“Let us, according to our bounden duty, thankfully commemorate before Almighty God our pious Benefactors, by whose noble liberality the Glory of God has been advanced, Godliness and good learning fostered among us, and this our School endowed with special benefits and enlarged with manifold and singular privileges.
Be it first recorded that in the XIIth Century this our School, then belonging to the Canons Secular of the Church of St Paul, was by Deed Poll of Nicholas, Archdeacon of Bedford, surrendered to the Prior and Convent of Newnham in Bedford, by whom it was maintained until the dissolution of the convent in the year 1540.
The School was then continued by the Mayor, Bailiffs, Burgesses and Commonality of Bedford; who appointed Edmund Greene, Fellow of New College, its Master, in the year 1548; and were authorised by letters patent of King Edward VI in the year 1552 to establish a free and perpetual Grammar School and to hold lands for the sustentation of a Master and Usher and for the continuance of the School forever.”
About 40% of you have already heard this this weekend. It is, of course, the opening few paragraphs to the commemoration at our Founders and Benefactors Chapel service. It goes on to tell the story of William Harpur and his wife, Dame Alice, who left some land to the school in 1566, so that the rents from that land could enable the school to survive forever (and it has), and to say thank you to them and to all other benefactors of the school.
Yesterday, therefore, marks an important, perhaps key, part of our school calendar, one of our primary opportunities to remember the past of this school and those who have served it. The words of the commemoration I just read are a bit of a handful, but they form a tradition that reaches back for decades. A similarly important occasion follows in about a month’s time, Remembrance Sunday, which seeks obviously to remember those who died in wars gone by, but for us it seeks to remember in particular old Bedfordians and others connected to the school.
As a school, we are so often looking forward – you are all young and you have lives ahead of you; and I like to think that there is a fair bit left for some of us, too. In that education provides, to some extent at least, a preparation for that life, by its nature it must be forward-looking – and a number of my assemblies this year have sought to encourage us all to think ahead, to prepare for adulthood. However, it is just as important to understand where you have come from – and I do not simply mean in the last ten years, but in the previous decades and centuries. Traditions are built over long periods, and what we have seen at Founders and Benefactors and what we will see at Remembrance have been woven into our fabric over time; they, and the messages they bring, are part of who we are. Those who played rugby on Saturday will also be aware of that, because the Dulwich fixture dates back to the 19th century; you were metaphorically treading in the footsteps of your great great grandfathers. It was appropriate therefore that Budge Rogers, an Old Bedfordian who captained England in the 1960s and 70s, and played for the Barbarians and British Lions, chose the Dulwich match to visit his old school. What was particularly nice about his return was 2 things: his interest in the current players (he met with them and watched them) and the fact that two of his old Bedford School team from 1957, including the man he called “my captain” returned to the school with him. They all remembered their game against Dulwich 60 years ago. Even as an international, he told the parents that his schoolboy rugby days were the most important of his career. These lifelong connections are important; and are made possible by preserving the best of tradition, as well as forging new ways for the future.
So in summary, it is worth just taking a moment to consider that this school has been going for 450 years – or possibly even, if you believe the commemoration, since the 12th Century. How many businesses do you know that have been going for 450 years? I can think of none remotely close. How many schools have thrived for that long? Very few – in fact, we could lay claim, with some justification, to being the 2nd oldest boys’ boarding school in the country. My point is this. Tradition matters; it binds us together; and it is so important to respect it. When we gather for assembly; when we hear the choir sing in Chapel; when we step out on to the field of play, or cheer on our team; when we file into this wonderful school, on a bad day or a good day, in a bad mood or a good mood, we do not do so on our own – we do so with the confidence that many have done so before. It is our job to enrich and enhance the school while we are here, so that many can do so again in the future.