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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Handy Guide to Oxford

by C. R. L. Fletcher

published by Oxford University Press
London & Humphrey Milford 1926

The text is in the public domain.

This text has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5

 p53  Chapter IV
Queen's, University, All Souls, Bodleian Library

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Queen's College Gateway (c. 1710)

Our next excursion shall be more towards the centre of the city. Almost opposite your hospital, but a trifle further west, stands the gaunt but imposing pile of Queen's College, founded by Robert Egglesfield, chaplain to good Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III. The date of the foundation is 1340. Tradition, perhaps, rather than history, claims, as once having been members of Queen's College, both the Black Prince (son of Edward III) and Prince Hal (afterwards Henry V). And it is just possible that,  p54 contemporary with the former, was a poor scholar called John Wyclif, the 'morning star of the Reformation'. I have often thought that a talk between those two boys would have been worth hearing. Egglesfield was a Cumberland man, and the college has always largely been recruited from Cumberland, Westmoreland, and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Externally, hardly a stone of the old buildings remains, and very little has been added since Provost Lancaster began to rebuild the whole in 1709. We may like or dislike 'classical' architecture; but no one can deny that Queen's is impressive by its mere weight. The inside of the Chapel is a little earlier (late seventeenth century) and the interior of the exceedingly fine Library in the back quad is of the same date. In this library you may see a quaint wooden figure believed to represent Queen Philippa herself, and there are also portraits of King Henry V and his uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, in stained glass. In the college plate-room is kept a beautiful and curious drinking-horn, which is handed round on festal occasions at dinner, and is believed to have been given by the founder himself. Other curious customs at Queen's are the summoning of the college to dinner, not by the ringing of a bell, but by the blowing of a silver trumpet; the providing of a boar's head for dinner on Christmas Day (this is carried into the hall in procession while the choristers sing a Latin song); and the presentation, by the Bursar of the college, to each Fellow on New Year's Day, of a needle and thread with the advice, 'Take this and be thrifty'. The first Victoria Cross ever given to a Territorial officer was awarded to a member of Queen's College.

 p56  Separated from Queen's by the narrow 'Queen's Lane' on the east side is the tiny foundation of St. Edmund Hall, the only one surviving of the ancient halls. At the present time St. Edmund Hall — 'Teddy' as the young men call it — is under the protection of Queen's College, and may perhaps one day be absorbed into it, as St. Alban's has been into Merton. Its normal complement of men seldom reaches thirty, and yet for many years it has been able to put an 'Eight', and sometimes even a 'Torpid' also, on the river for the boat-races. It is a sweet little single quad into which one looks, covered with creepers, and its back windows overlook New College Garden, in which you are in the habit of walking.

Right opposite the High Street front of Queen's we come to the long front of University College, whose foundation by William of Durham dates at least from 1280; there is, indeed, something to be said for the earlier date of 1249. But I fear there is nothing at all to be said for the claim, which was first put forward late in the fourteenth or early in the fifteenth century, to date the college right back to King Alfred. Documents, indeed, seem to have been unscrupulously forged by bygone lawyers, in the interests of Oxford against its rival Cambridge, purporting to show this king as the founder not only of this college but of the whole University; whereas the truth is that in Alfred's days the site of Oxford was probably a bit of swampy woodland. The college still humorously pretends to derive its foundation from the Saxon king, and occasionally celebrates festivals to commemorate him; but every one knows that it is a myth. There is little really remarkable in the  p57 present buildings, which were begun in the early and finished in the late seventeenth century; but no one can fail to notice how happy and fortunate is the contrast by which this simple and dark grey specimen of the architecture of James I's time comes opposite the Queen's College buildings of a century later; and the site of 'Univ.', as the undergraduates call it, on the inside of the great curve of the High Street, is surely one of the finest in Oxford. The Chapel and Hall face us as we enter the front gateway; the lady on the outside of this gate is Queen Anne; the gentleman on the inside is her unfortunate father, James II. At the entrance to the second quad stands Anne's elder sister, Queen Mary II. A pretty bridge over Logic Lane (which here runs from the High Street to Merton Street) leads from the east side of the second quad to the newest buildings in the college, finished in 1906. The Master's fine new house looks wholly into Logic Lane, and was built by the same architect who designed the newest buildings at Magdalen. One of the great benefactors to Univ. was the famous physician Dr. Radcliffe, who was a pioneer of natural science and medical study in Oxford, and from whose foundation was built the great dome of the Radcliffe Camera, which we shall visit very shortly. Another illustrious member of the college was the poet Shelley. He had been known as the Eton, where he was a schoolboy, as 'Mad Shelley', and when he came up to Oxford he certainly seems to have been at least rather eccentric; after a short residence he was expelled for writing a pamphlet against religion. At the western end of University College is a beautiful sculptured memorial of him,  p58 the figure representing his body, which was drowned in the Mediterranean in 1822. But Shelley's soul was not drowned; he had very nearly outgrown his youthful follies at the date of his death, and is perhaps the greatest poet, after Shakespeare, that England ever produced. The 'Shelley Room', built to receive this memorial, is reached from the western corner of the first quad.

