The School originally became a public school (and so available to all members of the public, provided that they could pay for tuition costs) in 1179, as the educational part of the Roman Catholic Abbey at Westminster, the Benedictine monks being required to provide a small charity school by decree of Pope Alexander III.
However, this arrangement changed in 1540, when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the Benedictine Monasteries of the Catholic Church in England, the King ensuring the School's survival by statute, becoming The College of St. Peter and carrying on, with forty "King's Scholars" funded from the royal purse. Although during Queen Mary I's brief reign the Abbey was reinstated as a Roman Catholic monastery, it was redissolved on Queen Elizabeth I's accession, and neither of these events had a major impact on the School.
Elizabeth I formally founded the School as a separate body in 1560 with an endowment to keep 40 "Queen's Scholars" at all times, with this date being generally accepted as the date that the school was "founded", although final independence from the Crown was only achieved with the 1868 Public Schools Act.
In 1943, Westminster Under School was formed as a semi-separate entity for the teaching of day pupils from the ages of 8 to 13 (now 7 to 13), originally in Little Dean's Yard (the main square of the School), later taking residence in Vincent Square after it was left to the School by Lord Vincent. In 1967, the first girl pupil was admitted to the School, girls becoming full members of the (Upper) School from 1973 onwards.
The School is located primarily in the former grounds of the now-defunct monastery at Westminster Abbey, its buildings surrounding the (private) square Little Dean's Yard (known as 'Yard'), off Dean's Yard, where Church House, the headquarters of the Anglican Church, is sited, along with some of the Houses, the Common Room, and College Hall. The humanities are taught in Sutcliffe's on the neighbouring Great College Street (named after the sweet shop that used to occupy the ground floor of the building in the 19th century), and the Science Block is located some way away in Smith Square.
The 14th century Abbott's dining hall, now named 'College Hall', is thought to be one of the oldest and finest examples of medieval refectory in existance.
'College' (which houses the Houses of College, Dryden's and Wren's) is a dressed stone building bordering College Garden, the former monastery's Infirmary garden, and now, despite the name, the property of Westminster Abbey. It dates from 1729, and was designed by the Earl of Burlington[?] based on earlier designs from Sir Christopher Wren.
'School', the School's main hall and former monks' Dormitory, which is used for Latin Prayers (a weekly assembly with prayers spoken in the Westminster-dialect of Latin), exams, and large concerts, plays and the like. It was formerly used, from 1599 onwards, to accommodate the pupils when taught, the Upper and Lower Schools being split by a curtain hung from a 16th century bar made of pig iron, which remains the largest piece of pig iron in the world. The stone steps and entranceway to School have been attributed as the work of Inigo Jones, and is engraved with the names of many pupils who bothered to hire a stonemason, though the practice no longer occurs. The panelling within the hall similarly bears the coats of arms of many former pupils, though in a more formal manner.
A service is given in Latin each year in Westminster Abbey, called 'Little Commem', in which the School celebrates its founders, most notably Elizabeth I. Every third year a much larger service is given in its place, and called 'Big Commem'.
On Shrove Tuesdays since 1753 the 'Greaze' takes place in School, in which the head cook is required to throw a horsehair pancake over the bar that used to separate the parts of the schoolroom, over which elected members of the school are to fight for one minute whilst being watched over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey and the Head Master, the pupil with the largest piece after the minute is up being the winner, and awarded a sovereign. Were the cook to fail to get the 'pancake' over the bar within 3 tries, he or she would have been booked, or beaten to death with (rather heavy) Latin primers; it is rumoured that this has taken place on (at least) one occasion.
The privilege of being the first in the land to acclaim the coronation of the new sovereign at coronation in Westminster Abbey is reserved for the current Queen's Scholars, who sit in a high chamber in the main tower of the Abbey.
The Latin Play, acted by members of College is presented annually in College, with a prologue and humorous epilogue given (in Latin) by the head of the House (known as the Master Of The Queen's Scholars) on contemporary events.
There are 4 main points of entry for prospective pupils:
As well as the "Queen's Scholars", whereby one third of the fees are paid from endowment, and of which there are (almost always) 8 in each year, pupils applying for entry under the Challenge have available a small number, usually 2, of (non-monetary) Honorary Scholarships. Those entering the Lower School also have the opportunity to obtain scholarships based on musical talent, and bursaries for those whose parents are not able to fund their tuition. Ignoring scholarships and bursaries, annual fees before incidentals range from £9000 (approx. $15000 US) for pupils at the Under School to £19000 (approx. $30000 US) for boarding pupils.
The School is split into 11 houses, some which are 'day houses' (and only admit day-pupils, those who go home at night), the others having a mix of day-pupils and boarders. The Houses are named after OWW (Old Westminsters) well known to the school if not the world in general. Houses are used as a focus for pastoral care and social and sporting activities, as well as bedrooms for boarders.
There is also 'College', the house for the Queen's Scholars (all of whom board), but which has assigned to it some of the girls who enter the School in the VIth form.
The School has one of only a few Eton Fives courts in the world, being different from Fives in having a buttress and step, and semi-regularly fields pupils as national entries in international competitions in rowing, or "Water", and fencing.
The following people were educated at Westminster, and are usually listed with OW (Old Westminster) after their name (collectively, OWW):
A more comprehensive list is available.