#32 – Go on a tour of Winchester College

Winchester College.  Less well known that the Cathedral perhaps, but still a significant presence in the town, even if only as landowner of the water meadows and St Catherine’s Hill.  I’ve travelled the world, I’ve visited historic sights all over the UK and on four continents, I walk past the College entrance gate at least once a week and have done so for over 20 years yet I’ve never been inside.  Until now.   Visiting the college was on The List because the 40 before 40 is about me exploring things I’ve never done before, so it made sense to include something right on my doorstep which I have been meaning to visit for years.  I took my Mum and Dad along with me as a Mothering Sunday gift.

Inside the courtyard at Winchester College

Inside the courtyard at Winchester College

With mum and dad inside Winchester College

With mum and dad inside Winchester College

Let’s start with a bit of history.  Winchester College was founded by charter in 1382 and occupied by scholars for the first time in 1394, making it the oldest public school in England.  The founder, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England (a post equivalent to today’s Prime Minister) intended to create a school for those who would eventually serve in the church, to supply the country with a well-educated priesthood.  At that time, the church had a significant degree of political power and basically ran the government of the country.  Starting with Winchester, taking boys from 13-18, Wykeham then went on to found New College, Oxford to provide the next stage of education.  Eton, founded by Henry VI over fifty years later, was modelled on Winchester and some of its original boys were transferred from Winchester and its first Headmaster also came from Winchester.

Wykeham’s school originally took 70 boys on scholarship and ten ‘paying guests’ known as Commoners – usually children of friends.  The balance today has changed somewhat; there are still 70 scholars (who win their places through academic excellence but are not guaranteed free places) but the college is principally funded by 700 Commoners who pay £34,000 a year for their place.  The priesthood is a less popular career choice now, but old boys from the 20th century still include Bishops, as well as politicians, journalists, lawyers and judges, cricketers and even an Olympic rower.

The medieval buildings are the heart of the college and are still in use today, and it was these which were the focus of the tour.  The seventy Scholars still live within the original medieval dormitories (we assume these have been somewhat modernised inside) and eat in the Scholars Dining Room.  The 700 Commoners live in boarding houses elsewhere in the city and come into the college for lessons.  Due to the fees, a significant percentage of the current students are from overseas.  Apparently a few years ago this included a lot of Russians but at the moment the Chinese are in the ascendance.  Although some concessions are made to the modern multicultural mix of pupils (for example compulsory religious observances include Anglican and Roman Catholic services but also take account of other beliefs), Latin is still very much part of the school curriculum.  There is certainly a sense of stepping back both in time but also into a different world during a visit to Winchester.

The buildings themselves are most certainly beautiful and pay tribute to the College’s founder with statues of William of Wykeham in the courtyard and his heraldic crest (created especially for him as he was from an ordinary rather than aristocratic family) appearing in various places.  It has been adopted as the College’s crest.  The Chapel is still a key part of College life, and later additions have been made in particular a Purbeck marble war memorial to commemorate those pupils who lost their lives in the First World War.  Despite being a quasi-monastic institution, the College survived the Reformation but sadly its medieval stained glass didn’t survive the enthusiastic Victorians who broke it up and sold it piecemeal, replacing it with a rather garish copy.  The College is gradually re-collecting the original glass although parts of it have to be removable to return to their owners if required for exhibitions.  The buildings are also often used for filming, most recently featuring significantly in Les Miserables.

The Victorian stained glass in the Chapel

The Victorian stained glass in the Chapel

The tour was certainly interesting although rather too short for me.  I would have liked to have seen more of the grounds and the insides of the buildings and also learnt more about the daily life of the boys today.  We had a very brief glimpse into this privileged world but the College keeps its secrets well and remains principally closed to outsiders.


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