Univ. has always highly distinguished itself, both in the Schools and on the River: eleven times its boat has ended as 'Head of the River' in the Summer Eights, and the year 1914 was the last of these occasions. It has contributed besides innumerable members to the Oxford Eight, and to cricket elevens and football teams; and now, blessings on it, it has sent all its able-bodied undergraduates to save the cause of honour and freedom in Europe.

Cross the High Street again and go a little higher up and you will enter the gateway of All Souls college — the 'College of All Faithful Departed Souls', whose festival is kept on the day after that of 'All Saints', November 2. It is a unique foundation, for though it consists of a Warden and forty Fellows there are only four undergraduates: these are called 'Bible Clerks', and their duties (apart from their own private business to work hard and pass their examinations well) are to read the lessons in chapel on week-days and to find the place in the Bible for the Fellows to read them on Sundays. The college was founded by Archbishop Chicheley, Henry V's friend, to pray for the souls of those who fell in the wars of that king and of his son, Henry VI, against France. Chicheley was an old man when he founded  p59 it, and those wars were already going badly. The first quad, as we still have it, is the founder's own work and utterly unspoiled by restorations; it seems to me an excellent specimen of the plain style of the fifteenth century. On the north side stands the Chapel, with its wonderful restored 'reredos' (i.e. stone screen) at the east end. This has a curious history; it was broken to pieces at the Reformation and covered with a thick coat of plaster, on which was painted in 1715 a large and rather ridiculous picture of the founder being taken up to heaven! In 1870 this was removed, and as much of the original 'tabernacle work' as was left was cleaned and repaired, and the whole was filled with statues, representing not only saints, angels, doctors, and fathers of the Church, a crucifix below and the last judgement above, but also statues of the warriors of Henry V and VI's wars. As you look at them surely Shakespeare's lines, put into the King's mouth before the Battle of Agincourt, come back to you:

then shall our names

Familiar in his mouth as household words —

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester —

Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.

