The Foundation Charter of Eton College (ECR 39/03) sketches out Henry’s vision for the college, while reserving the right for him to make changes in the future.
Dated 11 October 1440, the Foundation Charter converts the former parish church of Eton into both a collegiate church and, importantly, a school. The opening line shows immediately that this is a royal foundation, the creation of ‘Henry, by the grace of God, King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland’.
The ‘Royal College of the Blessed Mary of Eton by Windsor’ was to consist of a Provost, ten priests, four clerks, six choristers, 25 poor scholars to learn grammar and 25 almsmen, with a master or teacher to instruct the scholars. The charter goes further to say that any others can also be taught without charge, however, they would need to fund their own accommodation. This shows that from the beginning there was a plan to enable as many as possible to benefit from an education. These boys who paid for their accommodation became known as Oppidans.
The first members of the college were Henry Sever as Provost; John Kette, William Hasten and William Dene, the first fellows; and William Stokke and Richard Cokkes, the first scholars
Eton College Foundation Charter, 11 October 1440. Eton College Archives, ECR 39/03
It hath become a fixed purpose in our heart to found a college… in the parochial church of Eton beside Windsor, not far from our birthplace.The Eton College Foundation Charter, 1440
A set of statutes were issued in c.1451, establishing the rules and regulations under which Eton would operate (ECR 60/01/01). These governed every aspect of the college’s activities, from the number of scholars permitted, who was eligible to be Provost or Head Master, the daily timetable, even the food and clothing that was to be provided. Striped or variegated clothing was forbidden; instead the boys were to wear ‘long gowns of a simple and plain form designed according to the gravity and mode approved in clerical habit’. In many respects, the statutes copied word for word those of Winchester College. These 15th-century rules remained in place until 1871.
‘the mirror and mistress of all other grammar Schools’
Eton College was to be the pinnacle of learning, and to enable this, Henry VI ordered that no other grammar school was to be founded in Windsor or within a ten-mile radius. The school was to teach the King’s Scholars and ‘any others whencesoever and from whatever parts they should flock to learn the said knowledge in the rudiments of grammar, free of charge and without any pecuniary exaction.’ This shows that Henry VI always intended there to be the Oppidans – boys who would be educated for free, but who would have to pay for their accommodation.
Royal Patents: Grant of right to be a grammar school. Eton College Archives, ECR 39/60.
The college was also granted a coat of arms [ECR 39/82]. The description shows Henry’s desire that Eton would be a true place of learning, backed by royal request:
‘On a field sable, three lily-flowers argent, intending that our newly-founded College, lasting for ages to come, whose perpetuity We wish to be signified by the stability of the sable colour, shall bring forth the brightest flowers redolent of every kind of knowledge, to which also that we may impart something on royal nobility, which may declare the work truly royal and illustrious, we have resolved that that portion of the arms, which by royal right belong to us in the kingdoms of France and England, be placed on the chief of the shield, per pale azure with a flower of the French, and gules with a leopard passant or’