Johnson was born to upper-middle class British parents on 19 June 1964 in Manhattan's Upper East Side in New York City. His father, Stanley Johnson, was then studying economics at Columbia University. Johnson's mother is Charlotte Fawcett; daughter of Sir James Fawcett and an artist from a family of liberal intellectuals. Johnson's parents married in 1963, before moving to the US.
Johnson's parents lived opposite the Chelsea Hotel, although in September 1964 they returned to Britain so that Charlotte could study at the University of Oxford. She lived with her son in Summertown, Oxford, and gave birth to a daughter, Rachel, in 1965. In July 1965, the family moved to Crouch End in North London; in February 1966, they relocated to Washington, D.C., where Stanley had gained employment with the World Bank. A third child, Leo, was born in September 1967. Stanley then gained employment with a policy panel on population control, in June moving the family to Norwalk, Connecticut.
In 1969, the family settled into Stanley's family farm, West Nethercote Farm, near Winsford in Exmoor in the west of England. There, Johnson gained his first experiences with fox hunting. Stanley was regularly absent from Nethercote, leaving Johnson to be raised largely by his mother and au pairs. As a child, Johnson was quiet and studious, although he suffered from deafness, resulting in several operations to insert grommets into his ears. He and his siblings were encouraged to engage in highbrow activities from a young age, with high achievement being greatly valued; Johnson's earliest recorded ambition was to be "world king". Having few or no friends other than their siblings, the children became very close.
In late 1969, the family relocated to Maida Vale, West London, where Stanley began post-doctoral research at the London School of Economics. In 1970, Charlotte and the children briefly returned to Nethercote, where Johnson was schooled at the Winsford Village School, before returning to London to settle in Primrose Hill, there being educated at Primrose Hill Primary School. In late 1971, another son, Joseph, was born to the family.
After Stanley secured employment at the European Commission, he moved his family in April 1973 to Uccle, Brussels, where Johnson attended the European School, Brussels I and learned to speak French. Charlotte had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised with clinical depression, and Johnson and his siblings were sent to Ashdown House preparatory boarding school in East Sussex in 1975. There he developed a love of and excelled at Ancient Greek and Latin; he was appalled at the teachers' use of corporal punishment. Meanwhile, Stanley and Charlotte's relationship broke down in December 1978 and they divorced in 1980. Charlotte moved into a flat in Notting Hill, where her children spent much of their time with her.
Eton and Oxford: 1977–1987
As a kid I was extremely spotty, extremely nerdy and horribly swotty
. My idea of a really good time was to travel across London on the tube to visit the British Museum
Johnson was awarded a King's Scholarship to study at Eton College, the independent boarding school in Eton, Berkshire. Arriving in the autumn term of 1977, Johnson began using the given name Boris rather than Alex, and developed "the eccentric English persona" for which he would become known. He abandoned his mother's Catholicism and became an Anglican, joining the Church of England. Although school reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness, he was popular and well known at Eton. His friends were largely from the wealthy upper-middle and upper classes; his best friends were Darius Guppy and Charles Spencer, both of whom accompanied him to the University of Oxford and remained friends into adulthood. Johnson excelled in English and Classics, winning prizes in both, and became secretary of the school debating society, and editor of the school newspaper, The Eton College Chronicle. In late 1981, he was admitted to the Eton Society. Upon finishing his time at Eton, Johnson went on a gap year to Australia, where he taught English and Latin at Timbertop, an Outward Bound-inspired campus of Geelong Grammar, an elite independent boarding school.
Johnson won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores, a four-year course based on the study of Classics, at Balliol College, Oxford. Starting at the university in late 1983, he was one of a generation of Oxford undergraduates who were to dominate British politics and media in the second decade of the 21st century; among them David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Nick Boles went on to become senior Conservative Party MPs. At university he played rugby for Balliol and associated primarily with Old Etonians, joining the Old Etonian-dominated Bullingdon Club, an upper-class drinking society known for vandalism. He entered into a relationship with the upper-middle class Allegra Mostyn-Owen, and they became engaged while at university.
Johnson was popular and well known at Oxford. Alongside Guppy he co-edited the university's satirical magazine Tributary. In 1984, Johnson was elected secretary of the Oxford Union, before campaigning for the position of Union president, losing the election to Neil Sherlock. In 1986, Johnson ran for president again, aided by undergraduate Frank Luntz; his campaign focused on reaching out from his established upper-class support base by emphasising his persona and playing down his Conservative connections. Hoping to court their vote, Johnson associated with university groups affiliated with the centrist Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Liberal Party. Luntz later alleged that Johnson portrayed himself as an SDP supporter during the campaign, although Johnson says he has no recollection of this. Johnson won the election and was appointed president, although his presidency was not seen as particularly distinguished or memorable, and questions were raised regarding his competence and seriousness. Having specialised in the study of ancient literature and classical philosophy, Johnson graduated from Balliol College with an upper second-class degree, but was deeply unhappy that he did not receive a first.