In the middle, on either side of the crucifix, are the founder himself and King Henry VI. Besides this reredos the Chapel contains beautiful oak stalls of the founder's date, and a rather barbaric, yet effective, screen at the west end, separating it from the fine Ante-chapel, of the seventeenth century. There is much beautiful stained glass in the Ante-chapel windows. In the same front quad, on the east side,  p60 is a steep flight of steps leading up to a long room with a very fine roof with plaster pendants of the time of Queen Elizabeth. The Warden's House, which lies to the east of the main college building, was erected at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and runs almost (but not quite) down to Queen's College. Now there were recently at Queen's a few merry young men who used to amuse themselves by climbing roofs at night, and calling themselves the 'Alpine Club'; and it is on record that the late Warden of All Souls complained to the Provost of Queen's that the 'Queen's Alpine Club' had stolen five of his chimney-pots in one year. But we ourselves​a at All Souls have a roof festival of our own, though it takes place but once in a century: on the first day of each century the Fellows of the college solemnly walk round the leads singing a song 'in praise of the Mallard'.​b The Mallard is to us what the Pelican is at Corpus, and the Griffin at Trinity, the emblem of the college; it is believed that, when the foundation-stone of the college was laid, a mallard-duck flew out of a drain and wheeled round overhead: and so there is a regular song, which is sung in our common-room in praise of this sacred bird upon all festival occasions, and the regular official who sings it is called 'the Lord Mallard'. Archbishops of Canterbury (who in virtue of the founder's statutes, have some jurisdiction over us and are called 'Visitors') have remonstrated with us in vain on this custom. 'What do you, grave and reverend men, to make this ado about a foolish mallard?' writes one of them. Early in the eighteenth century were erected also the great buildings in the back quad; the site seems to have  p61 been an orchard and garden before that. Sir Christopher Wren was a Fellow of All Souls, and his favourite pupil, Hawkesmoor, was the architect; and, though the twin towers which crown the eastern side of the building are really ugly in themselves, I think there is much to be said for the view, which I have heard in that quad on moonlight nights, that 'somehow or other the architect blundered into magnificence'. Magnificent is indeed a light word for the perfect proportions, both within and without, of the great Library, which forms the northern wing of this quad, 200 feet long, and easily housing a collection of 70,000 or 80,000 volumes. The Hall on the opposite side is of the same date; and, though plain and small, it has some good modern stained-glass windows with portraits of distinguished Fellows of the college in them. Opposite the Hall is the tiny circular buttery in which the Fellows take their lunch. Only here and at the neighbour college of Queen's is 'home-brewed ale' still made, both 'small' and strong. The strong, called 'old ale', is twice brewed and is kept for three years before it is drunk.

The college is largely devoted to the study of law, and some of the greatest lawyers and statesmen of England have been Fellows of it; in the library you may see the fine seated statue of Sir William Blackstone, the author of the greatest work on English Law ever written (about 1760). The late Lord Salisbury was a Fellow, and Mr. Gladstone was an honorary Fellow, of All Souls. The latter spent a week with us in college in 1891, and very amusing and delightful his conversation was. Many of the Fellows are engaged in legal business in London, or  p62 are in the service of the Government in various capacities; others hold professor­ships of Law, History, and Political Economy in the University. The Fellowships are filled up by examination each November, as vacancies occur, and the man who wins one is accounted fortunate. Indeed, a man who is first a Scholar of Balliol and then a Fellow of All Souls is reckoned to have won the two greatest things Oxford has to offer. All the younger Fellows who are not serving the Crown in civil offices​1 have gone to fight, and the youngest of them all — the greatest scholar as well as the most famous athlete of his year — was the first Oxford Don to fall in battle, November, 1914.​c

Well, now that we have seen All Souls we will, if I can find my key of the 'Iron Gate' in the back quad, go out into Radcliffe Square. Perhaps it is the most remarkable square in England; but we shall see it best if we enter the great domed building called the Radcliffe Camera, which stands in its midst. We enter by the north door, go up the spiral staircase, and find ourselves in a round room of the early eighteenth century, full of books; by a little door on its northern side we go up a still narrower staircase and emerge on the leads. At our feet lies the Square; on the east All Souls, which we have just left; on the south the stately church of St. Mary the Virgin, with its wonderful thirteenth-century tower and spire, which most people naturally think, at first view, must be the cathedral of Oxford; on the west is Brasenose College, and to the north the great block of buildings  p64 called the 'Old Schools', now wholly occupied by the Bodleian Library. At the north-west corner is the pretty little garden of Exeter College (into which you can also peep from the windows of the Bodleian itself), with a magnificent horse-chestnut tree at its east end, for which Exeter pays to All Souls (I don't know why and I believe no one knows why) the curious yearly rent of £4. Beyond rise tower on tower, spire on spire, roof on roof; and the merit of this view is that you are so low down that you don't see the detestable red brick suburbs at all, but the green of the country seems to come right up to the grey of the city.

