By Helen Wilcox Selander
The Boar's Head Gaudy is a yearly Christmas celebration held at Queen's College (founded, 1341) in Oxford, England, and in various forms and places throughout England and the world.
The first gaudy was supposedly held sometime during the Middle Ages.
The origins of the celebration do not appear to be well documented. But legend has it that a student of the college was wandering in the forest of Shotover, some say around Christmas time, reading Aristotle, when a wild boar attacked him. In order to save himself, the young man rammed his book down the throat of the beast exclaiming, 'Graecum est' (It is Greek) and the boar promptly expired. The scholar then severed the head of the beast and triumphantly carried it back to the college where, one can assume from subsequent events, they feasted upon it.
There are at least two promising theories concerning the identity of the student.
A plausible assumption concerns a man by the name of Copcot, who's surname can be found in the window of the church at Horspath (a centuries old building about 4 miles to the east of Oxford). The scene depicts a middle-aged man in the garb of an apostle, holding a spear on which a boar's head is impaled, with the name COPCOT below. In the common-room gallery of Queen's College is an oil painting depicting the same scene. (The Queen's College, J. R. Magrath, Clarendon Press, 1921)
A second theory involves Barnard Gilpin (1517-1583), a student of the college whose family featured a boar's head on their coat of arms for centuries (and perhaps still does) and who, if he wasn't the legendary scholar, deserves mention here, for his charitable deeds rival even those of St. Nicholas.
After receiving an M.A. from Queen's around 1542, Gilpin was admitted into Holy Orders by the Bishop of Oxford. In spite of the fact that his religious views were seen as controversial during the reign of Queen Mary, and beyond, Father Gilpin did much to help the downtrodden during his life.
After being awarded the privilege of a large and wealthy parish at Houghton-le-Spring, Gilpin traveled through the miserably neglected areas of Northumberland and Yorkshire distributing alms. He would sometimes strip his coat off, giving it to an ill-clad beggar.
On one occasion, watching a poor husbandmen's horse fall dead at the plow, he immediately told one of his servants to unsaddle his own horse and give it to the man. On Sunday's he presented a feast to all his parishioners.
Some of his most notable work involved the inception of a grammar school, from which many scholars were sent to the universities, and were sometimes supported there at Gilpin's cost. A large number of the boys attending the grammar school were boarded and lodged in Gilpin's house free of charge. All of these works, and more, gained him the title, 'Apostle of the North'. (Life of Bernard Gilpin by George Carleton, Bishop of Chichester)
But no matter who inspired the centuries old Boar's Head Gaudy, it is enjoyed in the richest of traditional splendor each year at Queen's.
Dr. Robert Taylor, physics professor at Queen's, explains, "The ceremony remains unchanged, except that modern family pressures dictate that the gaudy now takes place in the run up to Christmas instead of on Christmas Day."
J. R. Magrath, a former Provost of Queen's, whose historical account of the gaudy is included in full, describes the scene, "Before dinner on Christmas Day the Boar's Head is brought in procession into the College Hall.
At the hour appointed the Provost and Fellows in residence, with any guests who may have been invited, enter the hall and arrange themselves on the east side of the high table facing the door. Grace before meat is said and the trumpet sounded in each quadrangle as summons to dinner.
The procession then enters the hall. The head, borne on the silver basin, presented by Sir Joseph Williamson in 1668, is carried by four servants, conducted by the chief singer, generally a member of the College, and followed by the choristers under the direction of the College organist. As the procession begins to move from the cloister into the hall the choir sings the refrain:
Caput apri defero
Redens laudes Domino.
(I bring the boar's head,
Sing thanks to the Lord)
The Boar's Head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.
(How many are at the feast?)
The Boar's Head as I understand,
Is the bravest dish in all the land,
When thus bedeck'd with a gay garland.
Let us service cantico.
(Let us serve it while singing)
Our Steward hath provided this,
In honour of the King of Bliss,
Which on this day to be served is,
In Reginensi Atrio.
(Within the Queen's Hall)
Between each verse the procession moves forward, the choir singing the refrain, and the fourth repetition of it brings the head up to the dais, where it is placed upon the table in front of the Provost.
The chief singer is presented by the Provost with the orange which has till then been between the front teeth of the boar; and the bays, rosemary, and holly, of which some of the sprigs are gilt, are distributed among the spectators." (The Queen's College, Clarendon Press, 1921)
It has been speculated that The Boar's Head Celebration came to represent the overcoming of brute force (the boar) with reason (Aristotle's book). But no matter what it's symbolic implications may be, such an ancient tradition, enjoyed each Christmas at one of the world's oldest and most well-known colleges, inspires reverence and awe.
Thanks to Dr. Robert Taylor, physics professor at Queen's and Jonathan Bengston, College Librarian, for their prompt and tireless efforts in supplying me with excerpts used to research The Boar's Head.
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