Eton College, often referred to simply as Eton, is a British independent school for boys aged 13 to 18. It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI as "The King's College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor".
Eton has traditionally been referred to as "the chief nurse of England's statesmen", and has been described as the most famous public school in the world. Early in the 20th century, a historian of Eton wrote, "No other school can claim to have sent forth such a cohort of distinguished figures to make their mark on the world".
The school is headed by a Provost and Fellows (Board of Governors), who appoint the Head Master. It contains 25 boys' houses, each headed by a housemaster, selected from the more senior members of the teaching staff, who number some 160.
Eton today is a larger school than it has been for much of its history. In 1678, there were 207 boys. In the late 18th century, there were about 300 boys.
Eton College was founded by Henry VI as a charity school to provide free education to seventy 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, a plan for 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.
However, when Henry was deposed by 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 Provost, William Waynflete, founder of Magdalen College, Oxford and previously Head Master of Winchester College, built the ante-chapel that finishes the Chapel today.
As the school suffered reduced income while still under construction, the completion and further development of the school has since depended on wealthy benefactors. Many of these are honoured with school buildings in their name. They include Bishop William Waynflete and Roger Lupton, whose name is borne by the central tower, perhaps the most famous image of the school.
In the 19th century, the architect John Shaw Jr (1803–1870) became surveyor to Eton. He designed new parts of the college which helped provide better pupil accommodation.
The Duke of Wellington is often 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" amongst English youth generally, not a comment about Eton specifically.
In 2005, the school was one of fifty of the country's leading independent schools found guilty of running an illegal price-fixing cartel, which had allowed them to drive up fees for thousands of parents. The schools made clear that they had not realised that the change to the law (which had happened only a few months earlier) about the sharing of information had subsequently made it an offence. Each school was required to pay a nominal penalty of £10,000; and all agreed to make ex-gratia payments totalling £3,000,000 into a trust designed to benefit pupils who attended the schools during the period when fee information was shared.
They are called halves because the school year was once split into two halves, between which the boys went home.