11 Amazing Oxford Traditions

Image shows part of the Bodleian library.

Oxford University surely has more quaint traditions per square mile than any other university.

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The university’s fascinating customs – which range from the sublime to the ridiculous – are one of the aspects of this ancient seat of learning that most captivates tourists and most compels students to apply. Some date from the university’s founding many centuries ago; others are the more recent invention of imaginative undergraduates. But they all contribute to the university’s unique atmosphere and make for some great anecdotes for anyone who’s fortunate enough to encounter them. Here are some of the best.

1. Matriculation

Image shows an Oxford university matriculation.
Oxford students in sub-fusc at matriculation.

Where better to start than with the tradition that formally confirms your place as a student of Oxford University. Most other universities ceremoniously mark only the end of your studies, but, Oxford being Oxford, your enrolment at the university is considered equally worthy of pomp and ceremony. Thus the Matriculation Ceremony, a grand occasion that takes place at the end of your first week, involving donning your sub-fusc (formal academic dress – that’s another Oxford tradition) and processing with all the other Freshers to the Sheldonian Theatre to be initiated into the university. After the ceremony, there will be individual and year group photographs taken back at college for you to give to your proud parents, so that they can show off your achievements to their friends.

2. Formal Hall

Image shows Selwyn College, Cambridge, set up for formal hall.
Some colleges have formal hall multiple times per week.

The frequency and formality of Formal Hall varies from one college to another, but it’s essentially a three-course dinner that takes place in the Hogwarts-esque environs of the colleges’ dining halls, with students sitting on benches at long tables, and the college’s Fellows presiding grandly over the occasion from their own table, placed perpendicular to the other tables and known as “High Table”. Formal Hall practices vary between colleges. Some hold Formal Hall virtually every night, while others hold it only once a week or even a few times a term. At St John’s, for example, there are two dinner sittings each night except Saturday, one “Informal Hall” and one “Formal Hall”. Gowns are worn for Formal Hall, but in most colleges it doesn’t matter what kind of clothes you wear underneath your gown; some require formalwear. The meal has three courses with waiter service (unlike Informal Hall, where you serve yourself), and on Sundays, the college choir sings grace, which is a delightfully ‘Oxfordy’ tradition.

3. Oxford Time

In the days before railways, the UK’s towns and villages functioned on their own time. The advent of the railways necessitated a standardised time, which some towns took to more readily than others. Oxford’s local time was five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time, and a relic of this former system of time exists today in the fact that the university’s lectures, exams and church services are always scheduled for five minutes past the hour. If you try to run to normal time, it’s a good way of making sure you’re always on time to lectures.

4. Great Tom – the Christ Church bell

Image shows Tom Tower at Christ Church.
The Tom Tower bell rings according to Oxford Time.

You can also see a reminder of ‘Oxford Time’ in a tradition from Christ Church involving the bell in its imposing Tom Tower. At 9.05pm every night, the bell is struck 101 times, and then doesn’t ring again until 8am the following morning. This practice dates from the college’s founding in 1546, and each toll of the bell represents one of the college’s original 101 students. It was meant to alert them to the fact that the college gates were closing, so they had to hurry back.

5. Ascension Day activities

At least three Oxford rituals mark Ascension Day, an event on the religious calendar that celebrates the ascension of Jesus to Heaven. The traditions don’t have an especially religious flavour, however.

Lincoln versus Brasenose

Image shows Brasenose College, Oxford.
Lincoln and Brasenose are neighbours on Turl Street.

There’s a strong tradition of rivalries between colleges at Oxford, and none more so than between Lincoln College and Brasenose College. Apparently once upon a time (centuries ago), there were riots going on in Oxford between the townsfolk and members of the university, a rivalry nicely summed up by the expression “Town and Gown”. A gang of “Town” people were chasing a couple of Oxford students through the town – one from each of the aforementioned colleges. What happened next has gone down in history as an act of infamy: Lincoln College opened its door to allow the beleaguered Lincoln student in, but they wouldn’t let the Brasenose student in, with the result that the angry mob then killed him. This gave rise to a long-standing tradition that takes place on Ascension Day, in which a door connecting the two colleges is unlocked and opened for a few minutes, the only time it’s opened each year, and Lincoln serves free drinks to Brasenose by way of apology for their past actions. Tradition has it that Lincoln flavours the beer with ivy, to dissuade those from Brasenose drinking too much of it.

Penny-throwing at Lincoln

That’s not the only interesting thing that happens at Lincoln College on Ascension Day, though. Primary school children descend on Lincoln’s main quad and pick up pennies thrown from the tower above. One assumes that the tradition in its present form is more health and safety conscious than it was in times gone by, when the coins thrown were red hot to warn children of the perils of greed.

Beating the Bounds

Image shows people beating the bounds at Oriel College, Oxford.
Beating the bounds at Oriel College.

Several Oxford colleges and two churches (St Michael at the North Gate and the University Church) are involved in an ancient tradition known as Beating the Bounds. This involves a group of parishioners from the two churches marking their parish boundaries by hitting boundary marker stones with willow sticks, shouting “Mark, Mark, Mark”. Several of these boundary markers stones are located within Oxford colleges, including Lincoln and Brasenose, where the boundary stone is marked with the year in chalk. The tradition dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon times, and it originates from a time when it was important to make parish boundaries physically evident, in the absence of maps and written deeds. This was especially important given the fact that each parish was responsible for the care of the needy living within it; so those seeking help would know exactly which parish they ought to go to for help.

