One of Oxford's architectural wonders.
This is my favourite Oxford college, not for the rather low-key, dusty aspect that it presents to the High Street, but because of it magisterial quadrangle facing on to Radcliffe Square. The architect of this magnificent structure with its dizzyingly vertical baroque chapel was Nicholas Hawksmoor. Not everyone gets Hawksmoor. Whereas Wren, his teacher, built very Italianate structures in London (St Paul’s Cathedral) and Oxford (Sheldonian Theatre), Hawksmoor created a peculiarly English take on the baroque. Only Hawksmoor could have been responsible for this idiosyncratic extension of All Souls.
He also designed the Clarendon Building (an early home of Oxford University Press), parts of Worcester College and the totally OTT High Street screen of Queen's College. He was Vanbrugh’s assistant in the building of Woodstock’s Blenheim Palace. Hawksmoor also built a lot of London churches after the Great Fire of 1666 but many of these perished in the Blitz. He designed the West Towers of Westminster Abbey, which we know so well from royal weddings and funerals.
The architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin described Hawksmoor as more assured than the untrained Vanbrugh and more imaginative the intellectual Wren. That absolutely hits the nail on the head. And the poet Ian Sinclair wrote a poem 'Nicholas Hawksmoor: His Churches', which proposed that Hawksmoor's churches formed a pattern consistent with Theistic Satanism and this idea was developed by Peter Ackroyd in his magic realist murder novel Hawksmoor (1985).
The full name of this curious college is “The Warden and the College of the Souls of all Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford” . Well it’s more poetic than modern commercial ventures like Kellogg College. All Souls is also unique in only admitting graduates. All Oxford graduates who receive a first or equivalent, are eligible to apply for Examination Fellowships of seven years each. The exam is said to be the hardest in the world, leading the New Statesman to comment: “If intelligence can be measured by exams, the All Souls Fellows are the cleverest people in the country.”
The college cloisters and chapel are open to visitors weekday afternoons. That’s the only other way to get in.