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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of All Souls College in Oxford

What is All Souls College?

All Souls College is a prestigious postgraduate college built in the 15th century, dedicated to victims of medieval England’s longest war.

All Souls College

All Souls College History

All Souls College (officially, ‘College of the Souls of All the Faithful Departed’) was founded in 1438 by King Henry VI and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, in memory of the victims of the Hundred Years’ War fought between England and France. All Souls is the only Oxford college in which all members automatically become fellows, with no undergraduate students. While there are several categories of fellow, the most famous is the Examination Fellowship, available to any Oxford student no more than three years after the attainment of their first degree. All Souls offers fellowships mostly to those who specialise in the humanities and social sciences, though there are some exceptions. Election involves the so-called ‘hardest exam in the world’, in which applicants are put through several rounds of brutal written and oral work, writing responses to abstract questions such as ‘are there any unanswerable questions’, and chosen subject essays. Until recently, one of the exam papers took a terrifyingly pared-down form: a single word, like ‘justice’, to prompt an essay; time, three hours.

All Souls is also home to one of Oxford’s most extraordinary and rarest ceremonies. On the 14th of January of the first year of each century, the fellows parade around the college with flaming torches, led by the ‘Lord Mallard’ carried in a chair, singing the ‘Mallard Song’. The rationale (such that it exists) is that they are hunting for the duck that allegedly flew from the foundations of the college as it was being built. In reality, the ceremony has mysterious origins, but probably began in the 17th century.

The ‘Front’ quad, built in the mid-15th century, viewed from the High Street, gives a good idea of how the college looked for the first 250 years of its existence. Head over to Radcliffe Square to glimpse one of the grandest and most famous quadrangles in Oxford, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 18th century. Hawksmoor’s quad, as you look through the wrought-iron gates, comprises the library, to the left, and chapel and hall, on the right. The library was built in the 1710s, designed by Hawksmoor and funded by Christopher Codrington, a fellow of All Souls and governor general of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies; the wealth he amassed there depended on slave plantations. The chapel retains its original medieval sloping beam roof, and the windows are partly filled with 15th-century stained glass. The hall was built as a continuation of the elaborate Gothic style of the chapel, and on the south wall displays the arms of the college fellows who contributed to Hawksmoor’s project. It was only a lack of funds that prevented the college from demolishing the 15th-century quadrangle and entirely rebuilding the college in Hawksmoor’s design. They were less reverent towards the late medieval ages than we are.

In the 16th century, the college experienced seismic change. The Reformation (the detachment of the English Church from Papal authority) had its impact, as it did on all religious establishments. But the college also modernised under the reforms of Warden Robert Hovenden. Hovenden tightened many of the rules of the college, enforcing them with strict punishments, giving All Souls more cohesion as an institution. The new college statutes banned the fellows from using offensive language to one another and ordered them to treat the warden with due respect. This was modified after Mr Mansell, an artist, used offensive language to 17th-century Warden Richard Mocket, and avoided punishment by arguing that there was no rule against him using such offensive language, so long as it was done in a reverential manner.

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