Higher Education Postcard – All Souls College, Oxford

Today’s card from Hugh Jones’ postbag shows an ancient foundation which is all a bit ducky

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

The aftermath of the first world war saw a number of universities founded or expanded, as a mark of commemoration.

But its not a new habit.

Let’s go to Oxford, and take a look at All Souls College. This was founded in 1438, by King Henry VI and by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, to commemorate the victims of the hundred years’ war. These are the souls of the college’s name, which in full is the College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed.

(The Hundred Years War, as a reminder, was the series of conflicts between the Kingdoms of England and France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – think Crecy, Agincourt and Henry V; and think Joan of Arc, the Dauphin, and the Battle of Castillon. If you’ve never heard of the latter it’s because English schools don’t teach you about the times that the English were on the wrong side of a fight.)

On the side of the King

The college has nearly always been postgraduate only – from the outset it comprised forty fellows, each of whom had taught elsewhere for three years. Only for one short period in its history did it admit undergraduates: in the seventeenth century a number were admitted to act as servants to the fellows. (You may insert your own joke here about things not changing that much etc.)

In the civil war, the college was loyal to the King, supplying over 250lb of plate to the royal mint, and lending a further £654, 14s. 3d (over £100,000 in today’s prices). This was not written off as a bad debt until 1857, which might be taken to demonstrate either great faith or great naivete within the college’s historical management. More likely, it was a consequence of new Ordinances which sought to improve the standing of the college, and a new approach to dealing with skeletons in cupboards.

Duck hunt

You could be forgiven for thinking that All Souls College is fictional. Here’s why: a college custom is the Hunting of the Mallard:

Legend has it that during the building work a huge Mallard was disturbed, taking to the wing and avoiding capture. Alternatively, a huge mallard was found dead in a drain during the digging of the college foundations. Either way, the fellows came to regret the bird had not been taken alive, and a tradition grew up that every year the bird should be hunted high and low throughout the college. Alcohol may have been involved.

As this is Oxford a certain protocol was established: a Lord Mallard was elected to lead the hunt, backed up by six officers. Medals were struck to commemorate the occasion for these officials, and provide them with extra dignity on the day – January 14, the college Gaudy or feast. The officials carry white staffs, and the party is reinforced by present and past fellows armed with sticks and lanterns. And of course there is a college song dedicated to the hunt, whose scansion and rhyme is either execrable or eccentric, according to your taste. A live bird tied to a pole used to be carried before the party, but this was deemed cruel and probably inconvenient for the bearer, so a stuffed mallard has become the symbolic prey in modern times.

Perhaps because of the excesses associated with the tradition it has been relegated from an annual event to centennial one, and as the last was held in 2001 not many of us are likely to see the next.

One year out

This marks the first year of my postcard blogs for Wonkhe. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them; I’m enormously grateful for the good folk at Wonkhe for letting me use their platform. Please do let me know if there’s an institution that you’d like me to cover.

The card was sent on 29 July 1925, and reads:

Dear Fred, Just a line to wish you many happy returns of the day. We shall be sending you something on Wed by courier. Love and very best wishes from us all to you

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