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Radcliffe Camera from the Back Quad, All Souls

Go down again and cross the northern side of the square; enter through the small arch and you find yourself in the great quad of the Schools, all built straight up from the ground in the reign of James I, whose statue adorns the inside of the eastern tower called the 'Tower of the Five Orders'. King James is represented in the act of presenting a book with each of his hands to a kneeling figure; the book may perhaps be the Bible, but, also perhaps, it is a copy of that learned but unwise King's own 'Works'. On the opposite (west) side of the quad we enter a sort of cloister, properly called the 'Pro-Scholium', but less reverently 'the Pig Market'; for it is a sad fact that, in the middle of the sixteenth century, those humorous animals were actually bought and sold here, and the name has remained. In the middle of this cloister a door leads into the famous Divinity School, in which the examinations (consisting verbal questions and answers, not of written papers) used to be held. This is an almost perfect example  p66 of the best fifteenth-century work. A door at its west end leads into the small but very fine Convocation House of the seventeenth century. It is here that the wise men meet who make (subject always to the 'Most High Court of Parliament') the laws which govern the University. They do it every Tuesday afternoon during term. They are very wise men, and doubt they make very wise laws, although some profane people say that the habit of making and altering laws is a dangerous one and that it grows upon the law-makers until it becomes a passion and a bad passion. It is at least certain that the speeches which these wise men make about their new laws are very long. There are two law-making bodies: Congregation, consisting of all the resident Masters of Arts (i.e. dons); and Convocation, consisting of all Masters of Arts whose names are still on the books of the University, wheresoever they reside. Obviously this last is a very large body, perhaps seven or eight thousand altogether. The system was in process of being altered when the war burst upon us, but I believe that both bodies must consent to a law before it becomes binding on the University. Yet only when some very important question is at stake are the outside members of Convocation summoned. When such a question is proposed as 'Shall Greek learning be abolished?' or 'Shall women be admitted to all the privileges of the University?' (they have got most of them already), then the non-resident members flock to Oxford in crowds, and usually manage to save our ancient institutions from the energy of our own reformers.

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Tower of the Five Orders

The Divinity School (c. 1450)

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Vault of Divinity School

But, as such members would far outflow the little  p68 Convocation House, the debate on such occasions takes place in the stately building just to the north, called The Sheldonian Theatre, after its founder, Gilbert Sheldon, Charles II's Archbishop of Canterbury. This was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1664; King Charles II stands in stone over its entrance. Inside is a curious painted ceiling. In this building is held every June the 'Commemoration of the founders and benefactors of the University', a regular pompous ceremonial, with all the Doctors in scarlet robes and lots of ladies in gay dresses in the galleries. The prize compositions of the year are read by their winners; a fine organ plays music; and 'honorary degrees' are conferred by the Vice-Chancellor (who speaks in Latin) on distinguished persons, often on great soldiers and statesmen, and men of science from distant lands. The undergraduates sit in the galleries along with the ladies, and till quite lately a sort of licence was allowed to them, on this day, of calling out good-natured chaff to the grave persons below them. When the great Arctic traveller, Nansen, had a degree given him, some wag let down by a string from the gallery a large white bear. Most of us remember the rocking cheers which greeted Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener when they received their degrees. Five-and‑thirty years ago I stood in the dock myself, to read some ridiculous prize essay or other; and a horrid boy in the gallery above me slowly dealt a pack of cards on to my head while I was reading, and I had to keep brushing them away with my hands. But the fun was always good-humoured and had to be taken in good part.

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The Sheldonian Theatre, from the Broad,
with the
Old Clarendon Building on the left and the Old Ashmolean on the right

 p70  Leaving the Sheldonian by the eastern door we shall see on our left a massive classical pile called the Clarendon Building, erected in 1713 as the office of the University Printing Press, then and ever since called 'The Clarendon Press'. It was refounded and lodged here when the manuscript of the great Lord Chancellor Clarendon's History of the Great Rebellion (i.e. the civil war between Charles I and his Parliament) was bequeathed to the University. The Press migrated in 1830 to more spacious premises far away in Walton Street; and even these are much too narrow for its energy at the present day, and were just going to be enlarged when the war interrupted the scheme. It has been for over 200 years by far the greatest printing press in the world; its paper, its type, and the learning of its productions, in short everything except its profits, have been the envy of all rivals. The earliest Oxford books were printed in private houses, until, in 1669, the University set up its own plant in the Sheldonian Theatre. So, until Clarendon's building was erected, Oxford books bore the imprint 'At the Theater'º where now we find 'At the Clarendon Press'. A yard or two away to the west is the Old Ashmolean, now devoted to the New English Dictionary, but formerly the home of the natural history and other collections of the seventeenth-century student and antiquary, Elias Ashmole. Its date is 1679‑80, and its treasures have now been removed to a larger set of rooms in Beaumont Street. Take a peep, before you leave this northern edge of the precincts of the Schools, into the stately and beautiful Broad Street,​d running  p72 up westwards to the fronts of Trinity and Balliol Colleges.

