Winchester College: The school that’s survived six centuries of turmoil, including the sacking of the city around it

Winchester College is both a school for the lucky few and an architectural marvel, says Clive Aslet.

The Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, William of Wykeham, founded a school at Winchester in 1382 to maintain an adequate supply of pupils who knew Latin (as well as to say prayers for his soul) for New College, Oxford, which he had established three years earlier. His foundation charter expounded a curriculum based on grammar, by which he meant the international lingua franca of Latin.

College Street is in the centre of Winchester.

As former headmaster James Sabben-Clare wrote in his book Winchester College in 1981: ‘It is a quite remarkable thing that nearly 600 years later most of the original buildings should still be standing, and within and around them the process of education should still be carried on by the same people as are named in the original statutes — albeit in different ways and in company with many others: a Warden and 10 Fellows, two masters, 70 scholars, three chaplains, three lay-clerks, and 16 quiristers or choirboys.’


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By diplomacy and guile, successive wardens dodged the blows aimed at them by the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the turbulence of the Civil War (during which the rest of Winchester was sacked).

With its ancient buildings, spreading lawns, arcadian surroundings, traditions, its impenetrable tribal language, studious calm and erudite ivory tower-ishness, Winchester is so profoundly English and sequestered that it can inspire nostalgia even in visitors who never went there.

Winchester College. The Cloisters, as they were in the 1860s, photographed by A.W. Bennett in this albumen silver print. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

How to visit Winchester College

The school — with its 11 acres of gardens,  playing fields and 80 listed buildings — is on the southern edge of the city centre of Winchester. Unusually for a working school, guided tours (at £10) are available during the week for interested visitors; they focus on the medieval heart of the school including Chamber Court, Chapel, College Hall, Cloisters and the 17th Century School building. There is also a museum, and on the ‘heritage open days’ in September you can wander through the whole place; entry is free. See for more details.

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