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Alfred J. Church

Of My Sojourn at Eton

On the fourth day of September, in the year of our Lord 1450, I, having then ten years of age, was entered of the college of Eton, the which college King Henry, sixth of the name, had founded nine years before. I was the elder son of one William Aylmer, Serjeant-at-law, a learned man, as would be testified by others who speak without the partiality of a son, but of a small estate. He had been like to be made a judge of the realm in due course, being not learned only, but of such honesty as never was questioned in matters small or great (for, as Sallust hath it, while it is seen of some how vile they are even in a small matter of money, others are discovered only in some great thing). Courteous also was he, so that there were none that knew him but had a favour for him. But it pleased God that he should never have this promotion; for, being present at the trial of certain prisoners that had lain in the prison of Newgate for the space of six months and more, he was stricken with fever (as was also the judge and three officers of the court, and of the counsellors and attorneys twenty at the least) and died presently, being then scarce forty years of age. Five children did he leave orphans, three maids and two boy-children, of whom I was the elder. Now my mother, being of the family of Patten, was of the kindred of William of Waynflete, whom, in the year of our Lord 1443, king Henry did make Provost of Eton; and she, being sore burdened with the charge of her children, made application to the said William, being then Bishop of Winchester, for help in the rearing of them; and this he gave without grudging or delay, being of a most liberal temper, as is testified and proved, not only by his right noble and pious foundation of Magdalen College at Oxford, but also—for some that do great alms in public are mean and grudging in private matters—by many good deeds done secretly. To my mother he appointed a pension of thirty marks by the year, making it a charge on certain lands of his own; and this he did, not only as considering the frailty of human life and the uncertainty of mortal things, but because he would not that the revenue of a bishop should be burdened with any charge of his own kindred. And it is convenient that I here set down what this said most worthy bishop hath done for my own people. Joan, that was the eldest, he gave in marriage to one Thomas Bradgate, a counsellor learned in the law. The said Thomas had been wont in time past to learn of my father things that appertained to the study of the law, and when he was of age to plead in the courts had not ceased to consort with him as with one that was wiser than himself. And so it came to pass that he conceived a great love for my sister Joan, though indeed she was little more than a child. To him, therefore, was she given in marriage two years after the death of my father, the bishop aforesaid furnishing her with a dower of two hundred marks. The like liberality did he bestow upon my sister Margery, that was married, in the year next following, to one Philip Staples, that was a yeoman in the county of Worcester, and having a fair estate of three hundred acres, of which fifty were orchard, and rich beyond all other lands in the said county, as he was wont to affirm. My third sister, Alice, having a call to the religious life, was entered as a novice in the nunnery of Godstow, which is hard by the city of Oxford. Of her I shall have occasion to speak hereafter. My brother James, that was younger than I by two years, was bound apprentice to Master Kingsley, a mercer of the City of London, and hath married the said Kingsley's daughter, and is in all respects a prosperous citizen.

And now I will speak of myself. The said Bishop William procured me to be named one of the King's scholars in the college of Eton, the number of the said scholars being three-score and ten. Of these I was indeed the latest come, but not the youngest in years, for some had not more than eight years of age, nor the least advanced in learning. This last advantage I owed to the care of my father, who did not suffer himself to be hindered by any business of his own from teaching me. So it was that when I was admitted to the college of Eton I knew the accidence of the Latin tongue, so that I would scarce fail therein, and could read with understanding some of the easier portions of the Sorrows of Ovid, yea, and could make shift, with some help given, to put together a distich of Latin. And, indeed, there were not many so well furnished as I, at least of the younger sort, so that it came to pass that, whereas others of my years were put in charge of the usher, I was taught of the upper master. Nor was this only a help to me in my learning, but it did also set me free from certain servile tasks, as the cleaning of chambers, fetching of water, making of fires in the winter season, and the like, which did fall on such as were of lower place in the school. Verily I remember this time with much pleasure, and shall not count it lost labour if I do set down in order some of the things, both of earnest and of sport, which it was then our custom to do.

