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It’s amazing what you can see in Oxford if you look up. A globe bobbling over the dome of the Radcliffe Observatory. A giant figure staring out across the roof of Blackwell’s Art and Poster shop. Tiny people dotted around the tower of St Mary the Virgin. A cycling don on the Harris Manchester weathervane. A gilded elephant atop the old Indian Institute, its trunk pointing towards the King’s Arms …

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A Devil over Lincoln College and an Imp inside.

A what?! You heard it right. Stand in Market Street, on the corner opposite Brasenose Lane. Now look straight up. Leering over the rooftop of Lincoln College is the unmistakable face of a devil. Eyes bulging, mouth snarling, claws clenched, it squats as if readying itself to pounce on the innocents below.

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And it doesn’t stop there. If you venture a few yards further along Turl Street and peer into the Virginia-creepered walls of the front quad (once home to John Wesley, the decidedly undiabolical founder of Methodism) you will espy, above the doorway leading to the dining hall, an imp, its cloven foot raised, like a demonic sailor dancing a hornpipe.

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Why Lincoln College?

According to medieval legend, two imps were despatched by Satan to do his evil work on Earth. After causing mayhem in the north of England (some say they were responsible for twisting the church spire at Chesterfield) they headed for Lincoln Cathedral where they smashed tables and chairs, blew out candles, scattered hymn sheets, attacked the choristers, and even tripped up the Bishop. It was only when an angel intervened and turned one of them to stone that order was eventually restored. But the other imp managed to escape … Medieval Oxford was part of the diocese of Lincoln, and the founder of the College in 1427 was its bishop, Richard Fleming (hence the college’s other distinctive icon, the mitre) so an impish connection was there from the outset.

Other, smaller imps are visible in the rafters of the Old Library and on several spoons in the silver cutlery collection. The satirical student magazine is named after it, and an exhibition to mark the college’s approaching 600th anniversary features a vitrine of imp-related drawings and memorabilia – even including a cuddly mascot in a Lincoln College T-shirt. The devil’s envoy, it would seem, has at last been tamed.

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So, if you want to see the imp close-up and ugly, you have to descend to the place known as Deep Hall, a subterranean vault (fittingly also the location of the student bar). Here you will encounter the original beast, carved in 1899 to a design by the eminent architect T.G. Jackson, relocated at turn of the millennium, captured and on disconcerting display behind an iron grille, its features spookily contorted by a century of Oxford rain.

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The college website offers a sober warning:

Roosting uncomfortably on a stairway to nowhere, starkly lit and savagely austere in its decor, the Imp had found a demesne well suited to its nature. And there it squats to this very day: part ichthyic, part batrachian; wholly abhorrent. Venture alone to its niche on some dark night and meet its repellent gaze; feel the malice, the sheer malevolence of its stare and dare to defy the chill you feel in your very blood.

Improbable. Impudent. Impressive.

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With thanks to: Dr Perry Gauci, Lindsay McCormack, Lynn S and Meester Lockett; and in memory of the great Paul Langford FBA, Rector of the College (2000-2012), who re-instated the Devil over Lincoln.

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Feedback

We received this intriguing observation from a Private Eye reader:

Has anyone noticed the resemblance between the Lincoln Imp and Homer Simpson (whose larger-than-life effigy I spotted recently in a Gentleman’s Hairdresser on Gloucester Green)?

Are they perhaps related?

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Cara Hunter, author of the best-selling DI Adam Fawley crime novel series set in Oxford, is an alumna of Lincoln College. We’re very grateful to her for drawing our attention to the following article in the College Magazine, Imprint, and to Lindsay McCormack, the College Archivist, for the slide which featured in a recent presentation.
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