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The Boy's Schools of England by Amelia E. Barr


I suppose there are few boys who have not heard of Westminster Abbey, and who do not know that within its ancient and splendid walls the Kings of England are crowned, and the great, the wise, and the brave of every age are buried. But few, perhaps, are aware that the Abbey also contains the oldest and one of the most famous boys' schools in the world. It is true that the statutes of the school, as they now exist, are of a less remote date than those of Eton and Winchester schools—being framed by Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth—but they no more represent the origin of Westminster School than the Reformation represents the origin of the English Church.

Westminster Abbey was built by Edward the Confessor, and the Master of the Novices sitting with his disciples in the western cloister was the beginning of Westminster School. It was, without doubt, this school that Ingulphus—the writer of a famous chronicle (a.d. 1043-1051)—attended; for he tells us that Queen Edith often met him coming from school, and questioned him about his grammar and logic, and always gave him three or four pieces of money, and then sent him to the royal larder to refresh himself—two forms of kindness that a school-boy never forgets. Ingulphus afterward became the secretary of William the Conqueror. In his day there was no glazing to this cloister, and the rain, wind, and snow must have swept pitilessly over the novices turning and spelling out their manuscripts. They had, indeed, a carpet of hay or rushes, and mats were laid on the stone benches, but it must have been a bitterly cold school-room in winter.

At the Reformation, Henry the Eighth drew up new plans for Westminster School, and Elizabeth perfected the statutes by which the school is still governed. It was to consist of forty boys, who were to be chosen for their "good disposition, knowledge, and poverty, and without favor or partiality"; and even at the present day there is no admission as a "Queen's Scholar" at Westminster except by long and arduous competition between the candidates for the honor.

No one who has witnessed the mode of election will ever forget it. The candidates are arranged according to their places in the school, and the lowest two boys first enter the arena. The lower of these two is the challenger. He calls upon his adversary to translate an epigram, to parse it, or to answer any grammatical question connected with the subject. Demand after demand is made, until there is an error. The Master is appealed to, and answers, "It was a mistake." Then the challenger and the challenged change places, and the latter, with fierce eagerness, renews the contest. Whichever of the two is the conqueror, flushed with victory, then turns to the boy above him, and if he be a really clever lad, he will sometimes advance ten, fifteen, or twenty steps before he is stopped by a greater spirit. This struggle—which is peculiar to Westminster, and highly prized by its scholars—frequently extends over six or eight weeks, and the ten who are highest at its close are elected "Queen's Scholars," in place of those advanced that year from Westminster to Oxford or Cambridge.

This mental tournament is a very ancient custom, for Stow says that the Westminster scholars annually stood under a great tree in St. Bartholomew's Church yard, and entering the lists of grammar, chivalrously asserted the intellectual superiority of Westminster against all comers; and Stow, as you very likely know, died about a.d. 1600. There is, therefore, as you may see, a very great honor in being a "Queen's Scholar"; besides which, the prizes to be divided among them are very valuable. These consist of three junior studentships of Christ Church, Oxford, tenable for seven years, and worth about £120 a year; Dr. Carey's Benefaction, which divides £600 a year among the most needy and industrious of the scholars in sums of not less than £50, and not more than £100; and three exhibitions at Trinity College, Cambridge, of yearly value about £87, tenable until the holder has taken his Bachelor of Arts degree. The Queen's Scholars are partially maintained by the school; but all other boys, of which the average number is about one hundred and fifty, pay very handsomely for their education.


The government of this school is an absolute monarchy in the hands of the Head-Master, though the Dean and Chapter of Westminster can exercise a certain control of the Queen's Scholars, and the reigning sovereign of England is by the statutes Visitor of the School. In 1846 the father of one of the Queen's Scholars complained to her Majesty that his boy had been cruelly treated by three of the other scholars, and she ordered an immediate trial, and punishment of the guilty parties.

Westminster, from its earliest records, has been famous for its Masters. Before the great Camden—the Pausanias of England—were Alexander Nowell, Nicholas Udall, and Thomas Browne. Nowell was Master in Queen Mary's reign, and Bonner intending to burn him, he fled for his life. On Elizabeth's accession he again became Master, and was also one of Elizabeth's preachers, and reproved her so plainly that on one occasion she bade him "return to his text." You know, boys, it is so easy and so natural for school-masters to tell people when they are wrong, and the Masters of Westminster have been noted for the habit.

