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Inside one of the oldest schools in the world

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The King's School, Canterbury is often described as the oldest school in England and reputedly the world. Such a claim is impossible to verify, but there is at least some justification in associating the school with the origins of Christian education in England. St. Augustine probably established a school shortly after his arrival in Canterbury, Kent in 597AD, and it is from this institution that the modern King's School ultimately grew. In 1997, the school therefore participated fully in the celebrations of the 1400th anniversary of the coming of St. Augustine.

Very little is known about the Canterbury school in the early centuries of its existence. During the Middle Ages, however, there was clearly a school attached to Canterbury Cathedral and run as part of the monastic establishment. There are definite references to headmasters from the later 13th century, but little other evidence of this school's existence survives.

The fully documented history of the school really starts in the 16th century. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the school was re-founded by a Royal Charter in 1541. This established a headmaster, a lower master, and 50 King’s Scholars. The name ‘King’s School’, now used for the first time, thus refers to King Henry VIII. Soon afterwards, through the beneficence of Cardinal Pole, the school moved to the Mint Yard and acquired the Almonry building, on the site of the present Mitchinson’s House, which was used for some 300 years.  

The revived school quickly established its reputation, not least thanks to its first headmaster, John Twyne (c1524-62), and in the next 100 years a number of former pupils (now known as O.K.S. or Old King’s Scholars) achieved national fame. Among these were Christopher Marlowe the playwright contemporary of Shakespeare and author of Dr. Faustus, William Harvey the scientist who discovered the circulation of the blood, and John Tradescant the distinguished gardener and collector.   

It was the Victorian Headmasters George Wallace (1832-59) and especially John Mitchinson (1859-73) who transformed the King’s School into a ‘public school’ with a national reputation. The buildings were improved, most notably with the new schoolroom of 1853, and academic standards raised. 

One other aspect of this Victorian development was the growth of organised sport, with cricket and rugby football the most important. Cricket had been played on a casual basis for some time, and some games were even played on the Green Court as shown in this 1865 photograph.

Despite this growing emphasis on games, the school’s most distinguished old boys were literary figures. Walter Pater, the influential critic, and Hugh Walpole, the popular novelist, are well known. Even more famous is Somerset Maugham, who wrote about his schooldays in Of Human Bondage, where the school is thinly disguised as ‘The King’s School, Tercanbury’.

The modern development of the school was largely the achievement of Canon John ('Fred') Shirley, who became headmaster in 1935 when the school was suffering from the effects of the Depression. Through his dynamism and financial skill, he saw the school expand rapidly in numbers from about 200 to about 600 pupils in some 30 years. He also acquired and built several more buildings in the Precincts. In his time, too, the school survived the war-time evacuation to Cornwall and received a new Royal Charter from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1946. Above all, the school grew in reputation, thanks to its academic, sporting and cultural success. 'King's Week', the festival of music and drama at the end of the summer term, was started in 1952.

It is no surprise that modern O.K.S. have achieved fame in a variety of fields, including literature (Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Michael Morpurgo); music (Harry Christophers and Christopher Seaman); politics (Lord Garel-Jones and the Powell brothers, Charles and Jonathan); and sport (David Gower and Frances Houghton), as well as in business, journalism, science, education - in this country and around the world.

In recent years, this development and modernisation has continued apace. The school now has over 820 pupils, aged 13 to 18. The most significant change came when girls first joined the sixth-form in the early 1970s, and the school has been fully co-educational since 1990. In 2000, the school welcomed the first children both of whose parents were O.K.S. Today the thirteen boarding houses are mostly scattered around the Cathedral Precincts, in buildings dating from the 13th century Meister Omers to Kingsdown House, opened in 2015. There are three houses in the nineteenth century St. Augustine's College, next to the ruins of the medieval St. Augustine's Abbey. The rest of the school buildings are a similar mixture of old and new. The main classroom block is in a former medieval brewery and bakehouse, an art centre was recently opened in the converted Blackfriars, drama takes place in the converted medieval St. Mary's Hall, and there is a sports centre, whose foundation stone was laid by David Gower. The Edred Wright Music School opened in 2009.