The Curious Traditions of Oxford & Cambridge University 

Oxford and Cambridge Universities are not only hotbeds of learning, they are also home to some distinctive and idiosyncratic customs and curiosities

 Chariots of Fire (1981)

I have always been fascinated by the unique customs, bizarre traditions and peculiarities of language used at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

When new students start, or matriculate, at Trinity College Cambridge – which, incidentally requires the permission of the prime minister when appointing its new master – they get to experience the famous Great Court Run, immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire. It involves attempting to run around the Great Court within the time it takes the college clock to strike 12. The course is about 370 yards long and it’s a traditional challenge for athletic types before the annual Matriculation Dinner. In 1988 the race was recreated for charity by legendary runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram, with the decathlete Daley Thompson acting as a reserve. Coe beat Cram, altough neither runner beat the clock, which took 44.4 seconds.

When they get round to the process of studying, Oxford students are issued with a card for the Bodleian Library, where they are initiated, in a formal admission ceremony, with the following pledge: ‘I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.’

When sitting examinations, Oxford students are required to wear ‘sub fusc’ (from the Latin sub fuscus, meaning dark brown). It’s actually very complicated, as the dress code varies quite a bit depending on what degree you are taking, as well as whether you have a scholarship. The essentials are a black suit, white shirt and white bow tie for men, while women must wear a black skirt, black tie and white shirt. Since 2012 rules have been relaxed and students can wear either gender’s sub fusc. Gowns have differing lengths and silk trims according to the wearer’s status. ‘Commoners’ (students without a scholarship), wear a shorter gown, and PhD graduates wear a scarlet robe. Many students wear a different colour carnation in their lapel and white, pink and red carnations represent progress through exams. A white carnation is worn for the first exam, then pink for all exams until the final one, which is red.

In the 60s, a law student at Oxford came across a statute that required the university to supply him, daily and free of charge, with two or three pints of ale. The university governors acquiesced, and he was duly given two free pints of beer a day. All sounded good, but on the day of the exams, as he was about to enter the exam hall, he was stopped by the invigilators and asked to write out a cheque for the cost of the beer because he was not wearing a sword, a serious offence in the 15th century when the by-law was drafted.

It’s also at Oxford that you’ll find the drinking game pennying. Invented by dons and students during the 14th century, the idea is to slip a penny into someone’s drink without them noticing. If you succeed, the person is said to have been ‘pennied’ and has to down their drink in one. As the pennier, you can then be asked to give the date on the coin you used. If your answer is incorrect then you, too, have to down your drink. And, if you penny a drink that has already been pennied, you have to down that drink.

Once a year, Lincoln College offers free beer to students of Brasenose – Oxford colleges that enjoy a keen rivalry. There are various stories behind the tradition including a ‘town versus gown’ riot in the 13th century, when town people went in chase of two students – one from Lincoln and one from Brasenose. Lincoln opened its doors to offer refuge to its own student but refused to help the Brasenose man, who was subsequently killed by the mob. At lunchtime on Ascension Day, an inter-connecting door between the two colleges is opened for five minutes (the only time it is unlocked during the year) and Brasenose students are served beer courtesy of Lincoln, as an act of apology.

Also at Lincoln College on Ascension Day, nine senior students go up to the roof of the front quad and hurl down pennies to expectant children from the local schools. In the past, the coins were red hot and were supposed to be a lesson to discourage greed; mercifully nowadays it’s less painful to pick up them up as pocket money.

At nearby Queen’s College, during a traditional dinner held at the beginning of the new year, the college bursar threads a needle into each guest’s jacket, advising them to be thrifty in the coming year. Needles were historically popular as Christmas gifts, but it is thought that this custom is a pun on the name of the college founder, Robert of Eglesfield, who established the college in 1341 – the French words ‘aiguilles et fils’ meaning needles and threads.

The college also has a Boar’s Head feast in December, the origins of which date back to the 14th century when one of its students was attacked in Shotover forest by a wild boar. He succeeded in killing it by ramming his copy of Aristotle’s works, his only weapon, into the boar’s mouth and choking it.

Over at Cambridge the fellows of St John’s College are the only people outside of the royal family legally allowed to eat unmarked mute swans. The Crown retains the right of ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but it was extended in the 15th century to the college via ancient royalist ties.

Oxford’s most mysterious college is All Souls, which is closed to undergraduates and reserved exclusively for fellows. At breakfast, there are silver lids for the Marmite jars. The college has a truly ancient and bizarre ritual called ‘hunting the mallard’. It all started in 1347 when the foundations of the college were being built and a huge mallard was discovered by workmen in a great drain. The custom grew of feasting on this anniversary called Mallard or Gaudy Night, when the fellows search the college for this legendary duck. Every 100 years the custom is re-enacted by the fellows of the college, led by a Lord Mallard, elected for the night, and six officers all wearing special mallard medals. At midnight the whole procession starts off bearing lanterns, white staffs and flaming torches, and singing, very loudly, the Mallard Song. They then search every cellar, room and rooftop until daylight.

At nearby Magdalen Bridge, at 5.30am on the first day of May, a crowd converges. Medieval Latin madrigals are sung by choristers in white vestments from the parapets of the famous tower and the bells then peel in celebration, prompting students to jump off the bridge into the Cherwell, a river that’s only four feet deep. Nearby, up the side streets, morris dancers gather with their eccentric array of bells, sticks, hankies and pig bladders, led by a ‘whiffler’.

In both universities, a whiffler is someone who acts as an examiner, while a proctor is a senior officer responsible for enforcing university discipline. Indeed, the two universities enjoy much of their own specialist lingo. Since Tudor-Stuart times, ‘battles’ at Oxford have referred to your college bills; if you didn’t make it to an exam, you ‘ploughed it’; ‘academic nudity’ was appearing in public without a cap or gown. At Cambridge, in Victorian times, a ‘brute’ was a student who hadn’t matriculated and a ‘sophister’ was an undergraduate in his second or third year.

Before the days of railways, Britain operated on a number of local times. Oxford time was five minutes later than Greenwich and a lot of university lectures still start at five minutes past the hour. Tom Tower’s bell, Great Tom, at Christ Church College still rings 101 times every night at 9.05pm to celebrate the founding scholars of the college. Time like tradition, it would seem, can stand still.

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of ‘The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World’, published by Penguin Books