Nov 022014


Today is All Souls, the last of a trio of days, Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls, associated with honoring departed souls. One year I will get round to talking about them, but this year I want to celebrate All Souls College at Oxford, officially, “The Warden and the College of the Souls of All Faithful People Deceased in the University of Oxford,” certainly the oddest college at the university, and maybe at any university.

There are no undergraduate members of the college, and all of its members automatically become fellows (full members of the College’s governing body). Each year, recent graduates of Oxford and other universities are eligible to apply for Examination Fellowships through a competitive examination and interview process (once described as “the hardest exam in the world”).


The College was founded by Henry VI of England and Henry Chichele (fellow of New College and Archbishop of Canterbury), in 1438. The Statutes provided for the Warden and forty fellows – all to take Holy Orders; twenty-four to study arts, philosophy and theology; and sixteen to study civil or canon law. The College’s Codrington Library, completed in 1751, was built through the bequest of Christopher Codrington, one time governor of the Leeward Islands. Today the College is primarily a graduate research institution supported by its endowment.

Although the college now has no undergraduate members, there were times when it did, especially in the early 17th century, on the instigation of Robert Hovenden (Warden of the college from 1571 to 1614), in order to provide the fellows with servientes (household servants). The admission of undergraduates for this purpose was abandoned in the 19th century, although four Bible Clerks remained on the foundation until 1924.


The chapel was built between 1438 and 1442 and remained largely unchanged until the Commonwealth. Oxford, having been a largely Royalist stronghold, suffered under the Puritans’ wrath. The 42 misericords date from the Chapel’s building, and show a resemblance to the misericords at Higham Ferrers. Both may have been carved by Richard Tyllock.

Christopher Wren was a fellow from 1653, and in 1658 produced a sundial. This was originally placed on the South wall of the Chapel, until it was moved to the quadrangle (above the central entrance to the Codrington Library) in 1877. During the 1660’s a screen was installed in the Chapel, which was based on a design by Wren. However, this screen needed to be rebuilt by 1713. By the mid-19th century the Chapel was in great need of renovation, and so the current structure is heavily influenced by Victorian architectural ideals.

Around 500 Oxford undergraduates who have received a first class honors degree, and students from other universities with equivalent results during the previous three years, are eligible to apply for Examination Fellowships (sometimes informally referred to as “Prize Fellowships”) of seven years each. Several dozen typically do so (although this figure has climbed steeply in recent years). Two examination fellows are usually elected each year, although the college has awarded a single place in previous years, and made no award on rare occasions.

The competition, offered since 1878 and open to women since 1979, takes place over two days in late September, with two examinations of three hours each per day. Two are on subjects of the candidates’ choice. Options include Classics, English Literature, Economics, History, Law, Philosophy, and Politics. Candidates who choose Classics as their subject have an additional translation examination on a third day.Two are on general subjects. For each general examination candidates choose from a list of three questions, such as:

“‘If a man could say nothing against a character but what he could prove, history could not be written’ (Samuel Johnson). Discuss.”

“Should the Orange Prize for Fiction be open to both men and women?”

“Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

Before 2010, candidates also faced another examination, a free-form essay on a single, pre-selected word. This has since been discontinued, much to the dismay of many members of the university at large. Oxford entrance examinations in general usually have a few questions that are a bit off the wall and are meant to test your wit and imagination as well as intellect. For my entrance exams I did some standard papers, such as European history, Greek and Latin translation, and Latin composition. But there was a fourth on general topics. One question that got me especially high marks was “Why do crosswords?” (the English cryptic kind).


Essay words for the All Souls exam have included, water, style, integrity, innocence, and bias. This essay was dropped because the examiners felt that it was not a good test of the candidates’ potential to pursue worthwhile research. I find this a little hard to fathom given that undergraduate education at Oxford (certainly in my time), tends to be on the narrow side, and the one-word essay was a chance for the examiners to see a broader side of the candidates. Four to six finalists are invited to a viva (oral exam), then dinner with about 75 members of the college. The dinner, in theory, does not form part of the assessment, but is supposed to be simply a reward for those candidates who have reached the latter stages of the selection process. However, a friend of mine, who was a fellow for many years, told me that the candidates are informally judged on their quality as dinner companions. Whether this is decisive or not, I do not know. During this discussion he also passed on a legend that at one time the dessert was cherry pie – a test to see what the candidates did with the pits.

About one dozen Examination Fellows are at the college at any one time. There are no compulsory teaching or research requirements; they can study anything for free at Oxford with room and board provided. As “Londoners” they can pursue approved non-academic careers if desired, with a reduced stipend, as long as they pursue academia on a part-time basis and attend weekend dinners at the college during their first academic year. As of 2011 each Examination Fellow receives a stipend of £14,842 annually for the first two years; the stipend then varies depending on whether the fellow pursues an academic career.


Every hundred years, and generally on 14 January, there is a commemorative feast after which the fellows parade around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by a “Lord Mallard” who is carried in a chair, in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built. During the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied – originally a live bird, latterly either dead (1901) or carved from wood (2001). The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101. The precise origin of the custom is not known but it dates from at least 1632, when the archbishop of Canterbury chastised the fellows for drunken rioting at the feast.


Here’s a sterling English recipe for cherry pie. Make sure you include the pits!