It’s hard to think of another educational institution with the historical stature and cultural footprint of Eton College. Over the last several centuries, the independent boys’ boarding school — founded in 1440 by King Henry VI — has produced 19 prime ministers, assorted beloved British actors (including Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, and Damian Lewis), and countless of members of the aristocracy, including, not so long ago, Princes William and Harry.
With its ancient buildings, historic artifacts, and bold-faced alumni, Eton is a lasting emblem of the rarefied world of the British upper class — a demographic that continues to fascinate the American public (witness the current royal wedding mania). But it’s also a place that has changed over time. While continuing to churn out royals and nobles and sons of oligarchs, the school has also become more meritocratic, bringing in students from a wider range of backgrounds.
Still, it’s a world that can appear somewhat inscrutable to outsiders —so we talked to seven Eton graduates of different ages and backgrounds, some of whom attended alongside Harry, about what it was really like to attend the world’s most famous school. Below, they share their experiences and opinions, true stories and campus lore.
Names and some identifying details have been changed to preserve anonymity.
What makes Eton unique?
“You go to Eton knowing full well that it’s not your average school. It’s not like you turn up with no preconceptions on the first day; you don’t know quite what you’re getting into but you know you’re getting into something. But also, for us it was just school — I don’t have anything to compare it to. Yeah, we’d go into a 15th-century chapel for hymns every morning, but that was just a part of school life. All we were concerned with is whether if it was a good hymn that morning. — Andrew, graduated 2014
“It’s pretty Darwinian: either it’s a great place for you and can really help you come out of your shell and find your way, or it devours you and really fucks you up. It was so about finding the thing you’re passionate about and really excelling at it, but it’s a very self-determining place — they sort of give you these rules and you have to figure out how to get round them.” —Jim, graduated 2004
How did you get in?
“My mom’s family for like three generations have gone there. My dad absolutely hated the idea of me going there, because he was like, this is the paragon of everything that’s elitist and awful about England. I was the last year I think where you could still be signed up at birth — you literally would get put down at birth for a certain house. I think I was the first year where you had to take a pre-entrance test. So even though all my family had gone I was considered one of the prols who had to take the test to get in.” — Jim
“I’m from China originally, but I grew up in Scotland since I was 6. It was actually my grandma, who doesn’t even speak English, and read in the Chinese newspaper about this scholarship that Eton offered for people who did well in this exam. And I turned up at this exam when I was 11 and ended up doing quite well.” — Lee, graduated 2012
“They have a test, and it’s a test you can’t really prepare for. It’s almost like a kind of IQ test but not. It’s almost like a game in a way. And then they also have an interview. They’re not looking for the brightest kid — they’re looking for well-rounded people, people with potential.” — Ben, graduated 2012
What are some common stereotypes? And how are they changing?
“Because it’s the most well known, it’s the easiest scapegoat for the sort of negative connotations of public school [an elite private school in England]. But in my experience I find that most people who went there are embarrassed about anyone who gives the impression of being a privileged private school.” — Henry, graduated 2005
“The stereotype is confident, maybe. I think it breeds confident people that the general public might think have a good way of kind of studying something or maybe bullshitting their way through.” — Ben
“The period that Harry and William were there was kind of a major transition from when Eton had gone from being kind of a preserve of the landed gentry where you have a lot of real idiots there, and it was beginning to shift into being a proper academic powerhouse.” — Jim
“Historically, if you were from the right family, whatever that means, you could kind of walk in there even if your kids were dumb as shit. They’ve changed that now massively. Although when I was there, there still was a bit of the ‘Oh, I’m the whatevereth generation in my family who’s been here.’” — Alexander, graduated 2006
“Plenty of students were vehement socialists and absolutely against the idea of the monarchy, ready to join the next revolution and claim the British republic. Something like over 50 percent of the students there were on some sort of financial aid or bursary or scholarship. Yes, you had your vastly wealthy sons of Soviet bloc billionaires, and on the other hand you had people who were really working outrageously hard to afford their kids an opportunity they never had. Those sort of private matters weren’t something you really discussed.” — Andrew
How were the Royals treated?