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Old Clarendon Building

And then return due south into the first Schools quadrangle and, turning your back on gentle King James and his two books, ascend the broad and easy staircase to the glorious Bodleian Library itself. Push open the baize-covered swing-door at the top of this staircase, and you enter a room of singular beauty and singular shape. It is like the letter T with a stroke at the bottom of it, I: we enter at the left corner of the bottom stroke. And this is called 'Sir Thomas Bodley's End'; the upright stroke is called Duke Humfrey's Library, and the top stroke is called 'John Selden's End'. Only into 'Bodley' are visitors admitted, but from the centre of 'Bodley' you can gaze along 'Duke Humfrey', and just see the centre of 'Selden'. All the rest is reserved for readers, and a man must prove that he is a 'serious' reader to get permission to use it. The roof is divided into little squares, each blazoned with the arms of the University, whose motto is 'Dominus Illuminatio Mea' (the Lord is my Light). Glass cases, full of most priceless and beautiful manuscripts and other treasures, run the whole length of 'Bodley': there you may see prayer-books, with wonderful illuminations on each page, that once belonged to kings and queens, Shakespeare's autograph, and Latin verses in Milton's own hand, notes passed to and fro between Charles II and Lord Chancellor Clarendon at some meeting of the Privy Council, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Burmese books of a thousand and more years ago, Mexican picture writings, Egyptian tablets, ancient Roman scrolls of  p74 papyrus once scorched in the lava flood that destroyed Herculaneum, early English natural history books and anatomy books, all profusely illustrated; and each of these treasures worth the weight in gold of the largest of living Oxford dons. There is a beautiful stained glass window behind the Librarian's chair with Queen Elizabeth's arms on it, and a representation of the marriage of Henry VI to his Queen Margaret.

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Duke Humfrey

'Duke Humfrey' is the oldest part of the library, and is so called because Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, was in 1440 the founder of the second library of the University; the first, which dated from about 1320, and used to kept in St. Mary's Church, having been 'lost, stolen, or strayed', a fate to which libraries in the Middle Ages were all too liable. It was this room which Sir Thomas Bodley, whose acquaintance you first made on your visit to Merton, stocked with books when he began to found the third, i.e. the present, library in 1598‑1612. He had been a great traveller, and an ambassador abroad, and had married a rich window, whose fortune went to help him in his glorious task. 'Selden End' was added in Charles I's reign, when Archbishop Laud gave a quantity of valuable Arabic manuscripts, and got its name when the learned John Selden's books were given to the library in 1659.

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Tower Chamber and Pembroke Statue, Bodleian Library

The library has far outgrown these original buildings; it has not only swallowed every conceivable building within reach or touch of itself, but like a regiment in the trenches in Flanders, it has dug itself into the earth that is beneath your feet as you stand in Radcliffe Square; there is and a huge underground vault filled with books, and those daring  p76 spirits who have visited it say that little handcarts run on tram-lines from end to end of it to carry the books as they are put on the shelves. How far the vault extends, or how far it is intended to extend in the future, are secrets known to the Librarian alone. And there is need for such space; for by Act of Parliament the library is entitled to receive a copy of every book, pamphlet, and newspaper printed in England — yes, of every frivolous novel just as much as of every learned work. Some people say that this is overdone and that a great learned library should not keep every copy of the Sporting Times, or apply for every 'shilling shocker' that is printed, especially as less space is left in which to store learned books printed abroad.