6. Merton College Time Ceremony

Merton College’s famous Time Ceremony was started by a couple of undergraduates in 1971, to celebrate the end of a three-year experimental period when the UK remained on British Summer Time (Greenwich Mean Time plus an hour) all year round. The ceremony involves students donning their sub-fusc (academic dress) and parading backwards around the Fellows’ Quad, glass of port in hand, at 2am. Why? To stabilise the space-time continuum during the clock change back to Greenwich Mean Time, obviously!

7. May Morning

Image shows Morris dancers on May Morning.
Morris dancing is a traditional part of the May Morning celebrations.

Town and Gown people alike gather early on May Morning (1 May) to hear the choir of Magdalen College sing the Eucharist from the top of Magdalen’s bell tower. It’s a tradition that’s been going for over 500 years, and it’s still celebrated as enthusiastically as ever. Most people have stayed up all night to witness this, and pubs stay open and cafes open early to provide refreshments for the revellers. There are Morris dancers as well, not to mention other musical entertainment, and many of the students will attend in white tie having stayed up all night partying at a college ball held the night before. Contrary to popular belief, jumping off the bridge into the river is not a traditional part of the May Day celebrations – it only started happening in the 80s, and now the police have put a stop to it because people have been injured in this way.

8. St Giles Street Fair

The wide road out of Oxford that is St Giles closes for two days each September for a “Town” tradition called the St Giles Street Fair. The Fair was established way back in 1200, when the church that still occupies the fork in the road, St Giles, was consecrated. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth I visited St John’s College in 1567 and watched the fair from its windows. One surmises that she wouldn’t have found today’s garish funfair quite so worthy of her attention. The Fair has evolved over the centuries it’s been held, and as rail transport became more commonplace it started to draw crowds from far and wide. In the 1930s, Britain’s much-loved poet John Betjeman described it as “about the biggest fair in England”, noting that among its many amusements it was “thick with freak shows”. This particular aspect of the Fair in days gone by is, happily, now absent from the proceedings.

9. The Corpus Christi Tortoise Fair

Image shows Corpus Christi, Oxford.
Corpus Christi is very proud of its tortoises.

Held in aid of charity, Corpus Christi’s Tortoise Fair is one of the lovelier eccentricities at Oxford and has at its heart the Tortoise Race, in which tortoises from various colleges race to get to the edge of a ring of lettuce. It’s thought to have been started in the 1920s. Corpus’s own tortoises are named Oldham and Foxe – whose care is presided over by a “Custos Testudinum” or “JCR Tortoise Keeper”, elected at the start of each year – while Worcester College has one with the amusing name of “Zoom”.

10. The Mallard Song

Oxford’s most mysterious college is All Souls’, which is closed to undergraduates and reserved exclusively for the crème de la crème of the Oxford University community (its members are all Fellows). Quite at odds with its revered image and the presence of so many members of the academic elite is a tradition known as the Mallard Song, a peculiar little ditty that’s only sung once a century, accompanying an even stranger ceremony held in the college. The Fellows – all leading academics – are said to process around All Souls’ College carrying flaming torches. At the front of this odd procession is someone dressed as the “Lord Mallard”, carried in a chair, and it’s led by someone carrying a wooden duck tied to a pole (they used to use a dead duck). What is all this weirdness in aid of, one might well ask. Apparently it dates back to the building of the college, in 1437, when a giant mallard is said to have flown away from the college’s foundations. It’s going to be a while before the next such ceremony, though; the last one was held in 2001, so the next one won’t be until 2101.

11. Nepotists’ Carols

Image shows the front of Balliol College in the sunshine.
The tradition of Nepotists’ carols takes place in Balliol College.

Taking place at Balliol at the end of Michaelmas Term each year is an event called Nepotists’ Carols. At first glance it doesn’t seem all that eccentric: it’s simply a free, ticketed carol-singing gathering in the college hall at which students can sip mulled wine and celebrate Christmas together. But a couple of elements give it an Oxonian twist. Firstly, the story behind the event is that it was founded sometime in the 1940s by a student who was disgruntled not to have been elected to one of the college’s societies. Instead he set up his own, the Nepotists, and established the invitation-only carol-singing gathering, which is now hosted by another college society, the Arnold and Brackenbury Society. The other Oxonian twist to the occasion – not part of the original event – is the singing of “The Gordouli” at the end of the evening, when those gathered process to the wall of the college that borders on neighbouring Trinity College, with whom Balliol has another of those famous Oxford college rivalries. In essence, the Gordouli is said to be an expression of the fact that those attending Balliol are glad not to be members of Trinity.
There are many more interesting traditions peculiar to individual colleges, all enthusiastically kept alive by successive generations of students. Some of Oxford’s unusual customs may seem a trifle bizarre to an outsider looking in, but they’re all part of what makes “the Oxford experience” so special. And they make great stories with which to regale Oxford graduates’ future grandchildren!

Image credits: banner; matriculation; formal hall; Tom Tower; Brasenose; Beating the Bounds; May Morning; Corpus Christi