Graduation Ceremonial Mace — Your guide to its history and symbolism

Graduation Ceremonial Mace


There’s a moment during every graduation commencement ceremony when a faculty member makes a grand entrance, carrying something that wouldn’t look out of place at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

A university's mace — an ornamental club with distinctive symbols — is used almost only at graduation and carried by the president, chancellor or other high official.

Since at least the 17th century, the mace has been part of commencement. Each school’s mace features inscriptions and the school’s shield if it has one, as well as other features special to the university.

The ceremonial academic mace is an emblem through and through. Here’s a quick guide to its history and symbolism:

Ceremonial maces, symbols of the internal authority over members and the independence from external authority, are still used at many educational institutions, particularly universities. The University of St Andrews in Scotland has three maces dating from the 15th century. The university also has four other maces of a more recent origin. These are on permanent display at the Museum of the University of St Andrews. The University of Glasgow has one from the same period, which may be seen in its arms. The University of Innsbruck and its sister Medical University are in possession of maces from 1572, 1588, and 1833, which were confiscated by the Habsburgs from the University of Olomouc in the 1850s.

At the University of Oxford, there are three dating from the second half of the 16th century and six from 1723 and 1724, while at the University of Cambridge there are three from 1626 and one from 1628. The latter was altered during the Cromwellian Commonwealth and again at the Stuart Restoration. The mace of the general council of the University of Edinburgh has a three-sided head: one with the seal of the University; one with the university's coat of arms and the third with Edinburgh's coat of arms of the City of Edinburgh. The wood for the shaft of the mace is from Malabar and was presented by the Secretary of State for India (R. A. Cross) at the First International Forestry Exhibition (1884). The mace of the Open University reflects its modernist outlook, being made from titanium.

In the United States, almost all universities and free-standing colleges have a mace, used almost exclusively at commencement exercises and borne variously by the university or college president, chancellor, rector, provost, the marshal of the faculty, a dean, or some other high official. In those universities that have a number of constituent colleges or faculties, each college, faculty, or school often has a smaller mace, borne in procession by a dean, faculty member, or sometimes a privileged student. In 1970, Cornell professor Morris Bishop was acting as a marshal at a graduation ceremony when a radical student attempted to grab the microphone; Bishop fought him off with the mace.

In Canada, some universities have a mace that is used as part of the ceremonial process of conferring degrees during convocation and other special events. The mace is carried by a special university official like a beadle.

In South Korea, Pohang University of Science and Technology has a mace as a part of its ceremonial functions.

In the Philippines, the University of Santo Tomas has a pair of twin maces belonging to the Rector Magnificus. These symbolize his spiritual and temporal power as the highest authority of the university. Made of pure silver and measuring 95 centimeters by 15 centimeters in diameter, the maces have existed since the 17th century and have been used in academic processions ever since. Candidates for doctoral degrees were accompanied by the Rector in a parade called Paseo de los Doctores from Intramuros to Santo Domingo Church, where University commencement exercises were held until the 17th century. Today, faculty members hold processions at the opening of each academic year and during solemn investitures in academic gowns, following the style of Spanish academic regalia. The maces, carried by beadles or macebearers, were included in the parade for their academic symbolism.

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