In 1843, a group of Church of England clergymen, with the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, were looking to found a boarding school with the prime purpose of educating the sons of clergy. Hearing that the Castle Inn at Marlborough was vacant, they took a lease on it and so Marlborough College started in August 1843 with the admission of its first 199 boys.
First Fifty Years
The intention was that the school should have a maximum of 500 boys and that roughly one third of these should be the sons of laity, who would be charged more (initially 50 guineas a year) to subsidise the clergy children (30 guineas a year). The College reached its target of 500 boys by 1848, but conditions were extremely Spartan and, apart from their studies, the boys were relatively neglected. Resentment built up, culminating in November 1851 with the Marlborough “Rebellion”, as a result of which pupil numbers declined and the first Master of the College, Matthew Wilkinson, resigned. With the College now heavily in debt, its future was in jeopardy.
Fortunately, the next two Masters (George Cotton 1852-58 and George Bradley 1858-70) proved to be inspiring Heads. Both came to us from Rugby School and brought with them all the reforms which had been pioneered there by Dr Arnold. By 1870, the College’s reputation both for scholarship and as a forward-looking, Christian boarding school was established. Over the best part of the next hundred years the College was seen as a school which provided a reliable stream of able young men to the professions, the armed forces, the Church and all walks of public life, both in the U.K. and abroad.
Marlborough has never been frightened of change. Numerous academic initiatives have been fostered at the College (for example, Business Studies, SMP Maths, Combined Science, Pre-U examination syllabuses and the teaching of Arabic and Chinese). In 1968 Marlborough was one of the first of the traditional boys’ boarding schools to admit girls into the Sixth Form.
In 1989, the College became fully co-educational with the admission of girls into the Lower School and with the establishment of the first of the all-girl boarding houses.
Today the College caters for 936 pupils (of which just over 40% are girls) and the great majority of whom (98%) are boarders. These are accommodated in 16 boarding houses of which six are all-girl houses and six are all-boy houses. The remaining four “Out-College” houses accommodate 13-16 year old boys, plus a mixed Sixth Form of both girls and boys.
The Marlborough Mound (some 20 metres high and about 100 metres in diameter at its base) is the oldest landmark in the College grounds.
The Mound is roughly contemporary with the still larger Silbury Hill, some five miles to the west of Marlborough and around 4,500 years old. Then, from 1068 the Normans started to build a castle here, digging a moat to surround the Marlborough Mound and a large area to the south of it. The castle reached the peak of its importance in Henry III’s time, Parliament enacting “The Statutes of Marlborough” there in 1267.
Although the castle (having no further military significance) was allowed to decay, its estate stayed in Royal hands until the time of Henry VIII. When the latter married Jane Seymour the estate was given to Jane’s brother, Edward, who became the 1st Duke of Somerset.
Successive members of the Seymour family lived in a house which the family built close to the site of the old castle. At the end of the 17th Century the 6th Duke of Somerset, having acquired Petworth House in Sussex through marriage, moved there with his wife and, in due course, demolished the old Seymour house at Marlborough in which he had grown up.
By 1711 the Duke had built another house on the old Marlborough site which he gave to his son, Algernon, Lord Hertford, and the latter moved into it in 1718, shortly after his marriage to Frances Thynne of Longleat.
The Hertfords lived happily at Marlborough, raising two children and with Lady Hertford creating a fine garden to the south of a Grotto which she had constructed at the foot of the Mound.
With the death of Lord Hertford (later, the 7th Duke of Somerset) in 1750, the old house at Marlborough was leased out as a very fashionable coaching inn which served the gentry flocking from London to Bath at the peak of its fame. Over the next ninety years, famous visitors at the Castle Inn included Prime Minister William Pitt (Lord Chatham) and the Duke of Wellington.
The building of the railways in the early 1840s led to the rapid demise of the coaching business and the Castle Inn closed in January 1843, prior to the foundation of Marlborough College.
Ancient secrets of Merlin’s Barrow unearthed
The Mound lies in the heart of the grounds of Marlborough College, and has been interwoven with local folklore for hundreds of years. The town’s motto, Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini (‘Where now are the bones of wise Merlin?’), echoes the myth which convinced generations that Merlin’s bones were buried under the Mound. These were the seductive Arthurian legends that may have drawn the interest of Tennyson and William Morris back to their connections with Marlborough and its Mound – or ‘Merlin’s Barrow’, as the burghers of the town claimed.
Not only has the Mound stimulated some of the region’s most enduring threads of mythology, it has also been recognised as a feature of considerable historical significance. It was the motte on which the keep of Marlborough Castle was built fifty years after the Norman Conquest. Subsequently, it became the centrepiece of a major seventeenth century garden. The latest research, however, has extended its history back by three millennia.
Recent coring of the Mound at Marlborough College has produced four samples of charcoal, allowing radiocarbon dating for the first time. The samples, which came from different levels in the Mound, were taken from two bore holes through the height of the 19m monument, showing that it was built in the years around 2400 BC. This is the first positive evidence proving the theory that the castle motte is in fact a re-used prehistoric structure of the highest national standing.
Jim Leary, who led the recent archaeological investigations for English Heritage at the nearby Silbury Hill, and is co-author of the recently published ‘The Story of Silbury Hill’ coordinated EH’s contribution, which also included radiocarbon dating. He says, “This is an astonishing discovery. The Marlborough Mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape. For centuries people have wondered whether it is Silbury’s little sister; and now we have an answer. This is a very exciting time for British prehistory.”
The Master of Marlborough College is equally enthusiastic: ‘We are thrilled at the discovery of another aspect of our rich history, and one which can be added to the educational opportunities at the school.’
The work is part of a major conservation programme being undertaken by the Marlborough Mound Trust, specially formed at the invitation of the College. The chairman of the Trust says that ‘the inspiration for this was our founder Eric Elstob, a former pupil at the College, whose generous legacy has provided the means for this work. He would have been totally delighted by this news.’
Note: As part of the College grounds, the Mound is strictly on private property. For further details please contact: Donald Insall Associates, 7A Northumberland Buildings, Queen Square, BATH, BA1 2JB Telephone: 01225 469898 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Marlborough Mound Film – click here
Why was the Mound built and how did the local topography affect the choice of position? – click here
BBC Points West – The Marlborough Mound – click here
The Marlborough Mound Castle Reconstruction – click here