“William was very integrated. There’s this sort of society in your top year where if you’re kind of popular or beloved by teachers and boys alike you get voted into the Eton society, which is known as ‘Pop,’ and you got to choose your own waistcoat and wear special trousers. William was a Pop so he was like a homecoming-king type, but Harry wasn’t — I think Harry probably had it harder finding his way. The attitude towards them was very matter of fact. The only thing that would really give it away is everyone gets a school calendar and list of all the boys in school, called Fixtures, and it’s this 300-page green booklet that tells you who all the boys are. If you were a lord you’d have a Mister before your name. The princes were HRH. It was funny though because no one gave a shit. I think both William and Harry were just called ‘Wales,’ literally that was what everyone else called them.” — Jim
“Harry was a couple of years above me, I think. They made a big effort to seem like he was a normal person. Obviously he was from the royal family, but I think the school and all the people there wanted to make him feel included. He had normal friends; he used to go to people’s birthday parties. He used to go out with people in London and go to clubs. He had bodyguards but they’d kind of hang in the background and try and let him develop and grow up and live his life as much as possible. I think Eton as well has a tradition of having people there from aristocratic backgrounds, they’re kind of used to dealing with those people and making sure they are integrated properly.” —Alexander
“Its literally a stone’s throw away from Windsor Castle, and every now and again the queen would turn up for something, and we thought, Oh, the queen’s here, thats pretty neat, we all got to stand and wave our little flags and shout three cheers for the queen.” —Andrew
What did you wear?
“Every day, we had to wear pinstripe trousers, black brogues, a black waistcoat, a black tailored coat, and a paper collar — so essentially, mourning dress. And that is technically ’cause we’re still in mourning of the death of King George III. Which is absolutely barmy, but we all love wearing it, to be honest. We’ve been wearing that since like two hundred years. And then when you get to the top year, your uniform gets a bit of a variation depending on which positions of responsibility you assume throughout the school. So if you were in Pop, which is essentially the prefects, you got to design your own waistcoats. Some were sort of geometric and artistic. Most people, if they were a big football fan, got like a retro Chelsea Kit or something.” — Michael, graduated 2017
What was the deal with the House system?
“The school has about 1,300 boys and they’re split up in about 20 something houses of 50 boys each. There’s one particular house which is the oldest one and originally founded by King Henry VII called College, which is the Scholars’ house. If you were admitted under a King’s scholarship, you live in these buildings based round the central chapel dating from the 15th and 16th century. Non-scholars are called Oppidans; they would live in town.” — Lee
“Everyone considers the scholars a whole bunch of weirdos.” - Andrew
“Your life was very determined by what house you were in. When you apply to the school you could choose a few that you wanted to look around, and then you go meet the house master and look around, and you’d both kind of decide if it was a good fit. You could almost see them as different countries with different rulers. The house master and the way they governed the house very much dictated the feeling in the house and the way the older years behaved towards the younger years.” — Alexander
“The princes’ house was known for being the royal house because they both went there. There was also the weed-smoking house, where everyone got in trouble for smoking pot.” — Henry
What is some Eton lingo?
“The big thing with Eton is the way to kind of understand it is to start with its language. It has this whole subterranean language to refer to things: classes were called divs, teachers were called beaks, cigarettes were tabbage.” — Jim
“Chambers is a time after morning classes when you get a 20-minute break and you can get a snack, and you eat it in — I don’t know if this was just for my house — but it’s a place called the Slab.” — Ben
“The bar at school is called Tap. It’s school-run. The parents could preload an account with some money at the beginning of the year once you were 16 or 17. [We can drink underage because] it’s a private institution; the drinking rules in England only apply to commercial public outlets.” — Andrew
What about strange school traditions?
“The wall game is a very important match every year on St. Andrew’s Day, where the College team would play the Oppidan team. It’s played on a pitch about five yards wide, next to a wall, and essentially you just through sheer strength push yourself up to the end of the wall. There are rules, but not very many. It is actually quite miserable to play. There have been two people who have died playing the wall game,” both of whom drowned in the mud.” — Lee
“A hundred years ago pretty much every secondary non-state school in England had its own pack of hounds. Hunting was just something you did in rural England, it was a way to get to know the countryside, sort of a cross-country running club with the addition of hounds. Nowadays obviously with public stigma and the hunting act of 2004, it’s a bit of a different scenario, and there are just three schools that maintain a pack of hounds, one of which is Eton. — Andrew
“There’s a weird challenge called the Paris challenge, you have to get to Paris and back overnight without anyone noticing. Bring a croissant and French paper back with you and read it at the breakfast table. I know of one person who made it.” — Ben
“The night before the 4th of June [where a big celebration takes place] is prank night. People would put salt in the grass and draw a big penis. But they did it in time for the 4th of June — if you know about that trick, it takes about two or three weeks for the grass to die.” — Ben
“There was a tradition that went up until about the ’70s called fagging, where the first year students would basically act as servants for the senior boys, make their breakfast. It was enshrined as an official school policy. It was abolished in the ’70s — you can’t help but feel sorry for the one generation of boys who had to suffer the humility of being fags for the senior boys and never got their own back. It’s not really a thing anymore.” — Andrew