A guided tour of Winchester College
PUBLISHED: 16:51 09 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:51 09 March 2016
Steeped in tradition and history, Winchester College is one of the oldest schools in the country. Claire Pitcher takes a guided tour
Founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, Winchester College is believed to be the oldest continuously running school in the country. It was founded to provide a suitable grounding for those looking to go to New College Oxford, also founded by Wykeham.
The original foundation provided for a warden, 10 fellows, three chaplains, 70 scholars, and 16 quiristers. The scholars were originally eight to 12 years of age. There are still 70 scholars (known in the school as Collegemen), now aged between 12 and 14, out of a total school population of over 660. The scholars still live in the original medieval buildings, continuing a tradition unbroken for six centuries.
My guided tour would focus on the mediaeval heart of the College, and include Chamber Court - the 14th century Gothic Chapel, with one of the earliest examples of a wooden vaulted roof, College Hall, the original Scholars’ dining room and the 17th century redbrick schoolroom.
Chamber Court was the heart of the school in mediaeval times. It was where the entire school community ate, slept, worked and worshipped. It was known as ‘Quadrangle Court’ in the mid-19th century and is dominated by the buildings on the south side, made from stone.
In the southwest corner are steps leading up to the Hall and to the right, is a passage formerly known as the Buttery, which adjoins the kitchen. Glance over to the west side and you can spot a long recess, which contains a tap and heavy silver cup on a chain. It wasn’t until 1837 that running water was installed at the college and a washroom was provided – until then this would be the scholars’ only washing place. Understandably, living standards were not entirely comfortable for the boys, with their main source of heating being open fires. In fact, in the 1950s, fires in the upstairs chambers were only lit on special occasions, such as the annual Notions Exam.
Even on the coldest nights, the only warm place was in the washing rooms with their hot pipes, and often the boys would be found hard at work here. It wasn’t until 1987 that central heating was put in the upstairs chambers.
A place for prayer
Built between 1387 and 1395 the Chapel was designed by William Wynford with Hugh Herland and Thomas of Oxford for the glazing - which, along with the woodwork, were products of some of the greatest masters of their craft in England at the time, and it continued to be embellished by later generations.
The Chapel was consecrated for use on July 17, 1395. Its prime importance in Wykeham’s scheme for the College is shown by its size, the quality of its construction and the prominence afforded to it in his Foundation Statutes. It was designed to accommodate 105 people for services but was also to be a meeting place for the discussion of important estate business.
All that remains of the original building is the shell – the stone walls and the fan vaulting of the timber ceiling together with some of the stalls in the choir. On the paneling, the shields of former Wardens and Headmasters can still be seen.
Finding their voices
When William of Wykeham founded the College in 1382 he made provisions for 16 boys called Quiristers to sing the Chapel services. The College has maintained its medieval choral foundation ever since and the tradition is still maintained at a high level.
The choir sings regular services, including evensong, Sunday mattins or communion, as well as at special College events. They also give recitals and broadcasts for BBC radio and television, and make regular tours abroad.
College Hall has been a dining room for over six centuries. At first sight, it looks like the great hall at Hogwarts, with the original benches and tables around the perimeter laid out for lunch. We were shown a trencher, the square wooden platter on which the food was served and the origin of the term ‘a square meal’.
Back to school
Sir Christopher Wren is thought to be the architect of the ‘School’, but although he was working on the Bishop’s Palace in Winchester at the time, and his uncle Bishop of Ely subscribed to the project, this hasn’t been proven.
The red brick and stone building has grand proportions, but its furnishings were in keeping with the medieval schoolroom - tiers of seats for the boys and thrones for the masters conducting their classes in each corner. Over the years, as the number of pupils increased, new buildings were used to house classes and School became little more than an indoor playground…in fact many of the names carved into the paneling date from the time following its vacation in 1869.
It was rescued by the need for a concert hall, as well as a place for plays and lectures. That was until New Hall was built in 1967. School then took on its present function of a reading and exam room.
At the end of the autumn term and in particular at the end of lessons at 4.45pm, the school community is greeted by the enchanting sight of candles covering the expanse of the enclosing wall of Meads. This is known as Illumina. A bonfire is lit, carols are sung, mince pies and punch are served and parents and boys and staff all gather together for the last time before Christmas and the New Year.
The ceremony, a recent one in the College’s history, in fact marks the removal of the wall separating Commoners from Scholars in 1862. Just before the wall was removed, Commoners celebrated the occasion of the wall’s imminent demise by putting lighted candle stubs in the holes where mortar had decayed.
Ilumina is just one of the old traditions that is still treasured at Winchester College. William of Wykeham would no doubt be proud to see so many of them continuing. The College is fundamentally written in to the history of Winchester, as well as England’s educational history and will, no doubt, continue to be so.
Who was William of Wykeham?
William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor (or, as we would now say, Prime Minister) of England, was a self-made man born in Wickham in 1323. Through his personal talents, by a patron’s gift of an education, and being naturally tough, he propelled himself to the top of the executive class of his day and, as such, amassed a considerable fortune.
In an age when literacy, learning and government were the domain of the Church, William wanted to see the central government served by a well-educated clergy. He was ideally placed, enjoying contacts with the throne and the Holy See, to put this need into action - and he had the funds to do so.
In 1382 he obtained his charter to found Winchester. The buildings were begun in 1387, and occupied in March 1394. Meanwhile by 1386 his other and senior foundation at Oxford (New College, or Saint Marie College of Winchester in Oxford) had begun operations.
By the end of the 14th century his scheme for the supply of educated men dedicated to God and the public service was fully realised. The 70 scholars at Winchester were to go on to New College, then out into the real world, ready and equipped to serve.
Book a tour
The college tour times for March run on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10.15am, 11.30am and 2.15pm, Tuesday and Thursday 10.15am and 11.30am and Sunday 2.15pm and 3.30pm. Cash only admission is £7 for adults and £6 for concessions. Children 11 and under go free. To find out more contact Winchester College Enterprises, 73 Kingsgate Street, Winchester, S023 9PE, 01962 621209