Statue of the founder Henry VI
in School Yard
Eton College was founded by King Henry VI as a charity school to provide free education to 70 poor boys who would then go on to King's College, Cambridge, founded by the same King in 1441. Henry took Winchester College as his model, visiting on many occasions, borrowing its Statutes and removing its Headmaster and some of the Scholars to start his new school.
When Henry VI founded the school, he granted it a large number of endowments, including much valuable land. The group of feoffees appointed by the king to receive forfeited lands of the Alien Priories for the endowment of Eton were as follows:
- Archbishop Chichele
- Bishop Stafford
- Bishop Lowe
- Bishop Ayscough
- William de la Pole, 1st Marquess of Suffolk (1396–1450) (later Duke of Suffolk)
- John Somerset (d. 1454), Chancellor of the Exchequer and the king's doctor
- Thomas Beckington (c. 1390–1465), Archdeacon of Buckingham, the king's secretary and later Keeper of the Privy Seal
- Richard Andrew (d. 1477), first Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, later the king's secretary
- Adam Moleyns (d. 1450), Clerk of the Council
- John Hampton (d. 1472) of Kniver, Staffordshire, an Esquire of the Body
- James Fiennes, another member of the Royal Household
- William Tresham, another member of the Royal Household
It was intended to have formidable buildings (Henry intended the nave of the College Chapel to be the longest in Europe) and several religious relics, supposedly including a part of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns. He persuaded the then Pope, Eugene IV, to grant him a privilege unparalleled anywhere in England: the right to grant indulgences to penitents on the Feast of the Assumption. The school also came into possession of one of England's Apocalypse manuscripts.
However, when Henry was deposed by King Edward IV in 1461, the new King annulled all grants to the school and removed most of its assets and treasures to St George's Chapel, Windsor, on the other side of the River Thames. Legend has it that Edward's mistress, Jane Shore, intervened on the school's behalf. She was able to save a good part of the school, although the royal bequest and the number of staff were much reduced.
Construction of the chapel, originally intended to be slightly over twice as long, with eighteen—or possibly seventeen—bays (there are eight today) was stopped when Henry VI was deposed. Only the Quire of the intended building was completed. Eton's first Headmaster, William Waynflete, founder of Magdalen College, Oxford and previously Head Master of Winchester College, built the ante-chapel that finishes the Chapel today. The important wall paintings in the Chapel and the brick north range of the present School Yard also date from the 1480s; the lower storeys of the cloister, including College Hall, had been built between 1441 and 1460.
As the school suffered reduced income while still under construction, the completion and further development of the school has since depended to some extent on wealthy benefactors. Building resumed when Roger Lupton was Provost, around 1517. His name is borne by the big gate-house in the west range of the cloisters, fronting School Yard, perhaps the most famous image of the school. This range includes the important interiors of the Parlour, Election Hall, and Election Chamber, where most of the 18th century "leaving portraits" are kept.
"After Lupton's time nothing important was built until about 1670, when Provost Allestree gave a range to close the west side of School Yard between Lower School and Chapel". This was remodelled later and completed 1694 by Matthew Bankes, Master Carpenter of the Royal Works. The last important addition to the central college buildings was the College Library, in the south range of the cloister, 1725–29, by Thomas Rowland. It has a very important collection of books and manuscripts.
In the 19th century, the architect John Shaw Jr (1803–1870) became surveyor to Eton. He designed New Buildings (1844–46), Provost Francis Hodgson's addition to provide better accommodation for Collegers, who until then had mostly lived in Long Chamber, a long first floor room where conditions were inhumane.
Following complaints about the finances, buildings and management of Eton, the Clarendon Commission was set up in 1861 as a Royal Commission to investigate the state of nine schools in England, including Eton. Questioned by the Commission in 1862, head master Edward Balston came under attack for his view that in the classroom little time could be spared for subjects other than classical studies.
An Eton College classroom in the 19th century
The Duke of Wellington is often incorrectly quoted as saying that "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton". Wellington was at Eton from 1781 to 1784 and was to send his sons there. According to Nevill (citing the historian Sir Edward Creasy), what Wellington said, while passing an Eton cricket match many decades later, was, "There grows the stuff that won Waterloo", a remark Nevill construes as a reference to "the manly character induced by games and sport" among English youth generally, not a comment about Eton specifically. In 1889, Sir William Fraser conflated this uncorroborated remark with the one attributed to him by Count Charles de Montalembert's C'est ici qu'a été gagné la bataille de Waterloo ("It is here that the Battle of Waterloo was won").
As with other public schools, a scheme was devised towards the end of the 19th century to familiarize privileged schoolboys with social conditions in deprived areas. The project of establishing an 'Eton Mission' in the crowded district of Hackney Wick in east London was started at the beginning of 1880, and lasted until 1971 when it was decided that a more local project (at Dorney) would be more realistic. However over the years much money was raised for the Eton Mission, a fine church by G. F. Bodley was erected, many Etonians visited, and stimulated among other things the Eton Manor Boys' Club, a notable rowing club which has survived the Mission itself, and the 59 Club for motorcyclists.
Students at Eton dressed for the Fourth of June celebrations in 1932
The very large and ornate School Hall and School Library (by L. K. Hall) were erected in 1906–08 across the road from Upper School as the school's memorial to the Etonians who had died in the Boer War. Many tablets in the cloisters and chapel commemorate the large number of dead Etonians of the Great War. A bomb destroyed part of Upper School in World War II and blew out many windows in the Chapel. The college commissioned replacements by Evie Hone (1949–52) and by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens (1959 onward).
Among headmasters of the 20th century were Cyril Alington, Robert Birley and Anthony Chenevix-Trench. M. R. James was a provost.
In 1959, the College constructed a nuclear bunker to house the College's Provost and Fellows. The facility is now used for storage.
In 2005, the School was one of fifty of the country's leading independent schools found to have breached the Competition Act 1998 (see below under "Controversy").
In 2011, plans to attack Eton were found on the body of a senior al-Qaeda leader shot dead in Somalia.