King Henry VI had a rough start to his reign. Sure, 2020 was a cosmically dreadful year, but be grateful you weren’t him kicking about in 1429. He was just nearly one year old when he became King of England, still not one when ever so slightly later he succeeded to the throne of France to boot. Feuding uncles, badly behaved Burgundians, the predictable loss of the French throne, The War of the Roses, the Cade Rebellion, five years incarceration at The Tower of London, a near year following restored to the throne, his execution soon after back at The Tower in 1471 made for a traumatic go at holding the rei(g)ns.
Amongst Henry’s decidedly mixed CV, two moments of cultural patronage loom so large that they threaten the relevance of his slightly ineffectual day job of administering a Kingdom; the foundation of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. Here I will focus solely on the former. Founded by the King in 1440 as “Kynge’s College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore”, it remains today as perhaps the most famous school in the history of mankind. Whilst King Hal Six’s (arguably illegitimate) reign was far from ideal, the public school that still stands today in the literal shadow of his statue central to the college’s heart, boasts an inconceivable string of world leaders as alumni.
No fewer than 20 of Britain’s 55 prime ministers were educated at Eton College, including the first, Robert Walpole and (at the time of writing!) the current incumbent, Boris Johnson. My own alma mater of course had Churchill and somewhat regrettably the inventor of modern day policing, founder of the Metropolitan Police Service and the modern Conservative Party, darling Robert Peel. No need to panic, we also had Byron. Yet no British public school, not even Winchester College or Harrow, quite matches up to Eton’s mesmeric run of five hundred year plus form of generating notorious notables.
As perhaps their worst advert of a prime ministerial old boy blunders incessantly through the 21st century’s most inconceivably ghastly epoch, Eton College reasserts itself as a remarkable and remarkably brilliant educational institution.
On an unusually brilliant May day I returned to tour the college for the first time in seven years. Hoping dearly, as on every visit prior I would come away with the sense that it’s more sizzle than sausage and whilst undoubtedly impressive, not necessarily deserving of its enduring status all of the time. I was in the latter regard severely disappointed. What I found in place of the memory from seven years ago was a brilliant hybrid of traditional and contemporary, diversity and progression. My Hong Kongese lower sixth tour guide Jason, attested he had never seen nor was aware of any bullying during his time to date. The air was different from my last romp around in my opinion Henry’s finest work. Henry, inspired by his own education and basing his College on the then innovative model pioneered by William of Wykeham in 1382 embodied in the great Bishop’s own founding of Winchester College. Henry also mimicked the double foundation model adopted by Wykeham which saw the clergyman found New College, Oxford alongside Hampshire’s most famous school.
As the endless arms race of shiny new buildings and toys in which all leading public schools appear to be heavily invested, Eton College still astounds. Perhaps the most impactful but least expected is the Stephenson Centre for Wellbeing, offering the boys round the clock professional psychological support. Beyond this there is their rapidly increasing provision for bursaries; almost all boys joining at sixth form attend for free with many more besides receiving significant financial support. This academic year Eton provided financial support to 261 pupils, with an average reward coming in at a an impressive 68%; 90 of those boys paid no fees at all.
Former headmaster Tony Little, stated in the public media upon his retirement that he expected Eton College to be free for more than half its population within his lifetime. Having chortled at the time at the unimaginable ambition of that prediction, I admit to being humbled to accept that he might well be proven right. That – at least in part – Eton College will properly re-earn the confusing title of ‘public school’. I joked with Jason as we parted that perhaps Eton’s next Prime Minister might be a Labour MP. Jason batted no eyelids and said quite calmly, “it’s more than likely, half of my friends are very serious about their politics and not the Tory kind”. I wholeheartedly agree with Stormzy’s sensationally controversial lyrics in his hit single ‘Vossi Bop’. Perhaps though, BoJo’s biblical incompetence and immorality have sparked his former school to make it very clear that he isn’t their fault and the future Prime Ministers that they are bound to release into the world will have a profoundly positive impact.
What would King Henry VI think of his educational legacy, the multinational diversity, the on-site mental well-being support, the fact the school he founded to be free to its students is now moments away from hitting £50,000 per annum, that Latin is no longer the language of instruction but not even a compulsory subject? Without H. G. Wells’ fictional temporal transport device we will never know but the Eton College of 2022 is a school of the future despite its inescapable traditions from its formidable past.