Eton College was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. The school was designed to be a feeder school for King’s College at Cambridge. It was planned to have a community of secular priests, a pilgrimage church and an almshouse. 70 scholars were to receive education for free. Henry poured money into the school and got so involved in the plans that he kept changing his mind about the buildings. His statue is found in the School Yard.
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When Edward IV took the throne he stripped the college of much of its land and income, greatly reducing its priests and its almshouse. The church was not even finished and because of the lack of money only what is now called the college chapel (the west end antechapel of the original plan) was completed in 1479. In 1890 due to the larger number of boys in the school a second church called Lower Chapel was constructed.
The chapel style is 15th century Perpendicular Gothic. Of particular note are the stone wall paintings in the Flemish style. They are attributed to four master painters and their assistants who worked on them from 1479 to 1489. Their importance was not recognized in later years (the college barber whitewashed them in 1560) and they were damaged by stall canopies installed over them.
The stained glass windows, except for the one above the organ, are not original, the originals being shattered by a bomb in WWII. The fan vaulted roof dates from 1959. The original was rotten and had to be removed.
On the north of School Yard is Lower School with accommodation above completed in 1443. Its purpose built classroom is still in use. The one room had several classes in it separated only by wooden railings. The room remains as it was and has a unique atmosphere. Here as elsewhere in the school buildings and cloister can be seen the names of boys carved into the wood and stone. It was a tradition, not vandalism, to do so upon their “promotion” to Cambridge.
On another side of School Yard is Lupton’s Tower and range built in 1520. It provided accommodation for the college head. The fourth side, Upper School, on the west was added in 1694. On its first floor is a large classroom. The ante chapel (1479-82) is found here with the college chapel adjoining.
Walking through to the cloisters leads to College Library, and College Hall (it once provided eating rooms for priests, scholars, and the head master.) College Library has three rooms with galleries above. The library has 80,000 printed items and 200 medieval manuscripts. The outstanding one is the Gutenberg Bible, a first edition in its original binding. Also treasured is an Eton choir book from c1500.
Across the street from these buildings are School Hall and School Library (1908) and a lamp post known as the Burning Bush.
School life was harsh in the early days—no food on Friday, wake up at 5am, two or three to a bed, and all teaching was in Latin. George III was a devotee and patron of the school and was often seen roaming its grounds and talking to tutors and the boys. His birthday is still celebrated by the school (4 July).
The school now has around 1300 boys 13-18 years of age. Its buildings are scattered around Eton. Today most boys board in houses scattered around the town. School dress consists of a black tailcoat and waistcoat, and pin-striped trousers. The boys are involved in rowing, rugger, football, and cricket.
Eton has many famous past scholars including the Duke of Wellington, 20 prime ministers, writers Shelley and George Orwell. Eton also produced explorers such as Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Scientists who attended the school include Robert Boyle and Sir Joseph Banks. Many of their names can be spotted carved into the wood in the classrooms and on the walls.
The Museum of Eton Life, reached through the brewhouse yard, is in the vaulted undercroft of College Hall. This space was originally a cellar serving the hall and a brewhouse. In the museum are 400 exhibits detailing the history and life of Eton, including its customs. Famous former Etonians are featured. On view is a video of life in the school in the 21st century.
entry off the town High St
Tel. 0 1753 671 177
Open: College: 3rd week March-Oct, some Wed, Fri, Sat, and Sun and daily during Eton College holidays, 2 and 3.15pm by guided tours only for individuals, about one hour long; check website before visiting for exact days and times and weeks; tickets available from Eton College gift shop or from the entry desk, 11am-1.30pm on day of visit; Museum of Eton Life open: April-end Sep; during Eton school term: Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun, 2-4.30pm; during Eton school holidays, daily, same time; at other times by arrangement with Visits Manager
Web: Eton College
The official visitor website for short breaks and days out in The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is Windsor Government. You can request a copy of the Visitor Guide online or call the Royal Windsor Information Centre on 0 1753 743 907.
Note: We recommend the two hour tour. Book ahead.
Text and photos copyright by Barbara Ballard