The School was founded in 1573, following a request of a charter for the School by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Queen Elizabeth I granted the charter, for "...the establishment of the Free Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth in Barnet, for the education, bringing up and instruction of boys”. The charter, bearing the Queen’s seal, is displayed in the entrance hall. The School was housed in Tudor Hall on Wood Street, and twenty-four ‘discrete and honest’ men, the first Governors, were appointed.
For several centuries boys had to attend church on Sundays ‘in an orderly manner’ or face a punishment of six lashes. In memory of this tradition of church attendance and of the founding of the school, each pupil attends a special service at St. John the Baptist Church in Wood Street. Afterwards, a roll call is held in front of the School.
QE flourished under the guidance of early governors and headmasters. It then suffered financially in the period after the Civil War, but began to progress steadily again in the 18th century. By the late 19th century it was beginning to outgrow the site on Wood Street. In 1885 a governor, H. E. Chetwynd Stapylton, bought a plot of land behind the Jesus hospital: today the Stapylton field stands in front of the main School building and is used for rugby and cricket.
The School was originally housed in Tudor Hall on Wood Street before relocating to the current Queen's Road site in 1932.
Several boys paid the ultimate price during the Boer War and First and Second World Wars: they are commemorated on a memorial tablet in the entrance hall. It includes the names of two Old Elizabethans who were awarded the Victoria Cross, and partly in remembrance of this, each year a prize is awarded to a boy who serves the School selflessly.
In 1932, the School moved to its present, much larger site in Queen’s Road when Hertfordshire County Council erected modern buildings behind the playing fields. The profile of the School was raised significantly during the long headship of E H Jenkins, 1930-61. More pupils achieved places at universities, and the School widened its scope with many sporting achievements, including winning the Public Schools’ Athletics Cup on four occasions.
During the 1960s, led by the new Headmaster, Timothy Edwards, the School undertook a period of reorganisation. The Fern Building was added and the number of boys entering the School doubled.
To enable the School to continue to grow and flourish, new buildings were erected during the headship of Eamonn Harris (1984-1999): the Heard Building, purpose-built to accommodate the enlarged Sixth Form; the Friends’ Music Room to serve the many musicians; and the Clark Laboratories to improve the science facilities. Dr John Marincowitz, the School's 39th Headmaster between 1999 and 2011, secured investment for the Martin Swimming Pool and the Shearly Hall (which also houses the School Shop run by the Friends of Queen Elizabeth's).
In 2011, Neil Enright became the 40th Headmaster of Queen Elizabeth's School.