An Amusing Anecdote of Westminster School

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College Hall, Westminster School, by Hanslip Fletcher, 1926.

The Reverend T. Selby Henrey’s 1922 volume, Good Stories from Oxford and Cambridge, is a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes. An oft-repeated account of Dr Busby hosting King Charles II at Westminster School in London is one of my favorites. The Reverend Dr Richard Busby was headmaster of the School for fifty-seven years between 1638 and 1695. The story goes:

Charles II on a certain time paying a visit to Dr Busby, the Doctor strutted through the schoolroom with his hat on his head, while His Majesty walked complaisantly behind him with his hat under his arm; but when he was taking his leave at the door, the Doctor, with great humility, then addressed the King, “I hope Your Majesty will excuse my want of respect hitherto; but if my boys were to imagine there was a greater man in the kingdom than myself, I should never be able to rule them.”

Busby had a reputation for strict discipline. In his Critical Dictionary of English Literature, Samuel Austin Allibone, writes, “He declared that the rod was his sieve, and that whoever could not pass through that, was no boy for him.” So many of the great men of the age endured this passage that Busby and his rod entered popular lore. Years later Joseph Addison’s fictional country squire, Sir Roger de Coverley, who appeared in the pages of The Spectator, said, “Dr Busby, a great man! he whipped my grandfather; a very great man! I should have gone to him myself, if I had not been a blockhead.”

A strange phenomenon attended Dr Busby’s death in 1695. Sir Charles Lyttelton related, “an od story, that ye people in ye street, when he was expiring, saw flashes and sparks of fire come out of his window, which made them run into ye house to put it out, but when they were there saw none, nor did they of ye house.”

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