To get into All Souls College Oxford, one has to take what has been called ‘the hardest examination in the world’. The college has no undergraduates, the members of it are Fellows, and over the past 100 years or so these have included Isaiah Berlin, Marina Warner, Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Cecile Fabre.
To be a Fellow of All Souls is therefore to be among the intellectual elite, the brightest of the bright.
Which is why the it is a little surprising to hear about the Mallard Ceremony, held every 100 years (that’s right, just once a century, the last one was in 2001 so we’re none of us likely to be around for the next one).
After a very good dinner in the college’s Codrington Library, the Fellows parade around the college holding flaming torches, carrying in a sedan chair a character called ‘Lord Mallard’, following a Fellow with a mallard (now a wooden model, in 1901 a dead duck, previously a live bird) on a pole.
They sing the Mallard Song, the first verse and chorus of which go:
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!
The origins of the procession and the song are said to go back to 1437 when a giant mallard flew out of the foundations of the college as it was being built. As well as the centennial procession, the song is sung at the Bursar’s Dinner in March and the college’s Gaudy in November – although sans flaming torches and Lord Mallard.
It just goes to show that getting drunk, pratting about and singing daft songs can be excused anywhere and any time as long as you can claim ‘tradition‘.