02 November 2013

The Oxford college with the hardest exam
in the world, but with no undergraduates

All Souls College, Oxford … a reminder of the ‘Faithful Departed’ on 2 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

All Souls’ Day is observed in many parts of the Western Church today [2 November]. It is particularly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and while it does not feature in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, it is marked in the calendar of the Church of England which has restored its place in Common Worship as the “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)” (Common Worship, p 15).

All Souls’ Day follows the commemoration of All Saints’ Day on 1 November, and I find it interesting that one of the leading evangelical churches in London is All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, at least since the Revd John Stott was there, first as curate (1945-1950) and then as Rector (1950-1975). All Souls is the only surviving church built by the Regency architect John Nash – although the history of the church on the parish website gives no explanation of the choice of name.

I was reminded of the importance of commemorating All Souls’ Day in the calendar of the pre-Reformation Church of England when I found myself at All Souls College while I was visiting in Oxford this week.

The full, official name of All Souls College is: The Warden and the College of the Souls of All Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford.

All Souls College ... unique in more ways than one (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But All Souls is unique in two ways: all its members automatically become fellows or full members of the college’s governing body; and it has no undergraduate members. In addition, All Souls is the third wealthiest college in Oxford, with a financial endowment said to be worth £245 million last year.

The college stands on the north side of the High Street, next to Saint Mary’s University Church, and also adjoins Radcliffe Square, the Queen’s College and Hertford College.

All Souls College was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury and a Fellow of New College, with King Henry VI as its formal co-founder.

Archbishop Chichele had already founded Saint Bernard’s and was planning a second Oxford foundation as early as 1436. However, the foundation stone was not laid until 1438. Chichele’s college cost him £9,500 – or £5 million at today’s prices. Over £5,000 was spent endowing the college it with estates and property in Kent, Middlesex, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Shropshire and Wales.

The Statutes provided for the Warden and 40 fellows. All were to take holy orders: 24 were to study arts, philosophy and theology, and 16 were to study civil or canon law.

All Souls once had undergraduate students in the early 17th century, when they were introduced by Robert Hovenden (Warden 1571-1614), and they earned their keep and tuition fees by acting as servants to the fellows. The college decided to get along without them again, although four Bible Clerks remained on the foundation until 1924.

The chapel, built between 1438 and 1442, remained largely unchanged until the Cromwellian era. Oxford was a Royalist stronghold and the chapel suffered the wrath of the Puritans. The 42 misericords in the chapel date from the time it was built.

The architecture of All Souls College symbolises all we think of when we speak of the ‘Dreaming Spires’ of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Codrington Library in the college was built with the bequest of Christopher Codrington (1668-1710), a former Governor of the Leeward Islands who made his fortune in plantation slavery. He left his books worth £6,000, and £10,000 in cash to All Souls.

The Welsh priest-poet RS Thomas mused in some of his poems about having a church without parishioners, but All Souls is unique in being an Oxford college without undergraduates.

Most of the fellows are engaged in teaching and research, including those who are professors, lecturers or readers within the University of Oxford. Others are fellows because they hold particular offices in the college, such as the chaplain, the estates bursar and the domestic bursar. Others have careers in law, government, or other areas of public life.

This makes All Souls primarily an academic research institution with strong ties to public life.

At a recent count, All Souls had 75 fellows, 18 visiting fellows, six honorary fellows, and 27 emeritus fellows, whose continuing research is actively supported by the college. Of those current fellows, 35 are academics entirely funded by All Souls, 19 are academics with Oxford University positions attached to All Souls, and the rest include academics in other universities, as well as non-academics, such as barristers or former fellows who are distinguished in public life, and the college chaplain and bursars.

Post-doctoral research fellows are researchers early in their careers, who are elected to a five-year fellowship on the basis of research achievements and a proposal for future work. Usually, three or four post-doctoral fellows are elected every other year.

Senior research fellows are elected to a seven-year renewable fellowship on the strength of distinguished past research and proposed for future work. The appointment is comparable to a research professorship in the university.

The college also elects a number of visiting fellows each year for one, two, or three terms so that the college can attract distinguished scholars from outside Oxford. However, they are not members of the governing body.

Each autumn, the college holds an examination that can be sat by recent Oxford graduates and by students pursuing Oxford graduate degrees, and the successful candidates are elected fellows for seven years.

According to writers in The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the New Statesman in recent years, this has a reputation for being “the hardest exam in the world.” For almost a century, just a handful of the brightest young Oxford graduates have been picked to sit it each year and often only one is successful. The historian Lord Dacre and the author Hilaire Belloc were not up to the challenge, unlike the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and the judge Richard Wilberforce.

Meanwhile, All Souls’ Day is being marked in the Chapel of Pusey House, Oxford, this morning with Fauré’s Requiem.

In Lichfield Cathedral, the Solemn Eucharist of Requiem is being celebrated at 12.30 in the Lady Chapel with the Chamber Choir. The President and Preacher is the Precentor, Canon Wealands Bell, and the setting is Duarte Lôbo’s Missa pro defunctis à 8. The Cathedral Choir resumes residence this evening after its half-term holiday, with the Solemn Evensong of the Dead at 5.30 p.m. The settings is by the Welsh Composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656).

All Souls’ Day is being marked in the Chapel of Pusey House, Oxford, this morning with Fauré’s Requiem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Collect (Common Worship):

Eternal God, our maker and redeemer,
grant us, with all the faithful departed,
the sure benefits of your Son’s saving passion
and glorious resurrection
that, in the last day,
when you gather up all things in Christ,
we may with them enjoy the fullness of your promises;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Lamentations 3: 17-26, 31-33 or Wisdom 3: 1-9; Psalm 23 or 27: 1-6, 16, 17; Romans 5: 5-11 or 1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 5: 19-25 or John 6: 37-40.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of love,
may the death and resurrection of Christ,
which we have celebrated in this Eucharist,
bring us, with all the faithful departed,
into the peace of your eternal home.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ,
our rock and our salvation,
to whom be glory for time and for eternity.