The word “commoner” was in the news at the start of this month and has been on my mind ever since. Here’s a typical headline from the Guardian: “Royal Wedding: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle invite 2,640 commoners”. The subheading explains: “People chosen from across UK to join staff and local schoolchildren in Windsor Castle grounds”. In case you missed the announcement, Prince Harry (grandson to Queen Elizabeth II) is marrying an American, Meghan Markle. She is not a member of the aristocracy and, being from the USA, could probably be described as a commoner herself. The wedding takes place on 19 May.
The tone of the announcement, that “commoners” were to be invited to the grounds of Windsor Castle on The Big Day, to watch the proceedings but not to be given any food, not even a slice of wedding cake, has prompted me to employ the fake cockney accent of Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins”. “Gawd Bless Yer Lordships for thinking of ’umble folk like me, but don’t go to any trouble on my account with yer fancy nosh. I’ll stick to me usual plate of whelks and a pickled egg if it’s all the same to you.”
It’s unlikely that any form of invitation will be directed my way. Nominations will come from nine regional lord lieutenant offices and even if, by some quirk, one of them picks my name out of a hat I shall have to decline. To paraphrase the late Peter Cook, I find that I shall be watching television that day, and probably not the Royal Wedding. It will be FA Cup Final Day.
I am, needless to say, a commoner, and not once but twice. I am a commoner in the meaning given to the word so far in this piece: not a member of the aristocracy, not ennobled, knighted or honoured by the royal family in any way. I was also, by definition, a Commoner in my university days.
If you are fortunate enough to be invited to study at undergraduate level at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge (or Oxbridge, to use the familiar shorthand) you will be either a Scholar, an Exhibitioner or a Commoner. Scholars are awarded Scholarships, Exhibitioners get Exhibitions and Commoners get Places. (There is also something called a “Demyship” but it only seems to apply to Magdalen College Oxford.) When I first heard about this little hierarchy I was told that an Exhibition was worth more than a Scholarship. Somebody from my old school put me right on this one, at a party given by one of my closest schoolfriends during our Christmas holidays.
I was still at school and was planning to visit a number of non-Oxbridge universities the following term (Bristol, Leeds and Warwick among others). I was also hoping that my A-Level results the following summer would be good enough to justify applying to Cambridge, with the security of at least one offer from an alternative university in case it didn’t work out. At my mate’s late December birthday party I got chatting to someone who had been at our old school, and who I had never spoken to before. (Nothing unusual about that: most of us had very little communication with people in other school years.) He had just finished his first term at Oxford. I asked if he had got an Exhibition, thinking that it was the highest award available. He told me that he had a Scholarship. I said something along the lines of, “Never mind, that’s still pretty good.” He looked at me straight-faced and said, “A Scholarship is better than an Exhibition.” For a second I thought he might have been joking but, no, it turned out that my information was wrong. Scholars are top of the tree, then Exhibitioners, then Commoners. He even explained how much each award was worth: £60 per year with a Scholarship, £40 a year with an Exhibition and nothing for Commoners. The sums involved had not increased for several hundred years, but back in the days of, say, Christopher Marlowe (a Parker Scholar at Corpus Christi Cambridge in the 16th century) the difference was substantial. It afforded him better quality food and beer than he would otherwise have enjoyed.
Many in my generation were able to enjoy more-or-less free college education. There were no tuition fees, and maintenance grants for people like me meant that we lived debt-free for most of our college days. The odd £60 wouldn’t have made much difference, but Scholars and Exhibitioners had other benefits, like better rooms in their second year, and invitations to Feasts that Commoners were denied. The chap who explained to me how it all worked was a well-known figure in our school days. Many of the Oxbridge students were. He has gone on to be very well-known beyond our corner of West London. You’ve probably heard of him, the actor (and Oxford Scholar) Hugh Grant. I can thank him for correcting my ignorance regarding the ways of Oxbridge. A year after our conversation I was the recipient of a Place at Cambridge which made me officially, and happily, a Commoner.