Our manner of life, then, was this. There were, as I have said, threescore scholars and ten; and, out of these, four were appointed to be præpositi, or "prepositors," as it may be writ in English. We did all sleep in one great chamber, and one of the said four prepositors had the charge of the chamber for a week, and, when the week was ended, another, and so till each had discharged his duty. In the morning, then, at five of the clock, the prepositor that had authority for the time cried with a thundering voice, "Surgite," that is to say, "Rise." Then we did rise altogether, for it fared ill with any that would ape the sluggard and seek a little more folding of the hands to sleep, and we put on our clothing, saying aloud meanwhile certain prayers. These being ended, each made his own bed, and swept under and about it, so that no dust or foulness should remain. And all that was so swept was gathered together in heaps, which heaps four of the scholars, appointed thereunto by the prepositor, would carry away to the appointed place. After this we went in order, walking two and two, to wash our hands. And our hands being washed, we entered into the school-chamber and took each his proper place. At six of the clock came in the usher and said certain prayers kneeling and heard such things as had been learned over night, according as time might serve, beginning with the lowest place. Meanwhile one of the prepositors wrote down the names of such as had been absent, if any there were, and gave them to the usher; and another scanned diligently the faces and hands of the younger sort, so that none should come to his tasks unwashen. And if he found any such, he wrote down their names and gave them to the upper master.

Our manner of learning was this. The master of the school would give forth in a loud voice certain sentences in the vulgar tongue. These sentences such as were of the fourth class would render into Latin, and such as were of the fifth would enlarge as their wits might prompt, and the sixth and seventh, being the highest in place, would arrange in order of verse. At other times he would read from a book, making choice of such passages as for easiness might best suit the capacity of them that he taught. And what he read his scholars would write down; and when they had got such an understanding of it as that they might, they would gather therefrom aught that was noteworthy—proverbs, to wit, or similitudes, or histories of notable places or persons, and the like. For the younger scholars the upper master would read the Sorrows of Ovid and Virgil's Pastorals, and for the elder Virgil's Æneid and the Letters of Cicero. At eleven of the clock we ate, though, indeed, the most took occasion to have something before. In the afternoon we did for the most part rehearse such things as we had learned in the morning. At six of the clock, I do remember, certain of the elder scholars that were set to this task by the masters did teach the younger. At seven of the clock we supped, and after this, permission having been given, played awhile, and so to bed.

On Friday there was inquisition had of such as had done amiss during the week past, that they might suffer due punishment. To these, verily, it was a day of dread, for Rhadamanthus himself, whom the ancients did feign to be the judge of the dead, was not more stern than the upper master, who, though he chastised not the guilty with the snakes of the Furies, yet did with his birch rods exact full penalty of guilt. But to them that had acquitted themselves well, it was a day to be highly esteemed, seeing that our tasks were lightened.

At certain seasons also of the year there was given to us some indulgence. Thus, on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (being the twenty-fifth day of the month of January), or on some other day at that season, as the weather and other occasions might serve, we went to a certain place named the Mount. There did we take all scholars that had been added to the foundation during the year last past, whom, having first sprinkled with salt, we did afterwards handle with such wit (which in the Latin tongue is sal, salt) as we could command. And it was permitted to us to say what we would, so only it was said in Latin, and had a certain elegance, and lacked scurrility. Yet I doubt me much whether the thing was pleasing to the said new corners, who did oftentimes add yet another kind of salt, shedding salt tears. And at one of the clock we returned to the college and played till the hour of sleep.

Also on the first day of May, those that would might rise at four of the clock and gather boughs of hawthorn wherewith to adorn the windows of the chamber, provided only that they did not come thereinto with feet wetted or muddied.

Also in September, on some day that the master did appoint, we would go into the woods to gather nuts, which we did with great mirth and jollity. But first it was demanded of us that we should make verses in the Latin tongue, praising the fertility of autumn.

Also in November, on the day of St. Hugh, sometime Bishop of Lincoln, we chose a boy bishop, who did hold a visitation, and pass censure on such as seemed to have offended against the scholars in the year past; yea, and performed also a certain semblance of the mass. Writing this I am minded of another custom touching holy things that seemeth worthy of note, namely, that on the night of Easter Eve three or four of the elder scholars, chosen by the master, at the asking of him that had charge of the chapel, watched with candles of wax and torches, as though they watched at the tomb of the Lord, lest the Jews should steal the body.

