Hunting the Mallard, OxfordshireSome of our traditions have at their heart the need to let off steam. Some of the violent 'football' games played up and down the country are cases in point. Another is Hunting the Mallard at All Souls College in Oxford , though this being one of the most prestigious bodies in the academic world, composed of fellows and a warden with no unwashed undergraduates to oversee, the steam is allowed to build up over a hundred years.
The college, whose full name is All Souls of the Faithful Departed, was founded by Henry VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Henry Chichele in 1438. Legend has it that during the building work a huge Mallard was disturbed, taking to the wing and avoiding capture. Alternatively, a huge mallard was found dead in a drain during the digging of the college foundations. Either way, the fellows came to regret the bird had not been taken alive, and a tradition grew up that every year the bird should be hunted high and low throughout the college. Alcohol may have been involved.
As this is Oxford a certain protocol was established: a Lord Mallard was elected to lead the hunt, backed up by six officers. Medals were struck to commemorate the occasion for these officials, and provide them with extra dignity on the day - January 14, the college Gaudy or feast. The officials carry white staffs, and the party is reinforced by present and past fellows armed with sticks and lanterns. And of course there is a college song dedicated to the hunt, whose scansion and rhyme is either execrable or eccentric, according to your taste. A live bird tied to a pole used to be carried before the party, but this was deemed cruel and probably inconvenient for the bearer, so a stuffed mallard has become the symbolic prey in modern times.
Perhaps because of the excesses associated with the tradition it has been relegated from an annual event to centennial one, and as the last was held in 2001 not many of us are likely to see the next.
In 1901 Cosmo Lang, future Archbishop of Canterbury , was Lord Mallard, and the fellows of All Souls include some of the top names in British public life. It does seem sad that the event is so rare, as the chance to see learned judges and elder statesmen with full bellies and bettered by port (doubtless of superior quality) looking for a bird that died half a millennium ago is something that would give a rounder picture of the British establishment
More British Folk Customs?