Founded by a king, saved by a king's mistress

Eton College now occupies an unassailable position in British education, but it was almost closed not long after it was opened. It was founded in 1440 by Henry VI to provide free education for 70 King's Scholars but in 1461 Henry was deposed by Edward IV. Parliament annulled all land grants made by the previous regime and according to legend it was only through the intervention of Edward's mistress, Jane Shore, that some of the school's property was released and the school saved.

Early records date from the mid-16th century, when life at Eton was strictly regimented and spartan, according to the Pitkin Guide to the school, written by a former member of staff. Pupils had to get up at 5am each morning to chant prayers before attending lessons in Latin.

Priests played a central part in the life of the college during its first 200 years but after the civil war, when Eton's grounds were used in a Royalist attempt to recapture Windsor Castle, their influence waned.

However, the life of the boys continued to be a hard one. The most famous headmaster, Dr Keate, tackled a lax state of discipline which had arisen before his arrival in 1809 with an iron regime. It is said that he conducted mass floggings known as "executions" and that his victims were expected to cheer him afterwards.

"Pop", the elite society which now imposes discipline on boys, dates from Dr Keate's time. It started life as a debating society meeting in a lollipop shop but later became a club for athletes.

The brutality continued into the current century, though both beatings and "fagging" - the practice of attaching younger boys to older ones as personal slaves - are now outlawed. A book published last year revealed that Anthony Chenevix-Trench, headmaster from 1964-70, was forced to resign over his drinking and excessive brutality to boys.

Among the more peculiar traditions which still persist is the Eton Wall Game, which dates from 1777 and which has been described as "a peculiar mixture of mud-wrestling, rugby, football and quaint stupidity."

Eton's former pupils include 19 prime ministers and some minor royals, but also a few more radical individuals. Among this last group was George Orwell who, not surprisingly, was uncomplimentary about his alma mater. "Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there," he wrote.

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