At Christmas-tide we had also much mirth and sport. And once in the year we were suffered to depart to our homes, or, if the said homes were too far distant, to the houses of such friends as were willing to receive us. This licence was given to us on the Feast of the Ascension; only a charge was laid on us that we should return to the college on the eve of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Such as came not back at the appointed hour were beaten with rods of birch; but if any were absent yet longer, their place in the college was altogether taken from them. So it came to pass that, if Easter fell as early as it may, we had near upon three weeks of holiday; but if, on the other hand, it fell at latest—that is to say, on the twenty-sixth day of April—we had none.

Many things might I write concerning my sojourn in this said school of Eton: how we did swim in the Thames, which is here a right noble and beautiful stream, also how we did angle therein, and catch no small abundance of trout and other fishes; for indeed there is no river in all Christendom, as I have heard say, that hath greater plenty of fish than Thames. And indeed I mind me to this day of a certain great trout that had ten pounds and a half of weight, which I did catch by the mill of Master Roger at Windsor. For an hour and more was I striving with the monster, which had well-nigh drawn me into the water, as the holy youth Tobit was well-nigh drawn. Once also I verily thought he had escaped me, having wound my angling line round a perilous great post that is the mill-tail. Yet at the last, to my great joy, I handled him, Master Miller helping with a net, for he loved ever that the scholars should take their pleasure in angling, so that they first asked his grace. This great fish did I give to the upper master, deeming that it could not worthily be served at a less honourable table; and he called me and four other of the scholars with me to supper. And he gave us a flask, yea, if my memory serveth, two flasks, of Malmsey wine; and we had much pleasant talk with him, sitting at table till ten of the clock, for it was the Feast of St. John at the Latin Gate, when a certain licence beyond the usual is allowed. Verily, as the poet hath it, "these things it delighteth me to remember," only I may not spend too much time upon them, having weightier matters whereof to write.

Yet is there one other thing that I must needs tell. In the month of March, in the year 1452, I, with some seven or eight other of the scholars, did enter into the garden of the King's castle at Windsor. And this we were suffered to do, for the King, having a great kindness for his scholars of Eton, would have it so; only it was laid upon us a charge that we should not thrust ourselves into such places as the King himself was wont to frequent. Now, whether we had forgotten this charge, as indeed as boys are apt to forget, or whether the King had wandered beyond the walks wherein he was wont to keep himself, I know not; but so it fell that we came upon him unawares, while he stood looking into a little pool that there is in the garden. There was no one in his company save one little page boy of ten years or thereabouts. Nor had he any of the state of a king. On his head he had a plain cap of blue velvet, very dark of hue, without feather or jewel or badge. His doublet was of black silk, and his mantle of silk also, dark blue, and his hosen black. Nor did he carry any sword or dagger in his girdle; but he had a book in his hand. Now, when we came upon him, and this, as I have written, we did unawares, turning a corner suddenly, we made as though we would have fled, but he beckoned to us that we should stay. And when we had made our obeisance he talked with us, questioning us of our books, yea, and of our sports also. And when he had ended his questioning he said as to himself, in a low voice, but so that we heard him, "Happy ye that are simple scholars, and have not laid upon you this grievous charge of a crown;" and after, in a louder voice, "Be ye good boys, be gentle and tractable and servants of the Lord." Then he gave to each one of us a quarter-mark, and bade us God-speed. A comely face he had, but of a woman rather than a man; and his regard was sad, and at times, methought, did wander somewhat; and indeed, not many weeks after, he was for a time distraught. Verily, if I may say so much without arraigning of Him that doth order all things, he was ill set upon a throne. He had done better as a monk, for he loved books and learning and quiet ways. Also he was a lover of God, and walked purely and discreetly all his days; but to deal with affairs of state, and to lead armies, and to keep the peace between turbulent men that sought each his own advantage—these things he could not do. And so it fell out that though there never sat on this throne of England a more pious and godly prince, yet never hath there been King under whom the realm hath suffered more grievous loss and damage. I pray that God lay not this evil to his charge, but rather reckon to him that he ever loved learning and virtue and true religion.