Few Oxford traditions look as majestic and historical as the Encaenia ceremony, in which distinguished scholars and public figures receive their honorary degrees from the university. Often held in the ninth week of Trinity term, Covid-19 restrictions meant it was postponed until September this year. Last week saw the inaugural speech by Professor Brenda Stevenson, the new Hillary Clinton Chair of Women’s History. Though ground-breaking in its own right, the occasion was a reminder of the Encaenia ceremony in September in which Hillary Clinton was one of several figures to be awarded her honorary degree. In light of this award hitting the headlines around the world, it seems like an appropriate time to look at the ancient, and more recent, history of Encaenia and Oxford’s awarding of honorary degrees. 

The earliest known awarding of one of these degrees was to Lionel Woodville, the Dean of Exeter and brother-in-law of Edward IV, in around 1478, as he received the honour despite not undertaking the usual academic assessments. Across the sixteenth century, the further recipients included statesmen and theologians, such as the Secretary of State in 1558 and the Archbishop of York in 1564. Amidst the political turbulence of the seventeenth century, debates over honorary degrees reflected ongoing tensions. In 1642, Charles I pressured Oxford to award 350 degrees to favoured counsellors, thinkers and allies. The university argued that such a broad extension would damage its reputation and for once, the infamously obstinate king yielded.  

The history of the Encaenia (a Greek term for ‘festival of renewal,’ corresponding to a Latin term for ‘commemoration’) ceremony itself is equally interesting. The first specific ceremony for honorary degrees appears to have taken place in 1566. Encaenia used to be part of a wider set of proceedings involving music and satire, and was moved from the University Church to the Sheldonian in 1670 which was felt to be a more appropriate location. The modern incarnation of the ceremony was shaped by the legacy of Lord Crewe, the Rector of Lincoln College and Bishop of Oxford, who left money to the university for this and many other purposes. 
This year’s set of honorary degrees embraced a wide range of disciplines and fields. Hillary Clinton, known worldwide for her contributions to American politics, received her award alongside Linda Colley, the distinguished historian, Sally Davies, the government scientist and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright, Ruth Lister, an academic specialising in social policy, Jane Lubchenco, the ecologist, Susan Solomon, the scientist and Jeanette Winterson, the author. Records from the last few years indicate an even greater variety of interests across the recipients. In 2019, the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma received a degree. In 2016, recipients included the technology visionary Jonathan Ive and the economist Paul Krugman and 2013 saw prizes for the playwright Tom Stoppard and the Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson. Therefore, it is clear that even though the Encaenia ceremony is a symbol of Oxford’s antiquated and rich history, its inclusion of a wide range of thinkers enables it to stay relevant to the advances and innovations of modern society.