Crest & Motto
Our College motto is 'Gradibus Ascendimus' - Ascending by Degrees. This is a pun and refers directly to the ladder displayed on the College's coat of arms. The ladder itself is a medieval siege ladder, known as Gre, which is also a pun on the family name honoured in the College's title. The implication of the motto is that, by hard work and diligence, member of Grey College can rise within society to wherever they wish, taking one careful step at a time.
Our College emblem is the Phoenix, as represented in our College crest.
The story of the Phoenix, the great miraculous firebird, has been told in various forms for thousands of years, throughout the world. Ancient civilisations from Egypt across to China supply evidence of the antiquity and potency of this perennial symbol of resurrection, renewal and the indestructibility of life.
This marvelous creature, so the various stories say, lived alone in an earthly paradise feeding upon the light of stars. At the end of a thousand years (some legends say five hundred), knowing that death was approaching he descended into the outer world and flew to the land of his name, Phoenicia. There on the tallest palm tree he built a nest of spices. At dawn, lifting his voice, he sang a hymn so ravishingly beautiful that the rising sun reined in his horses to listen. In that instant the universe stood still and sparks from the flaming halo of the sun set fire to the aromatic phoenix nest. Thus the phoenix was consumed in flames but instantly a new phoenix rose from the ashes. Soon the infant bird grew strong and lifting up its nest (the funeral pyre of its parent) flew to Aeliopolis - the city of the Sun. There he placed the nest upon the altar of the temple. Thousands of birds had followed him together in friendship, the hawk with the sparrow, the eagle with the dove. As soon as the might phoenix has laid its nest upon the altar, he soared aloft once more and winged his way toward the distant paradise followed by a multitude of birds, all singing in harmony.
Early Christians adopted the Phoenix as a symbol of Christ's Resurrection and represented it in funerary sculpture. During the Middle Ages Christians associated it with the crucifixion of Christ and this triumph over death.
Grey College adopted the emblem of the Phoenix after the first Elvet buildings were burned down in March 1959. Greymen who were compiling the first College magazine decided to name it the phoenix to commemorate the event. Over the last forty years the Phoenix has gradually become an important College emblem.
In 1976 an London manager for Phoenix Assurance, whose son Pat Croker was then an undergraduate at Grey, donated the fibreglass Phoenix to the College, which hangs in the reception to this day. It is interesting to note that Pat Crokers son Ed is recent graduate from Grey, reinforcing the continuity of both family tradition, and the idea expressed in the symbol itself. In 1976 a new room was opened beneath the arches in Elvet and this was named the Phoenix Room. Another manager of Phoenix Assurance donated a replica of the lead firemark that was originally displayed upon buildings from 1782 as a guarantee of their having been insured by the company and this replica hangs in the Phoenix Room to this day (the practice of issuing firemarks for buildings was discontinued in 1832, the year Durham University was founded by the Second Earl Grey, after whom the College is named, the then Prime Minister; and Bishop Van Mildert, whose Durham residence, the castle, became the first College).
In the year 2000 the Batik Painter, Thetis Blacker, produced a wonderful Fire Phoenix for the College (above). This now hangs in the Hall above the High Table (a postcard of the images is available).
Hence the Phoenix is well represented in Grey as a symbol of hope, the possibility of change for the better, the triumph of will over circumstance and the continuity of the College for subsequent generations of students.