On July 11, 1441, on his way to Bordeaux, Thomas Bekynton, secretary to King Henry VI and soon-to-be Bishop of Bath and Wells, found himself on a ship becalmed in the Bay of Biscay. In response, he vowed an offering to the Blessed Virgin of Eton and persuaded others on board to sing an antiphon in her honour. A favourable wind arose and Bekynton was on his way again.

Eton and Mary? In a game of word association, it is a link that very few of us would make. Privilege, prime ministers, Waterloo, yes. But the Blessed Virgin?

The first known reference to the parish church of St Mary of Eton dates from 1198. In 1440, the year before Thomas Bekynton’s trip to France, Henry VI decided that it was to be “raised, transformed and converted into the Collegiate Church of the Blessed Mary of Eton next to Windsor”. Eton held two attractions for the king. First, it was “not far from our birthplace”. And, second, its church was dedicated “under the name of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin, to which feast we are very attached”.

But, in the words of the late Robert Birley, historian and former headmaster of the college, Henry’s action in making the parish church collegiate “did not institute the special reverence paid to the Virgin of Eton”. Instead, the king was recognising something that already existed.

In any case, the history of Eton College was now underway. It was one of any number of “colleges” that sprung up around England whose main purpose usually was to maintain Masses and prayers for the souls of the founders and others named by them. But very often they also provided almshouses for the elderly and education in grammar for boys. Birley concluded that the school at Eton was the direct continuation of the chantry school run by priests responsible for the chapel dedicated to St Nicholas in the parish church, where, at one end, the first schoolroom of Eton was built. (The almshouse, meanwhile, did not outlive the founder himself.)

What also got under way in 1440 was Eton’s short but intriguing history as one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in England. In May 1441, Henry obtained a bull granting to all penitents visiting Eton on the feast of the Assumption indulgences equal to those that might be received in Rome on the feast of St Peter ad Vincula. The following year, Pope Eugenius IV made these indulgences plenary. However, the licence for them was limited to the lifetime of the founder and three quarters of the offerings were to go to the defence of Christendom against the Turks. Henry wanted more.

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