Higher education postcard: Encaenia

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag is full of gowns, hoods and hats

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

This is Encaenia – a University of Oxford ceremony full of all the things you’d expect of an Oxford ceremony: gowns, champagne, dead languages and a procession. What’s going on?

Encaenia is an ancient Greek word. I’m not a fluent speaker, I have to confess, so helpfully the Oxford website gives us a hint: it means renewal, and is an annual ceremony a bit like, I guess, commencement in the US of A.

It has its origins in a broader range of festivities, known as the Act, which seems to have been a little like a revue. There were musical satires, and a university version of the lord of misrule, a person known as Terræ Filius, or son of the earth, who was licensed to speak in a scurrilous and satirical manner. (Although the licence seems to have had limits, many of the Terræ Filiuses having to recant, flee or be expelled or imprisoned.) The Act was held in the university church, and from 1670 in the Sheldonian Theatre. There’s an entertaining account on the Bodleian website. It seems that the more riotous parts of the Act mostly died out by 1760 or so, leaving just Encaenia.

So what is it? Encaenia is the university’s honorary degrees ceremony. There’s a breakfast, a procession, the awarding of honorary degrees, more speeches, and then lunch. Much like every university. But there’s more to it than that.

Firstly, we have to know about Lord Crewe’s benefaction. Which is not a euphemism for some unspeakable act, but refers to Lord Crewe, 1633-1721, sometime rector of Lincoln College, Bishop of Oxford and of Durham, who left money to the university and instructions which shape Encaenia to this day.

Lord Crewe’s bequest provided for refreshments – currently peaches, strawberries and champagne – to be served to a select group on the morning of Encaenia. These include heads of colleges, university bigwigs (this is not the technically correct term but conveys the meaning, I feel), holders of higher doctorates, and those receiving honorary degrees. They have to wear full and correct academic dress, and then process to the Sheldonian Theatre. This procession is what you see on the card. After speechifying in Latin, there’s a lunch for the procession and a garden party after for the congregation as a whole.

And there are rules:

  • if you’re in the procession, you need to wear proper subfusc under your academic dress
  • if you’re attending the ceremony, and you’re from the University of Oxford or University of Cambridge, or from Trinity College Dublin, you may wear your academic dress – but if you’re from another university you may not
  • if you’re attending the garden party after, you’re encouraged to wear academic dress, regardless of the university you graduated from.

So all in all it’s a colourful affair. Fans of academic dress (and who isn’t, once they’ve thought about it?) get a chance to see a fine array, especially at the garden party. I’m guessing it’s a popular event for the Burgon Society.

Encaenia this year is on Wednesday 19 June, so if you’re near Oxford, get yourself down to watch the procession and enjoy the spectacle. But keep your hands off Lord Crewe’s benefaction!

One response to “Higher education postcard: Encaenia

  1. Who knew? The Burgon Society, fascinating. And I totally agree with “Fans of academic dress (and who isn’t, once they’ve thought about it?) “

Leave a Reply