All Souls College, Oxford

Simon Green

All Souls College, Oxford.

All Souls College, Oxford, was founded in 1438 by Henry VI and Henry Chichele to prepare learned men for Holy Orders. It was and remains one of the wealthiest of Oxford colleges. It has no undergraduates; it consists of fellows, some of whom are non-residential. Henson became a fellow of the college at the time of its ‘second birth’ under the leadership of Sir William Anson. As Warden from 1881 to his death in 1914, Anson gave the College the new purpose of supplying ideas and public servants to help maintain the fabric of the British state.[1] During his tenure, the College excelled in the study of history and law, and Henson’s mind was shaped as much by these disciplines as that of theology.

Henson’s fellowships. Henson was a fellow 1884-1891, 1896-1903, and 1939 to his death. After the end of his original ‘prize’ fellowship in 1891, Henson reflected on how different his life would have been ‘in all probability’, had he not been elected seven years previously: ‘certainly, that election was the mostly unlikely thing in the world.  What I am is very largely the creation of All Souls College: and I am not ungrateful’.[2] As well as commenting on how keenly he felt the loss of the fellowship, he reminded himself that his parish must claim his full attention, which it had not always received in the past because of the distraction of All Souls.

He did, however, become eligible to apply for one of the new class of £50 fellowships for selected ‘ex prize’ fellows, who were no longer resident in Oxford but remained willing to contribute to College life and were able to do so because they were unmarried. Anson had introduced these fellowships as a way of circumventing the abolition of celibacy restrictions on fellowships that had been recommended by the Selborne Commission report of 1881. By College statute, the number of these £50 fellowships was limited to 12, and demand for them always outstripped the supply. The celibacy restriction, continued only for this class of fellowships, was maintained by College by-laws rather than statutes, because support for the provision was not unanimous and by this route a smaller majority was needed to approve the fellowships. While the celibacy restriction was the norm, it did not apply in every case.  But resignation was certainly expected shortly after marriage amongst these fellows.

In 1892 this category was oversubscribed, not least because Curzon and Oman, elected in 1883, had taken up £50 fellowships in 1891. As a result, Henson’s close friend Pember had to wait another year, until 1893. He would have received preference over Henson because he was the senior of the two elections, his original college – Balliol – being older than Henson’s, who had not attended an undergraduate college. Even so, Henson, rather unusually, had to wait another three years to be elected to this fellowship. Indeed, he may only have been preferred then as a result of Curzon’s marriage, and resignation, in 1896. Henson would, of course, ordinarily have been expected to resign himself after his own marriage in 1902. In the event, as the journal entry shows, he signaled his resignation by responding to pressure and not attending the Gaudy and College meeting in May 1903, seven months after his marriage.

Henson was made an honorary fellow in 1939. It is unclear why he never became a ‘distinguished fellow’, an election usually made late in life for former (‘quondam’) fellows who had given distinguished service in Church and state, tenable for married men and for life.  As retiring bishop of Durham, Henson’s claim to such a fellowship was strong; possibly old rivalries ruled him out.

Henson remarked that during the controversy over his appointment to Hereford, ‘All Souls stood staunchly by me’.[3]

The first entry beneath his name on the slab in Durham Cathedral where his ashes are interred is ‘Fellow of All Souls’.

Caricature of Cosmo Lang in 1906, as Bishop of Stepney. Vanity Fair, April 19th, 1906.

The ‘Lord Mallard Ritual’ is a curious fellows’ ceremony. It is something of a moving feast, as Henson’s journal entry on 14 January 1901 shows; but on or around the evening of 1 January, at the turn of each century, the fellows parade in single file around the rooftops of the College, purportedly in search of the legendary mallard of All Souls, a mythical bird mysteriously associated with the founding of the College. They are led in this quest by ‘Lord Mallard’, one of their number, who is seated in a chair and carried at the front of the procession by two or more of the fellows. Lord Mallard continuously shouts (and sings) in order to arouse, or disturb, anyway in the hope of sighting the bird. Once the procession has completed one circuit of the rooftop, the quest is abandoned, whether successful or not. Lord Mallard is chosen by the fellows, for an indeterminate term, usually on account of the quality of his (or her) singing voice. Throughout most of Henson’s lifetime, Lord Mallard was Cosmo Lang.

The Lord Mallard song is a multi-verse, and somewhat scabrous, ditty sung in celebration of the mysterious All Souls’ mallard.  It is sung twice a year by Lord Mallard in the company of those fellows and quondam fellows, celebrating the winter and summer gaudies.  No visitors or guests are present on these occasions.  At the end of the dinner, Lord Mallard breaks into verse. The fellows join in at the end of each verse with a chorus:

Oh, for the blood of
King Edward,
Oh, for the blood of
King Edward,
It was a swapping, swapping, mallard.

The term ‘the blood of King Edward’ is thought to refer to King Edward VI, boy-king of the English reformation. 

Stated General Meeting (SGM). The College has four SMGs per year, at which attendance by the fellows is compulsory, on pain of fine. 

Gaudy.  All Souls holds two ‘gaudies’ (‘Gaudiam’, or joy) per year. These are feasts. One is held on the evening of the Prize Fellowship election in November, one in the summer, just before the June SGM. The winter gaudy is traditionally accompanied by fireworks. It is staged on the Saturday most nearly after All Souls Day. This may be on 1 November, but it may also be a few days later. The ‘gaudies’ are open only to fellows and quondam fellows. No guests are invited. That is because on these occasions – and on these occasions only – the Mallard Song is sung, in Hall, at the end of the main part of the dinner, immediately before the fellows enter Common Room, for dessert.

Bursar’s dinner. A feast, held once each year, on the evening of the SGM of the College in March. The March SGM is traditionally the occasion at which the Estates Bursar revealed the financial performance of the College during the previous year, and announced the annual ‘dividend’ (technically the amount of money to be divided up amongst the fellows as stipends).

[1] S.J.D. Green and P. Horden, ‘Introduction: Anson’s legacy – All Souls and the wider world, c. 1850-1950’, in Green and Horden (eds.), All Souls and the wider world: statesmen, scholars, and adventurers, c. 1850-1950 (Oxford, 2011).
[2] Journal, 3 Nov. 1891.
[3] Retrospect, I, 214.