The Brazen Head at Brasenose College, Oxford
10 March 2021 (Updated 1 February 2023)
Brasenose College's unusual name is believed to come from a bronze door knocker with an equally unusual story that used to be on the college's main gate but is now mounted in the college's dining hall.
According to legend, the knocker was created by Roger Bacon, the medieval thinker and Franciscan friar whose quest for knowledge led him into the realms of alchemy and astrology and acquired for him the reputation of being something of a wizard.
The knocker was supposedly created as a 'brazen head', a bronze head imbued with the power to speak and answer any question asked of it. Many mystics throughout history are said to have possessed similar items.
According to the story, after creating the head Bacon assigned the task of watching the head to his assistant Miles. Miles witnessed the head speak the words 'Time is', but didn't understand them so didn't alert his master.
Half an hour later the head spoke the words 'Time was', to indicate that the time to question it had passed, before promptly bursting into flames.
It is not recorded how Bacon reacted when Miles told him the news that his creation has worked, but he had missed it!
Why is the college really called Brasenose?
While the story about Roger Bacon and his 'brazen head' is a very entertaining story, the real origin of the college's name is likely somewhat more mundane.
Scholars have speculated that 'Brasenose' came from the term 'brasen huis', an old term for a brewhouse or brewery. It's thought that a brewhouse once stood on the site, and Paul Sullivan in The Secret History of Oxford points out that Brasenose is peculiar for a number of beer-related traditions.
Brasenose and beer: a boozy tradition
A tradition unique to Brasenose College is the yearly custom of writing and reciting 'ale verses', poems in praise of the beer brewed at the college. The tradition has been observed on Shrove Tuesday for many hundreds of years, the poems typically being written by undergraduates. An 1878 collection of Brasenose ale verses contains poems dating as far back as the mid-16th century!
Another boozy tradition relates to the door which joins Brasenose College to its next-door neighbour Lincoln College. The tradition states that at lunchtime on Ascension Day members of Brasenose are permitted to go to this door and demand that Lincoln College supplies them with ground-ivy beer.
The requirement for Lincoln to supply Brasenose with beer in this way is believed to be a penance for an earlier misdeed by members of Lincoln College. The exact nature of this misdeed is lost to time, but competing theories suggest that either Lincoln failed to provide sanctuary to a Brasenose man when he was fleeing a murderous mob, or that a Lincoln man may have killed a Brasenose man in a duel.
Why ground-ivy? A popular rumour suggests that this was added to the beer to make it taste worse and thus discourage drunkenness among the students and college staff, but Paul Sullivan explains that ground-ivy was actually a common additive to beer before hops became the most dominant flavouring for beer.
Is Brasenose Lane haunted?
According to Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, the narrow lane to the north of the college that leads from Turl Street to Radcliffe Square is haunted.
Grahame doesn't explain the nature of the hauntings, but in his essay Oxford Through a Boy's Eyes he wrote "I should not much like, even at this day, to pass along Brasenose Lane at midnight"!