A tour of the oldest continuously functioning school in Britain

I recently toured Winchester College, founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor to both Edward III and Richard II.  He was a poor boy who had his education paid for, and he decided to do the same for 70 poor boys. These scholars as they are called went onto New College Oxford, which Wykeham also founded, and became priests. I captured my impressions of the tour in an email to a friend, an Old Wykehamist who now lives in the US. This is an edited version of my email.

It was freezing cold and raining as Lin, Flo (now living in Winchester) and I did the tour. Lin immediately took against the guide, a bossy woman in a silly hat and blue cloak (“like the scholars wear, only theirs is black”). Most of the tour was outside and Lin chilled to fury, while Flo chilled to being white as death. I was put off by neither the bossy woman nor the cold and wet, which Lin concluded showed “complete lack of critical faculty.”

We started across the road from the main entrance. The bossy woman emphasised that we were outside the city walls, a dangerous time in the reign of Richard II when, as now, the country was falling apart. Riots outside the city walls were common, and so the school had to be built as a fortress. She pointed out the statue above the gate which, despite being there since the 14th century, was unweathered because it faced north.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“The Virgin Mary,” she said with some scorn–at my ignorance, I think, not anti-Catholic feeling.

Inside the gates she pointed us to the slaughter house, now being upgraded to a museum (“We have endless treasures”), and what was once the brewery. The water from the Itchin being downstream from the city was pull of sewerage, so the boys had to drink beer. She told us that the boys were not allowed to walk along the central passage where we walked: they had to go round the edges or diagonally across the yard. The boys called the flints in the ground “good intentions”; and “Where do good intensions lead?” the bossy woman asked, answering her own question “Hell.” The drains are called “hell.” She told us too how after one Christmas holiday the boys built a snowman and took him to their dormitory where he lasted three days. This reminder of cold did not go down well with Lin and Flo.

The chapel, as you know, was built by the same stonemasons who built the cathedral, but the chapel unlike the cathedral survived the reformation because the heads of the College were pally with the Puritans. The stained glass windows, however, were sent away to be cleaned 200 years ago. They came back looking magnificent, so magnificent that they were copies not the real thing. There are, however, some windows that go back 600 years. The bossy woman told us that all the boys had to have a religion, it didn’t matter which, but that the College was a Christian College–so all (did I get this right?) had to attend chapel on Sunday mornings. I asked if the boys could be atheists. She said yes, obviously thinking it a religion.

In the refectory, which felt very dead (the boys were on holiday), the bossy woman explained that it’s a College tradition for the boys to climb over the table to leave rather than go round or under. I imagined you scrambling over the table. She told us the square blocks of wood on which some dishes, including thick porridge, are served and said that surely this must be the origin of “a square meal.” Paintings of distinguished Old Wykehamists hung on the walls with Bishop Wykeham at the centre. I looked for you, but none of the paintings seemed to be less than 200 years old.


The bossy woman showed us the 400 year old painting of the College mascot, “the trusty servant,” whom I later learned is called a hircocervus. He embodies the qualities of Winchester alumni–ears that hear everything, a mouth that tells no secrets, an appetite for anything, an open hand, instruments for cleaning, a sword to defend, smart clothes, and the feet of stag for speed. You seem to have most of what is expected, but I wonder that Old Wykehamists are servants when Old Etonians are leaders–but then I think of Nelson Mandela’s saying “I am not a leader but a servant,” that is, the best kind of leader.

trusty servant

After seeing the places where the boys put their top hats and boaters and peeking into Toys, where the boys do homework (the word Toys further inflamed Lin, who thought it upper class twaddle), we went into Chantry. I must confess that I didn’t know that a chantry is a building that is both a tomb (the relevant warden and his wife are buried under the central floor) and a place where people can says prayers to hasten the journey of the dead to heaven and reduce the chances of an eternity spent in hell.

We saw as well an upper chapel, where the bossy woman made much of the fact that this is where the school took ultimate shelter if under attack. The door was thick, and because of the curved stairs up to the chapel marauders could not use a battering ram. I wondered if the chapel had ever been used in such desperate circumstances.

Most Old Wykehamists are, courtesy of simple mathematics, dead, many of them in war, and we walked round the cloisters with plaques for the dead on the walls. The bossy woman pointed out particularly the arty plaque to George Mallory, who died on Everest in the 20s. He took a letter to his wife to the top, and when he was found frozen in the 90s he didn’t have the letter. So did he reach the top, she asked. I’m sure that Old Wykehamists believe he must have done.

The last room we saw was the 17th century school room, a complete building that is a Wren double cube–but wasn’t actually built by Wren as the College couldn’t afford him. The bossy woman made this point with some resentment. Back where we started the bossy woman looked with great pride on the huge Magnolia Grandiflora and said that such trees didn’t grown on chalk but this had its roots in the swamp that Winchester was until the Romans drained it.

Once we were released the frozen Lin and Flo hurtled up College Street to get as far away as fast as possible, while I followed on languidly. They thought the school like a stone prison, while I thought it a great place to have gone to school. I think that you think so too.



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