The last chapter of this book is titled "Establishment school", which Eton popularly is and certainly was in "the period of 250 years from 1714 in which the political influence of old Etonians was, generally speaking, unmatched". Tim Card, who was an Etonian man and boy - from 1944 to 1999 - has already, in Eton Renewed , told the tale of the school's latter phase, from 1860 to the present day. Here we get the earlier stuff.
We do head towards the 19th century rather rapidly, however - 1800 is reached within 100 pages. En route there is a bold attempt to rehabilitate Henry VI and a lot on William Waynflete, who kept the place going during the Wars of the Roses, although perhaps this is a pity for those who would like to think it was pleading by Edward IV's grande horizontale , Jane Shore. It is left unresolved as to whether the disgraced playwright-headmaster of 1560, Nicholas Udall, author of Ralph Roister Doister , fell foul of authority through buggery or burglary.
Eton's 16th-century timetable is described: boys rose at 5am, said prayers as they dressed, washed under the pump and began formal prayers with the lower master at 6am. There followed a variety of translation exercises until bed at 8pm. Only feast days offered respite, and May 6, the Feast of St John before the Latin Gate, must have been a favourite - "The Latin Gate affords us play, and sleep and ale to mark the day."
The entrance qualification in the 1620s was not too steep: Quod est tibi nomen? Quot annos natus es? Quo oppido? Indeed, at times one wonders from this book whether the Etonians of these centuries learnt much. There is the story of Dr Johnson asking one Etonian, Ralph Plumbe, son of the lord mayor of London: "'Who then was the great Carthaginian general?' - 'Pygmalion, I think,' says he, 'or Agamemnon, I forget which'."
The book gives a fair portrait of the school that produced Horace Walpole, Arthur Wellesley, William Pitt the Elder (although not the Younger, since his father thought it suitable only for the rougher boy) and Charles Fox, who left "too witty to live there, and a little too wicked" but at least having acquired the sort of friends who would pay off his enormous gambling debts.
For Card, 1826 is an important year. Of 562 Etonians, 43 became MPs, 15 civil servants, the same number went to India, 40 took army commissions, two became sea captains, 50 barristers, eight bankers, five doctors and 15 academics. One was to own a lunatic asylum. Only three took part in the industrial revolution - one coal magnate, one iron founder and one manufacturer - "a most serious deficiency". But Card would have it that by then Eton had begun to change. Flogging had become rarer, swimming tests had reduced the numbers of boys drowning; cricket and beagle packs made an appearance. If there were those such as Percy Bysshe Shelley who hated their time there - or perhaps felt they should have done - between 200 and 300 a year still turned out to an Old Etonian dinner in London. Even those such as the future prime minister, Lord Salisbury, who disliked Eton still sent their sons there. Eton had indeed become a school for its own constituency - for better or worse, the Establishment School.
Andrew Robinson teaches history at Eton College.
Eton Established: A History from 1440 to 1860
Author - Tim Card
ISBN - 0 7195 6052 7
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £22.50
Pages - 212