Dr. Busby's name is forever associated with Westminster, and he ruled the school with his terrible birch rod for upward of fifty-seven years. "My rod is my sieve," he said, "and who can not pass through it is no boy for me." So many able boys, however, passed through it, that he could point to the Bench of Bishops, and boast that sixteen of the spiritual lords sitting there at one time had been educated by him. The height to which he carried discipline is exemplified by his accompanying King Charles through the school-room with his hat on, because "he would not have his boys think there was any man in England greater than himself." Dryden was one of Busby's scholars, and received from the great Master many a severe flogging, yet Dryden always spoke of Dr. Busby with the greatest reverence. Flogging is now only administered on very grave occasions, by the Head-Master, and in the presence of a third party, who must be one of the boys.

In Dr. Busby's time the upper and lower schools were divided by a curtain, about which there is a remarkable story. A boy, having torn this curtain, was saved from one of Busby's terrible floggings by his school-mate assuming the fault, and bearing the rod in his place. This brave lad in the civil war took the King's side, became implicated in a futile rising, and was condemned to death at Exeter. But his judge happened to be the very boy whose place he had taken under Busby's rod, and he was not unmindful of the favor, for he hastened to London, and begged from Cromwell his friend's life. If you will get No. 313 of the Spectator, you can read the whole story, and it is a very beautiful as well as truthful one.


The school-room at Westminster is one of the most interesting rooms in the world. It was the dormitory of the old monks; and when I saw it, thirty years ago, its walls were quite covered with the names of boys who had studied there, and who had cut with their penknives these rude autographs. Many of the names have since become famous all over the world, and will never be forgotten. At that time "John Dryden" was deep and plain in the solid bench where he cut it, for not one of all the thousands of Westminster boys who have sat in his place since have been mean or thoughtless enough to deface it.

The dormitory of the Queen's Scholars stands where the granary of the monks stood, and is a chamber one hundred and sixty-one feet long by twenty-five broad. It is interesting because it is the theatre where for centuries the "Westminster Play" has been acted. This "play" was expressly ordered by Queen Elizabeth for "her boys," and those of Terence were chosen by her. In 1847 there was a movement to abolish the "Westminster Play," but a memorial, signed by more than six hundred old Westminsters, pleaded for its continuance, and it is still one of the great features of a London Christmas.

Westminster is pre-eminently a classical school, but no school has a longer or more splendid list of great scholars. Of Church dignitaries it counts nine Archbishops and more than sixty Bishops: among the latter Trelawney, Francis Atterbury (the friend of Pope, Swift, and Gay), Isaac Barrow, and the witty, loyal Dr. South, who, when but an Upper Boy at Westminster, dared to read the prayer for Charles the First an hour before he was beheaded. Still more famous was Prideaux, the great Oriental and Hebrew scholar, and the wise Dr. Goodenough, whose sermons before the House of Lords elicited the lively epigram from some Westminster boy,

"'Twas well enough that Goodenough before the Lords should preach,
For sure enough that bad enough were those he had to teach."

Among famous lawyers, Westminster educated Lane, the eloquent defender of Strafford; Glynne, the great Commonwealth lawyer; the Earl of Mansfield, the pride of Westminster School, and the glory of Westminster Hall, Lord Chief Justice of England for more than thirty years; and the late Sir David Dundas. Among statesmen, Westminster counts the younger Vane, whom Milton so nobly eulogizes, as

"young in years, but in sage counsel old,
Than whom no better senator e'er held
The Roman helm";

Halifax, the accomplished "Trimmer" of the Revolution, about whom you must consult Macaulay; Warren Hastings; Sir Francis Burdett; Sir James Graham; and John, Earl Russell.

Among warriors, five of the seven officers not of royal blood who rose to the rank of Field-Marshal between 1810 and 1856 were Westminster boys, and one of these five was Lord Raglan.

Her list of literary sons is so long that I can only name a few of the best-known names—Rare Ben Jonson, Cowley, George Herbert, John Dryden, Christopher Wren, John Locke, the two Colmans, Richard Cumberland, Cowper, Gibbon, and the all-accomplished Robert Southey.

The chief amusement of Westminster boys is boating; for which the proximity of the Thames affords great advantages; also cricket, racket, quoits, sparring, foot-races, leaping, and single-stick. The school has always been noted, also, for the strong bond of fraternity uniting the boys: to the end of life Westminster boys acknowledge this tie, and in many a national crisis it has been, "All Westminsters together!"