Heroum Filii

On 5 November 1852, nearly two months after the death of the 1st Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert met with the Prime Minister, Edward Geoffrey Stanley, Lord Derby, to discuss a national memorial for the Iron Duke. Queen Victoria wrote,

“Lord Derby came to see us a little after 5 and stayed for nearly two hours. He first read a paper, on which he had sketched the plan for a monument to the memory of the dear late Duke of Wellington, which is to be a college or a school for the education, gratuitous or nearly so, for the orphans of Officers.”

The word ‘gratuitous’ is striking and does not, of course, carry its modern meaning of ‘unnecessary’ or ‘done without good reason’. The Latin word gratia means ‘goodwill’ or ‘favour’ and can often carry the meaning ‘out of the goodness of one’s heart’ or even ‘without asking a fee’. It is the root of our word ‘gratitude’, a notion which this year’s College Prefects have added as an honorary sixth core value at Wellington, and the phrase gratias agere, as any Third Former will tell you, means ‘to give thanks’.

Queen Victoria’s use of the adjective ‘gratuitous’ therefore encapsulates a number of concepts which are inextricably linked within the very foundation of our wonderful school: the creation of a living memorial to the late Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington; the building of a school which was to offer an education for free, “or nearly so” for boys who had suffered hardship and misfortune; and a desire not just to commemorate but to give thanks both to the Great Duke and to those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. No wonder the motto HEROUM FILII – “the sons of heroes” (or, in our coeducational context, “the children of heroes”) is inscribed in stone in our front quad.

Fast-forward to the present day and this week therefore connects us back to the very foundation of the College through two events: Remembrance and Giving Week. I wrote in my letter to parents on Friday with details of how the College will commemorate the lives of those 725 Wellingtonians and Wellington staff who were killed in the Great War – true heroes of their age. Like so many things in 2020, we have had to adapt to the challenge of COVID-19, but so many of our traditional events will still go ahead, and rightly so.

It is also important we remember that Wellington College was founded to educate children from backgrounds of loss and misfortune, and that this education was to be “gratuitous or nearly so”, in the words of Queen Victoria. This lofty aim remains at the heart of my and the Governors’ vision for the school both through the original Foundation and also through the Prince Albert Foundation, which supports young people of potential from backgrounds of limited means through a Wellington education.

We will not be able to do so, however, without the ongoing support and generosity of the Wellington Community and, to this end, I would like to pass on my gratitude to everyone who has engaged and continues to engage with our work in this area. Your efforts ensure that Wellington College will continue to operate in the future in a manner which is true to the very purpose of its foundation nearly 170 years ago.

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