Front Quad of Lincoln College, the walls covered in bright green ivy


An Ascension Day like no other

Halley Cohen photo

Halley Cohen

  • College Communications and Website Officer
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Today, Thursday 21 May, is Ascension Day. Taking place 40 days after Easter, Ascension Day commemorates Christ's ascension into heaven, according to the New Testament of the Bible, and is an important date in the Christian calendar.

It is a day usually marked by Lincoln College in a number of ways, as described in Stephen Warner's 1908 College history, Lincoln College Oxford:

“On Ascension Day it is generally the custom to go round and beat the bounds of the parishes of St. Michael’s and All Saints’ together, though it is not always done regularly every year. The illustration shows the Rev. W. Mansell Merry, Vicar of St Michael’s, with the boys and men of the choirs and the churchwardens on their way through Lincoln, and by a small door, specially unlocked for the occasion, into Brasenose College. Their labours ended, the beaters are regaled in Hall with luncheon of a homely character, together with ground-ivy ale. This remarkably nasty concoction, formerly called gil or gell-ale, is beer in which ground-ivy has been steeped for twenty-four hours previously. It is also usual to throw pennies into the quadrangle to be scrambled for by the youthful members among the beaters. The history of this entertainment to have not more definite authority than that of custom, but that it has been in existence for some long time is shown by a reference to it in 1604 in the College Account Books. For some years past also B.N.C. men have been accustomed to come through and claim a drink of the ale, though whether they have a definite right to do so is not certain. It is thought that possibly in theory all the parishioners may have a claim, in which case no doubt Brasenose men would be included.”

Most of the traditions described by Warner still exist to this day; the bounds are still beaten and the College still happily provides a ‘luncheon of a homely character’. Nowadays, the pennies are thrown by members of the JCR committee and the scrambling hordes below come from a local primary school, rather than from within the beating party. The passage-way between Lincoln College and Brasenose is still opened (the only day of the year that it is used) and Brasenose students are ‘welcomed’ to Lincoln to ‘enjoy’ some ivy-ale. Although not mentioned by Warner in his account, the Choir now finish the festivities by singing madrigals from the top of the tower, their heavenly voices raining down where pennies had fallen moments before.

This year, as the world locks down in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no Ascension Day traditions taking place at Lincoln College. As we reminisce on Ascension Days gone by, we look forward to next year, when we hope to be back in Front Quad, together again, raising a glass of ivy-ale in the sunshine.