century and they paint a picture of a strictly regimented and spartan existence for the boys. Scholars, sleeping two or three to a bed in Long Chamber, were awakened at 5 a.m., chanted prayers while they dressed, and were at work in Lower School by 6 a.m. All teaching was in Latin, the language of the church, the law, and business, and in fact it was virtually the only subject taught. Boys were marched in double file to College Hall for the two meals supplied each day; but there was no food at all on Fridays, a day of fasting. At all times boys were under the close supervision of ‘praepostors’ who were monitors appointed by the Head Master to perform such tasks as noting absentees, enforcing the speaking of Latin, watching for uncleanliness (‘for yll kept hedys, unwasshed facys, foule clothis and sich other’) and supervising the single hour of play (‘for fyghting, rent clothes, blew eyes, or sich like’). We may surmise that football was popular from a sentence for translation written in 1519: ‘We will play with a bag full of wynde.’ Lessons finished at 8 p.m., at which time they went to bed, again saying their prayers. There were only two holidays, each of three weeks in duration, one at Christmas when boys were not allowed to return home, and the other in the summer. These holidays divided the school year into two ‘halves’, a word that has survived despite the change to a three-term year in the 18th century.

Eton achieved a particular distinction in the early 17th century under two Provosts who succeeded in their attempt to make Eton an important centre of learning. Sir Henry Savile, an outstanding scholar, gathered round him men of conspicuous ability. He built Savile House as a printing works and here he produced his exceptional work of original scholarship on St John Chrysostom. The second renowned Provost was the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton who particularly interested himself in the education of Robert Boyle who was later said to be ‘the father of chemistry’. The high reputation of the Fellows also helped to make the school popular.

This flourishing state of affairs was suddenly brought to an end by the outbreak of Civil War and the capturing of Windsor Castle in October 1642 by the Parliamentary forces. The Royalist commander, Prince Rupert, tried to retake the castle. From the grounds of the College his artillery carried out a long-range bombardment to distract the attention of the defenders from his main attack; but all his efforts were in vain.

The Civil War represents an important turning-point in the history of Eton. In medieval times the word ‘college’ meant a community of priests rather than a place of education. It was during the Civil War period that the priest Fellows ceased to play the important part they had for the first 200 years. They no longer took their meals in Hall and indeed, from now on, many of them were absentees for the greater part of the year, since they held posts elsewhere. For example, Provost Allestree, builder of Upper School, was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and Provost Godolphin, to whom the college is indebted for the Founder’s statue in School Yard, was Dean of St Paul’s. It was at this time, too. that what was known as the Collegiate Church took its present name College Chapel.