How exciting to attend High Table after the first day of class! The small select group for Monday night gathered with some of our tutors and staff at a sherry reception prior to dinner. Fascinating students included an Amsterdam couple who have participated eight years. A Texas grandmother brought her 16-year-old granddaughter to Exeter College for two weeks of pre-law while she took two courses at Christ Church. As the rest of the people entered the Great Hall, they followed tradition and stood until the High Table guests sat at their nameplate.
After we were seated, the director of studies David Beard who started The Oxford Experience twenty-seven years ago delivered the grace in Latin. Here is translation: “In the neediness of our human condition, which invites your compassion, almighty God and heavenly Father, we give you reverent thanks for the food which, in your kindness, you have lavished on us for the sustenance of our bodies; and we also beg that we may use it without greed or excess and with enjoyment. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
High Table is just what the words imply. The table sits on a platform or dais above the main floor. It is at the top of the Great Hall furthest from the screen passage. During the Middle Ages, the lord of the castle could indeed “look down” on his household. His servants or subjects had designated seating in vertical rows of perpendicular tables according to status. Nobility and high ranking guests sat at High Table. They were served first and had the best quality food and drink. In 2017 at Christ Church, everyone in the hall enjoyed the same delectable food with turkey saltimbocca as the main course. Harry Potter or the Hogwarts teachers were not there! However, the Harry Potter films built a replica of the Great Hall in their London studio.
Many members of Christ Church were there in spirit. Ninety-two portraits grace the four walls of the Great Hall. Henry VIII oversees all as he is positioned on the High Table end of room in the middle. He founded Christ Church in 1546 as a dual foundation of college and cathedral. Cardinal Wolsey established Cardinal College in 1525 and his foundation is the original of Christ Church. His portrait is hung to the right of Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth who united Christ Church and Westminster in 1561 is to the left of Henry VIII. The bust of the Queen Elizabeth II is below Henry VIII. I sat facing these formidable characters and felt their presence.
Other famous scholars of the college include Thomas Locke philosopher, John Wesley theologian, William Gladstone statesman and Lewis Carroll writer. Thirteen prime ministers studied at Christ Church.
For me, the evening was steeped in great history, tradition, friendship and conversation. As shadows flirted with the exquisite stained glass windows, the ambiance of the Great Hall changed. A new reflection here, a new reflection there! That is what education is all about. Members of Christ Church have sat at High Table in centuries past conversing and debating the challenging issues of the era. I know 2017 is no different. Later in the year a second female portrait will keep company with Queen Elizabeth in the Great Hall that being Professor Pallot who joined the college in 1979.
As I left High Table and meandered through the hall prolonging the magical evening, I followed a row of portraits. In my mind’s eye one caused me to pause. I saw the sixteen-year-old pre-law student all grown up, and she was gazing at me with a faint smile. I returned her smile, but I was beaming!