Christ’s Hospital has always enjoyed a close relationship with both Royalty and with the City of London, and many of the more enduring customs and traditions which are unique to CH originate from these connections. Until 1854 the President of CH was always the Lord Mayor, or an Alderman, of the City of London, and since 1854 there has been a long succession of Royal Presidents, and The late Queen was the school’s Patron. A loyal address by the senior pupil, given during the first official royal visit to, or through, the City of London has been accepted by 12 of the 19 monarchs since CH was founded, including by both Queen Elizabeth I in 1559 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Other traditions which date from the first decade of CH’s existence include the following:
A Spital Sermon is attended annually by the Head, Governors and pupils of both CH and of King Edward’s Witley (which was originally founded as Bridewell). The first appearance in public of CH pupils wearing the bluecoat uniform was at a Spital Sermon in 1553;
St Matthew’s Day (21 September) is an important day in the school calendar. This was the day on which, from at least 1557, the names of the Governors of the Royal hospitals of St Bartholomew’s, Christ’s, Bridewell, Bethlem and St Thomas were given to the Lord Mayor for ceremonial approval. The choir, band and senior pupils traditionally travel to London on a date close to 21 September for a service in a City church and to receive largesse from the Lord Mayor;
Admission and Discharge Registers record details of each pupil’s admission and discharge from the school from 1563. Handwritten registers were maintained until 1999;
Paintings have always been commissioned which celebrate people and events in CH history. These include contemporary portraits of the Founder, King Edward VI, of Benefactors from the 16th century onwards and of Treasurers, Headmasters and Headmistresses. Many paintings adorn the main buildings in the school, including, in the Dining Hall, one of the largest paintings in the world. This was completed in 1690 to commemorate the Foundation of the Royal Mathematical School in 1673, measures 26 metres by 5 metres and is known simply as The Verrio, after its painter. In the Chapel there are 16 large murals, depicting incidents in the history of the Christian Church, which were painted by Sir Frank Brangwyn between 1913 and 1923.
More recent customs include the following:
The School Band, which plays four days a week when all the pupils march into lunch and which also plays at ceremonial functions, was founded in 1868;
The Lord Mayor’s show has been attended by the school band annually since 1981;
Founder’s Day is celebrated on 23 October with an annual Founder’s Day dinner, at which there are tributes to The Pious and Immortal Memory of King Edward VI and to Church and Queen. The toast to The Royal and Ancient Foundation of Christ’s Hospital derives from a prayer written for CH around 1705;
The Votum, which is sung at the Founder’s Day dinner, is the Latin section of a song called Carmina, which was written in 1889 and which was performed for the first time on Speech Day that year;
The Tower of London offers free entry to pupils wearing their bluecoat uniform. The origins of this tradition are uncertain, although it was written about by Charles Lamb, a pupil in the 1780s;
Speech Day, usually attended by the Lord Mayor and including an oration by the Senior Grecian, has been held in the Summer term since 1871, prior to which orations were given on St Matthew’s Day;
The Leaving Service, on the last day of term, includes a presentation to each leaving pupil of a Bible inscribed with the words The Gift of the Governors of Christ’ Hospital. The earliest Leaving Bible in the school’s archives was presented in 1831, although the custom may have begun a few years earlier;
The Charge is read by the Head to leaving pupils: I charge you never to forget the great benefits that you have received in this place, and in time to come, according to your means, to do all that you can to enable others to enjoy the same advantage. And remember that you carry with you, wherever you go, the good name of Christ’s Hospital.
Beating Retreat is the final ceremony of the school year and says farewell to leaving pupils. It was first performed at CH in 1943 and has been an annual feature since 1948.