When Eton says their school has history, they’re really not kidding. The famed £46k per year boys boarding school is a British brand synonymous with elitism, even though the school was originally founded in the 15th century to educate the poor.
For centuries, Eton College, in the shadow of Windsor Castle, has eagerly produced the ruling elite, a fact the school promotes to recruit new students. Of the 57 British prime ministers to date, Eton proudly includes 20 amongst its alumni, including Boris Johnson – nicknamed ‘the Eton Mess’.
Known as Old Etonians , students have included the first Duke of Wellington , who defeated Napoleon, Lord North who “lost” the American colonies, and countless politicians. Alumni also include William, Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the throne, Leopold III of Belgium, George Orwell, and Billons’ Damian Lewis.
In the process, the school has turned its initial mission on its head. Originally called Kynge’s College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore, Eton was founded by Catholic King Henry VI in 1440 to educate 70 underprivileged children. Known as King’s Scholars, their education was to be funded by the king.
Aerial view of Eton College, whose five-star facilities include a Natural History Museum, cutting-edge laboratories, a rowing lake, cricket pitches, football and rugby fields, state-of-the-art theater, and the historic Eton College Chapel whose construction began in 1441. (Alwye / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
While the foundation charter did allow for other students, called Oppidians, who paid for their own accommodation, Henry VI probably never envisioned Eton as it exists today. Although classified as a “public” school, don’t let the nomenclature confuse you. In England, public schools are privately funded independent institutions which have historically educated the British elite, as opposed to state schools run by the government.
The entire system has been dubbed “educational apartheid,” with Eton as it’s most illustrious example. Eton’s royal connection has attracted the aristocratic spawn for generations and nowadays wealthy parents fork out enormous sums in tuition – £46,296.00 ($52,677) per year. Mad King George III (1760 to 1820) was an enthusiastic royal patron, and his birthday is celebrated annually on the 4th June with cricket, speeches and boating.
Born on the feast of Saint Nicholas , patron saint of children, the creation of a school for poor scholars was a project Henry VI oversaw personally. His founding of Eton College and of King’s College in Cambridge are often said to have been “the only positives to come out of his reign.”
Henry VI generously endowed Eton with large swaths of land, unrivalled school buildings and envisioned the chapel having the longest nave in Britain. Hoping for Eton to become a pilgrimage destination, he even granted several religious relics , such as a piece of the fabled True Cross and a piece of the finger and spine of Saint John of Bridlington.
Eton attracted pilgrims for about a decade until Henry was deposed by Edward IV during the War of the Roses . Many of Eton’s endowments were taken away and the immense chapel was reduced to just eight bays.
By Cecilia Bogaard