The first thing you need to know is that it’s not Christ Church College—it’s simply Christ Church, thank you very much. Appending the ghastly c-word is poor form in the highest, as any alumnus worth his snuff will tell you. Implies a false equivalence with the other 38 institutions that make up Oxford University, you see—and Christ Church has long been in a class of its own.
The facts are worn lightly but proudly, like a silk-and-ermine gown. More British prime ministers have attended Christ Church than any other college at Oxford or Cambridge. Tom Quad—the vast, manicured courtyard at the center of the college—is the biggest quadrangle in the city. The real-life Alice in Wonderland spent her childhood among these dreaming spires. The college has its very own cathedral, a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the library, and a pond filled with koi carp rumored to be a gift from the prime minister of Japan. There’s croquet in the Masters Garden and a beagle pack at the ready. Before supper on special occasions, the student body toasts to “our visitor, the Queen,” just in case she happens to pop by. The dining hall itself, meanwhile, was used as a stand-in for the Great Hall of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. It is hard to know which is the more fantastical. This is not a place that does things by halves.
The college has its very own cathedral, a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the library, and a pond filled with koi carp rumored to be a gift from the prime minister of Japan.
Sadly, that rubric now goes for misfortune, too. Because barely a week goes by in these golden cloisters without a fresh scandal popping up and ruining the Evensong. Take the case of the secretive Pythic Club—an exclusive dining society populated by “minor-public-school boys in terrible trousers,” as one recent Oxford alumnus puts it. The “P Club,” as it likes to be known, claims to practice “debating”—collegiate slang, usually, for boisterous boozing by young men in tailcoats. It is said to hold lavish dinners where members play charades in ancient Greek, and can trace its history back to 1845 and one Lord Dufferin (a later viceroy of India).
Just last month, however, the club was thrown out of Christ Church amid rumors of rank elitism and misused privilege. With its cabal of privately educated members and its $98 dinners, students were quick to point out that the Pythic didn’t exactly satisfy the college’s modern inclusivity standards. The fiasco reached a head when it emerged that Brian Young, the college’s senior censor, a role that entailed a seat on all governing bodies and the supervision of all academic affairs, was also running the P Club. In an open letter to the college administration, one student was said to feel “inferior in a two-to-one tutorial in which both the tutor and other tutee were known members of the P Club.”
The “P Club,” as it likes to be known, claims to practice “debating”—collegiate slang, usually, for boisterous boozing by young men in tailcoats.
This is precisely the sort of faculty intrigue that the college would have been desperate to avoid. In 2018, Christ Church suspended its dean after he was accused of “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful conduct.” The charges were later dropped, and the dean, Martyn Percy, has since been reinstated to his position in the college—but not before excruciating e-mail exchanges between his colleagues were disclosed to the court. “Nasty and stupid,” one figure wrote of Percy. “Does anyone know any good poisoners?” The trial has been financially painful, too. “Since the failed attempt to remove Percy,” The Times wrote in February, “the college has lost £2.5 million in donations and legacies.” (Next year, an employment tribunal is expected to hear Percy’s case in public.)
This unrest stemmed, largely, from the Lavinia Woodward scandal of 2016. A promising Christ Church medical student, Woodward, while drunk, had punched her boyfriend in the face and thrown a laptop at him—before stabbing him in the leg with a bread knife. (She later had her 10-month jail sentence controversially suspended on the grounds that she was “an extraordinarily able young lady” with a bright future in medicine. Woodward tried to appeal her sentence in 2018, but was denied.) In the aftermath, Percy tried to reform the archaic student-support-services system that he claimed had failed Woodward. But the wider regime was furious at what they saw as troublesome meddling, and swiftly conspired to remove the dean from office.
“The whole club thing is a bad look for everyone,” says a former student. “The college looks like it’s encouraging drinking, and the P Club looks like a poor man’s Bullingdon”—a reference to the ultra-elite Oxford dining club that once included Boris Johnson and David Cameron, its members rumored to have burned cash in front of homeless people and trashed restaurants. “For a secret society, no publicity is good publicity.”
In 2018, Christ Church suspended its dean after he was accused of “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful conduct.”
Worse was to come. On March 15, officials at the college awoke to discover that the historic Christ Church Picture Gallery had been raided in a daring heist. Three highly valuable 16th- and 17th-century paintings had been lifted from the gallery’s extensive collection—including an early Van Dyck. The haul, which could be worth up to $12 million on the open market, may have been whisked away by boat along Oxford’s winding waterways, according to the Thames Valley Police.
Christ Church was the obvious target. Its purpose-built Picture Gallery, opened by the Queen in 1968, holds 300 paintings and almost 2,000 drawings. No other college collection comes close. What’s more, the place seems to have a charmingly relaxed attitude to its treasures. “There’s a hell of a lot of art in Christ Church, and you walk past priceless pictures every day,” says one recent graduate. “There’s a scheme when you can borrow artwork from the college. I had several 17th-century pieces hanging in my room. They don’t even ask for a deposit.”
Then there’s the wine. “Every dinnertime, all the tutors proceed into the dining hall through a hidden door,” explains one college old boy, “before being served unbelievable bottles of wine at the high table.” These are signed out from the vaulted cellars beneath the college buildings. “That’s where you get the really exceptional stuff.”
Or did, at least. Because it has now emerged that thousands of dollars’ worth of fine red Burgundy and Pouilly-Fuissé have, in recent weeks, been evaporating into thin air. College officials are stumped. One staff member told The Times that bottles had been going walkabout for years without a culprit being identified. “If there has been action, it is a well-guarded secret,” a senior college source told the newspaper.
Thousands of dollars’ worth of fine red Burgundy and Pouilly-Fuissé have, in recent weeks, been evaporating into thin air.
In the misappropriation stakes, however, this is small change. Last summer, a Christ Church professor named Dirk Obbink became embroiled in a scandal involving ancient Gospel manuscripts. Obbink, a papyrologist who was once awarded a MacArthur “genius grant,” is thought to have flogged early manuscripts of the Gospels to the owners of the controversial Hobby Lobby company in the U.S. (Obbink, who has issued only one public statement, which stated that “the allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false.”) The sum would have been astronomical—one of the fragments, from Mark, may be from the first century A.D., which would make it the oldest surviving manuscript of the New Testament, after all. The only slight issue? It wasn’t Obbink’s to sell—and should have been safely housed at Oxford’s Sackler Library instead, under the charge of the Egypt Exploration Society.
The eccentric Obbink—an “absent-minded professor type,” according to The Guardian, who once owned a mock-Gothic castle in Waco, Texas—was suspended from duties at Oxford in October. He is under investigation after around 100 ancient papyrus fragments vanished from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Collection at the Sackler. It is yet another embarrassment for the college—insult to injury, salt in the wound. Between Voldemort and the Pharaohs, the curse rumbles on.
Joseph Bullmore is a Contributing Editor for AIR MAIL