All Souls College, Oxford

The Archbishop of Canterbury is a busy man. He is the senior bishop and all round big cheese in the Church of England. He is also top dog in the Anglican Communion, an international association of likeminded churches. The Archbishop has no control outside of England mind, and no direct control of this loose community, he’s more of a focus of unity. That said, big shoes are required. He also has a role in providing spiritual guidance in the House of Lords which, given many Lords have ‘game’ when it comes to a free night up in London, is a likely to be a full time job in itself. It will come as no surprise to also read that the Archbishop is the highest ranking non-royal in the UK’s Order of Precedence; a long list with The Queen at the top, all the way down to you and I at the bottom. He is, then, a very busy man. Yet aside from all these plate fillers, the Archbishop also has many other roles and responsibilities, one of which is as a visitor of All Souls College in Oxford. As a visitor he is basically able to meddle in various affairs from college governance to approving a new gang-mower.

All Souls was founded by Henry VI. “The baby king” you yell, indeed, yes he being the very same Henry VI who took to the throne aged just nine months. Henry also inherited France on the death of his grandfather Charles VI, so he too had a lot on his plate namely war at home – the war of the Roses; and war abroad – the 100 years’ war. Henry later lost France to the French, had a breakdown, got locked up by Richard of York, was freed, suffered another breakdown, was captured again and was finally slammed in the Tower where he died, possibly pushed down the stairs on the orders of Richard of York’s son, Edward. Despite all of that, and despite being depicted by Shakespeare as weak willed and pussy whipped, Henry founded Eton College, King’s College in Cambridge and All Souls. All told, not a bad effort.

That said, Henry didn’t do it on his own. He founded All Souls with Henry Chichele, who was himself Archbishop of Canterbury. Chichele was a lawyer by trade, making him perhaps an odd choice to lead the Anglican Church. Either way, Henry and Chichele set up All Souls in 1438 with the means to support forty odd fellows all of whom had to take Holy Orders. They were then free to let minds roam across the arts, philosophy, and theology. Likely on Chichele’s leaning, sixteen were also allowed to study the law.

Now, the college has no undergraduates. None at all. It once had them. In the early 17th century the warden, a Robert Hovenden, thought maybe some undergraduates would be good. Yet this was not in the interests of nurturing hungry young minds or injecting a bit more life into hall dinners, but in order to provide the seated fellows with servants. This arrangement worked well until the nineteenth century when it likely attracted a bit too much attention, and so undergraduates were axed.

The college, as you might assume, has a lovely library, bequeathed by Christopher Codrington who built a small fortune using very cheap labour on sugar plantations in Barbados. Codrington was, as you might also assume, an All Souls fellow and an avid book collector. The library, completed in 1751 is though, very much the new block of college, for the chapel had its ribbon cut in 1442. A new roof or two has likely since followed. Christopher Wren – also a fellow – knocked up a sun dial for the college which was positioned on the south wall of the chapel but now resides in the quadrangle, where it can be better seen by the snap happy Japanese tourist. Not that All Souls need their lawns and buildings gawped at by the summer hoards, it being one of the wealthiest of the Oxford colleges, with the wine cellar well stocked off the back of £300m endowment.

For any Oxford graduate who struggles to make the transition from high hall to life on the corporate treadmill and 25 days holiday a year, they can – providing it is within three years of picking up their degree – apply for an Examination Fellowship at All Souls. It’s a competitive position, only two are taken each year – sometimes none at all – but it is worth it. A “Prize Fellowship” as they are also known runs for seven years. Yes, seven years. There are no compulsory teaching or research requirements, and fellows can study anything Oxford has to offer, with room and full board thrown in. They can even pursue other careers, although why they might do this is not clear given the license to lie on punts  all day reading Chaucer and ogling undergraduates; but they can. All they have to do is engage in the occasional bout of academia and promise to attend weekend hall during their first year.

Given that wicket, competition is fierce and you’ll need a sharp pencil and an equally sharp bit of savvy to deal with the two day selection process, where you write an essay on a subject of your own choice and also share your thoughts on various questions, questions that are more general in nature. Questions such as “Does the moral character of an orgy change when participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

Before 2010 candidates also faced another free-form essay on a single, pre-selected word. Previous words included chaos, possessions and error. Do what you can with that. Candidates who made it to the final stages were then invited to dine with members of the college but this was recently scrapped as some of those who had made it that far apparently worried too much that the way they held their knife and fork was also part of the evaluation. Dinner is now, no longer part of the process.

Every hundred years, in and around the 14th January, there is a feast after which the fellows, presumably all robed up, parade around the college with flaming torches singing the Mallard Song. No joke. They are led around by a Lord Mallard who is carried around in a chair, with everyone looking for the legendary mallard that apparently flew out of the foundations when the college was built. During the early stages of the ‘hunt’, the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man carrying a pole to which a mallard is tied. This, back in the day, used to be an actual live mallard, netted that day on the Isis. Last time round though, given the shift in public sentiment on such traditions, the mallard was a wooden mallard.

The next ceremony will not be until 2101 so it might be, by then, a virtual mallard; providing that is, the RSPB’s zealous lawyers haven’t shut the whole thing down.

“F sharp, can someone give me an F sharp….. All together now…”

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on
And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,
But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.


Hough the bloud of King Edward,
By ye bloud of King Edward,
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!
Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker, Holinshead & Stow
Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things
That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.


The Romans once admir’d a gander
More than they did theire best Commander,
Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,
The place named from ye Scull of Tolus.


The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,
But lett them prove it if they can.
To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:
Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.


Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;
His swapping tool of generation
Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.


Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard
in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,
And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,
Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.



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