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Museum Of Eton Life, Berkshire

Eton College Chapel

Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440. Henry VI also founded King's College Cambridge. He is remembered fondly by both institutions, and ceremonies take place every 21st May, the anniversary of Henry's murder in the Tower. Ironically, however, both Eton and King's College reveal the worst of Henry.

Documents written in 1440 and 1446 describe Henry's reasons for founding Eton College. It was to be a monument to his coming of age as king, after his years as a child monarch:

"It was his wish and intention to mark the attainment of his majority rule with a distinctive commemorative act which would make a unique contribution to the record of monasteries and great churches built by his forbears, as a gift to God that He might direct all his future actions as king" (taken from Preamble of letters patent for the foundation of Eton College 11th October 1440, and Eton College Charter 17th July 1446 - quoted in Henry VI by Bertram Wolffe). In August 1440 Henry purchased a small parish church near his birth place at Windsor Castle, and work began. The original plan was for a community of ten priests, four clerks, six choristers, and twenty five poor scholars who would learn grammar under a schoolmaster. Twenty five paupers would also be accommodated, whose sole purpose would be to pray for Henry and his ancestors. Henry's original intention was not for an educational institution. His concern was to win from the pope spiritual privileges and immunities. Indulgences were a means of paying money to offset the problems that sins might cause in the after-life. Henry was building up spiritual capital. In fact the spiritual capital could become the physical kind, since privileges and immunities could be sold for a great deal of money to credulous people. As part of this business plan, Henry insisted that his new chapel at Eton exceed all other churches and cathedrals in England for sheer size. By August 1443 there was a change of direction towards a more educationally based institution, with provision made for seventy scholars. Henry had found out about William Wykeham's unique achievement in founding Winchester College and its twin New College, Oxford, in 1382. Wanting to out do Wykeham, plans at Eton were scrapped, and redrawn. The original number of scholars planned for Eton was increased to seventy to put Wykeham in the shade. Henry does not seem to have been interested in learning. The scholars were an unimportant add on to religious institutions where provision of indulgences was the main purpose. The number of scholars was increased only for added prestige.


Between 1442 and 1444 one and a half million bricks are recorded as being delivered to the site of Eton, but constant changes of plan slowed work dramatically. Then in 1449 the Eton clerk of works was sent on a nine day tour to measure the choirs and naves at Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals. His report led to a third and final design, which required extensive demolition of completed work. Only the choir of this third and final plan was ever completed. Work was still ongoing when Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461. The confusion that followed Henry's deposition wasn't conducive to idealistic building projects. It was left to a former provost of Eton, Bishop Wayneflete to finish a scaled down chapel in the 1470s. This is the chapel that stands at Eton today. Building continued over the centuries, and School Yard as it now appears was completed by 1694.


King's College Cambridge

Eton College chapel and Kings College Cambridge, uniquely, sum up the personality and reign of an English king in physical form. As Henry's biographer Bertram Wolffe has written: "His constant change of plan, regardless of expense, shows his impractical nature and lack of steadfast purpose. His ambition to surpass all other foundations in privileges and grandeur reveals the ostentatious nature of his piety. His slavish modelling of Eton and King's on Winchester and New College reveals no originality of concept, nor does his addition of scholars as a less important appendage suggest any Renaissance interest in learning" (Henry VI P145). Inspite of these reservations, Eton and King's College are the only two great achievements of Henry's reign.

Today Eton is Britain's most famous public school. Public schools are the result of a hierarchical educational system devised by Reverend Nathaniel Woodward (1811 - 1891). The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was driven by a desire for social betterment, which fed into buying goods and services which helped people copy the appearances of those further up the social ladder. Woodward created a system, later to be used by U.S. car manufacturers, where customers could slowly upgrade as they made their way to higher incomes. Three grades of school were established, the first for educating boys to 18, the second to 16, the third to 14. This system no longer exists in its original form, but the idea of an education at Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, Rugby, Stowe or Shrewsbury being the result of, and conferring, social status, is an echo of Woodward's system.

Through its history Eton has educated many famous men. A brief list would include nineteen prime ministers, from Robert Walpole, usually credited as being the first prime minister, to Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home in the 1960s, and finally to David Cameron who became prime minsister in 2010. Writers who went to Eton include Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Gray, Henry Fielding, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell. Scientists include Robert Boyle, Sir John Heyschell and Sir Joseph Banks. In the military and church hundreds of senior positions have been filled by Old Etonians. Boys from overseas have also been taught at Eton, and two signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Lynch and Thomas Nelson were Old Etonians.

Eton, and the other major English public schools, should also be remembered as the place where violent ball games and various kinds, eventually led to the modern games of football and rugby.

Eton has been used as a location for many films including Henry VIII and his Six Wives, The Madness of King George, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, and The Fourth Protocol.

There is a museum at Eton describing the school's history, and there are tours which take in some areas of school buildings.


Opening Times: Please use contact details below.

Tour tickets can be purchased in the Eton Gift Shop in Eton High Street, a few minutes walk from the school entrance.

Address: Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 6DW

Directions: Eton College is in Windsor. There is no access for cars over the Thames from Windsor to Eton. Visitors should walk over Windsor Bridge and up Eton High Street. This is a half mile walk. Visitors arriving by train at either of Windsor's stations, can walk to Eton in 10 - 20 minutes. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Eton College.

Access: Adapted toilet facilities are available, but no specific provision for the disabled on tours seems to be made.


telephone: 01753 671177

fax: 01753 671029

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©2007 InfoBritain (updated 11/12)