St Peter's School
Older than the House of Commons, older than the Universities, older than the Lord Mayoralty, older than the House of Lords, older even than the throne or nation itself
Arthur F Leach, November 1892
St Peter’s School is the fourth oldest School in the world.
Founded in the Dark Ages of Britain, after the Romans had retreated from our shores and when England was carved up into several kingdoms, much of its early history is sketchily drawn. However, some facts are clear.
St Peter’s School was founded by St Paulinus of York in 627 AD. He founded both the School and York Minster in the same year on the same site. At that time they would of course have looked very different; small wooden buildings in the middle of a compact, ramshackle town on the River Ouse.
The School began to evolve in the 700s. In 705, St John of Beverley became Head Master. A fine library was established at the School around this time by Egbert, the Archbishop of York. This library became renowned throughout England and Europe. Egbert also appointed Aelberht to succeed him as Archbishop and as Master of the School. In 741 disaster struck, and both school and Minster burned down. Both were rebuilt by Archbishop Aelberht. The Archbishop later travelled Europe collecting rare texts, and used them in the St Peter’s curriculum. In 778, Northumbrian scholar Alcuin became Head Master. The pupils (all boys at this time) studied Latin, grammar, rhetoric, time-reckoning, logic, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and natural history as part of a varied classical curriculum.
In 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, the city of York was sacked. William I appointed Thomas of Bayeux as Archbishop and the School flourished.
In 1289 the School changed premises in the first of many moves over its long history. The move took the School from the site of the current nave of the Minster to a house near the Minster’s present east end. Fifty pupils were housed in nearby St Mary’s Abbey.
Around 1350, the Black Death visited the city, plaguing the citizens of York for around twenty years. The population of the town was devastated, and research suggests that the incumbent Schoolmaster was probably a victim of the disease.
In the sixteenth century, the School was given a Royal Charter by Philip and Mary, and in 1557 moved premises to new buildings in the Horsefair, just outside the city walls. Less than twenty years later, in 1575, our most infamous student attended St Peter’s, Gunpowder Plotter Guy Fawkes. The Gunpowder Plot involved Guy and twelve others, including brothers and fellow St Peter’s pupils John and Christopher Wright. The School’s connection with Guy Fawkes continues, with our current location in the Clifton area of York situated on land once owned by the Fawkes family.
In 1644 the school buildings were destroyed in the Siege of York. The boys were moved back inside the city walls and the school continued in Bedern, a former refectory and dormitory for clergy. Bedern Hall still stands and is today a popular wedding and events venue.
After this tumultuous time, a period of stability was ushered in in 1679 as Rev William Thomlinson became Head Master. After a significant period in charge of the School, he died in 1711. In 1718 an Old Peterite was appointed as Poet Laureate. Laurence Eusden (1688-1730, pictured left) has the distinction of being the youngest ever appointee to this role (he was only just 30 years old) but sadly he has been described as the worst Poet Laureate ever and was believed to have obtained the position through flattery rather than the excellence of his verse.
Another period of upheaval started in 1730 when the School briefly moved premises to the Bagnio, a Turkish bath on Coney Street in York, then five years later moved again to the disused church of St Andrew where it remained until 1828. A survey of the School in that time (around 1819) showed that the School only had twenty pupils, having fallen on hard times.
To counteract this, in 1827, Stephen Creyke, a youthful Oxford graduate, was appointed Head Master to save the school. By the time he departed the number of pupils had rocketed to over 100. But his good work was threatened. In 1838, when the cantankerous Rev William Hewson became Head Master, pupil numbers fell again, until 1844 when Hewson was dismissed.
That same year saw a major event in the School's history. St Peter’s School amalgamated with York Proprietary School in Clifton, and as part of the merger it moved to occupy the present site, with its beautiful buildings, just outside the city walls. Pupil numbers increased dramatically.
In 1860, with British fears of a French invasion, St Peter’s became one of the first schools to set up a Cadet group, St Peter’s Company (no. 4 Company, 1st Volunteer Rifle Corps, York). The Combined Cadet Force (CCF) continues to be a part of School life to this day.
St Peter's School day boys with Master George Yeld, 1911
The twentieth century saw the School continue to evolve, starting with the acquisition in 1901 of St Olave’s Prep School. In 1922 the School swimming pool was built, first as an outdoor pool, before being covered over in 1965 - around this time, Old Peterite and film composer John Barry composed multiple James Bond soundtracks. In 1976 there was another big step: the first girls were admitted to the School in the Sixth Form. In that first year there were seven – by 1980 there were twenty three. In 1987 St Peter’s School became co-educational at all levels.
In 1994 the School purchased Clifton School and Nursery, meaning St Peter’s could now provide a seamless, continuous education from ages 3 to 18. In 2001 St Olave’s moved to the Queen Anne site on the lower campus, so all three schools shared the same grounds.
In 2012, the new St Peter’s Swimming Pool won the Lord Mayor’s Architecture Prize in the York Design Awards. In October 2014, the School's new reception area opened and Reception wins York Design Award. Life goes on at the School; buildings are improved, our pupils go on to achieve great things.
The story continues.
Further reading: A History of St Peter's School, York by D H Hamilton and Over Ancient Ways; A Portrait of St Peter's School, York, edited by Richard Drysdale.