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Queen of Scots

As we go out of 'Bodley' we turn sharp to our right and ascend a few steps into what is called the Picture Gallery. With the exception of a very pathetic portrait believed to be that of Mary, Queen of Scots, and one of the gallant explorer Martin Frobisher, there are few actual pictures here worth looking at, and those that remain have been shoved up to the roof by the encroaching bookcases. But on the floor and in the windows there are many real treasures (each carefully labelled). Guy Fawkes's lantern used to be here, but has now been removed to the New Ashmolean Museum. But there is Sir Francis Drake's chair made out of the wood of the first English ship that sailed round the world; Sir Thomas Bodley's iron chest, in which the cash of the library used to be kept in days when burglars were innocent of electrical methods of bursting locks; Lord Clarendon's writing-desk; Shelley's guitar; and many other curiosities. At the end of this room  p78 you may look into, but may not enter, the large new reading-room which extends over the north side of the 'Schools'.

Let us leave the Picture Gallery and Library by the well-worn stair and go out of the eastern gate in the second quad; we shall find ourselves opposite the entrance to New College Lane with the comparatively modern and uninteresting buildings of Hertford College to right and left of us and a pretty new bridge connecting them. We may go home by this grey lane between the high walls of New College on the left and Queen's on the right; at a certain point at its second sharp turn this lane becomes 'Queen's Lane', and finally brings us past St. Peter's Church and St. Edmund Hall (left) to the High Street almost opposite the Hospital gates.

The Author's Note:

1 The Government has refused permission to clerks in its various offices to take service in the army or navy.

Thayer's Notes:

a Though a Magdalen man (as he tells us on p39), Fletcher was a Fellow of All Souls when he wrote the first edition of this book; by the time of the second edition that you're reading here, he had resigned to give himself completely to writing.

b According to an appendix of poems in the Gentleman's Magazine for the Year MDCCXCVII, p328,

The Swopping Song of the Mallardians. An Ode. As it is to be performed on Tuesday the 14th of January, being the anniversary Commemoration of the Mallard.

Griffin, bustard, turkey, capon,

Let other hungry mortals gape on,

And on their bones with stomachs fall hard;

But let All Souls mind the Mallard.

Oh! the blood of good King Edward,

It was a swopping, swopping mallard.

The poets feign Jove turned to swan,

But let them prove it if they can;

As for our proof, 'tis not at all hard,

For 'twas a swopping, swopping Mallard.

Oh! the blood, &c.

Swopping he was from knee to thigh,

Swopping he was from bill to eye;

His swopping * * * * * * (desunt nonnulla)

Outswopped all the winged nation.

Oh! the blood, &c.

The Romans once adored the gander

More than they did their chief commander:

Who did preserve, if fame do'nt fool us,

The place that's call'd the head of Tolus.

Oh! the blood, &c.

Therefore let 's sing and dance a galliard,

To the remembrance of the mallard;

And, as the mallard does in pool,

We'll tipple, dive, and duck, in bowl.

Oh! the blood, &c.

Printed in the year M DCC III.

"The Mallard night is celebrated every year on the 14th of Jan. in remembrance of a huge mallard, or drake, found (as tradition goes) imprisoned in a gutter or drain under ground, and grown to a vast bigness, at the digging for the foundation of the college. This mallard is the accidental occasion of a great gaudy once a year and great mirth, though the commemoration of the foundation is the chief occasion. For on this occasion is always sung a merry old song." Pointer's Account of Oxford, 57‑58. Mr. Perry's conjecture, that a duck might live as long as a goose, drew on him, from the pen of the late Dr. Benj. Buckler, subwarden of All Souls, a humorous "Complete Vindication of the Mallard of All Souls College, 1751."

The Mallard Song, then, stays alive in the affections of the college by being sung yearly; and once a century — lest it be said it is not "high poetry" — they pull out all the stops and climb on the roof with it, to share it with the birds of the air. The "head of Tolus" is of course the Capitolium, the name of which is here jocularly derived from caput, capitis (so far so good) and a purely aetiological Tolus. Students of Roman history will remember the Gaulish invasion in the early 4c B.C. when the Capitoline Hill was defended by geese.

c The author's own son, R. W. Fletcher. He will be mentioned again, p111.

d Stephanie Jenkins has given us a beautiful, rich, informative site on Oxford, her buildings, and their history: here's the Broad Street section.

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Page updated: 21 Mar 17