Roger Bacon is one of the most intriguing characters in English occult history, easily up there with John Dee and the much later Aleister Crowley. Tales of the late 13th-Century Franciscan friar’s sorcerous abilities abound, but one of the most famous (and bizarre) revolves around his Brazen Head (which, incidentally, receives a brief mentioned in the Call of Cthulhu scenario The Auction):
For reflecting how often England had been invaded by Saxon and Dane and Norwegian, [Bacon] laboured with a project for surrounding the whole island with a wall of brass, and to the intent that he might compass this, he first devised a head of brass which should speak. And when he could not for all his art arrive at this he invited another great scholar, Friar Bungay by name, to aid him therein; and they both together by great study made a head of brass, yet wist not how to give it motion and speech. And at last they called to their succour a spirit, who directed them, but gave them the warning that, when the head began to speak, if they heard it not ere it had finished, all their labour would be lost.
So they did as the spirit had enjoined them, and were right weary; and bidding [Bacon’s manservant] Miles to wake them when the head spake, they feel asleep.
Now Miles, because his master threatened him if he should not make them aware when the Head spake, took his tabor and pipe, and sang ballads to keep him from nodding […]
Presently, the Head spake, saying TIME IS! But Miles went on playing and singing, for the words seemed to him to import nought. Twice and thrice the Head said, TIME IS! But Miles was loath to wake his master and Friar Bungay a trifle. […]
At the end of half an hour, the Head spake once more, and delivered these two words, TIME WAS! And Miles make sport of them as he had before. Then another half hour passed, and Head uttered this sentence, TIME HAS PASSED! And fell down amid flames of fire and terrible noise, whereat the friars awoke, and found the room full of smoke.
“Did not the head speak?” asked Bacon.
“Yea, sir,” replied his man, “but it spake to no purpose. I’d teach a parrot to talk better in half the time.”
“Out on thee, villain!” cried his master. “Thou hast undone us both. Hadst thou roused us, all England would have been walled about with brass, and we had won everlasting renown. What did it say?”
“Very few words,” answered Miles, “and I have heard wiser. It said, TIME IS!”
“Hadst thou called us then, we had been made forever.”
“Then in half an hour it said, TIME WAS!”
“And thou didst not wake us then!” interposed Bungay.
“Alack, sir,” answered Miles. “I was expecting him to begin some long tale, and then I would have awakened you; but anon he cried, TIME IS PASSED! and made such an uproar withal that he woke you himself.”
Friar Bacon was greatly incensed at what his his servant had done, and would have beaten and maybe slain him; but Friar Bungay pleaded for the fellow, and his master said, “Well, his punishment shall be, that he shall be struck dumb for a month.”
So it was that England was not girded round with a brazen wall, as had nearly come to pass.
This rendition is from Hazlitt’s National Tales and Legends, via British Folk Tales; sadly, the tale ends there.
But according to Lore of the Land, a disagreement at Oxford University in 1334 led to a group of scholars and students migrating to Stamford in Lincolnshire to set up a rival campus; although they soon returned to Oxford, up until 1827, every MA candidate at the latter institution had to take an oath never to study or lecture at Stamford.
Whilst in Stamford, the dissident faculty fashioned the Brazen Head into a doorknocker, which adorned the door of Brasennose Hall; when Oxford’s Brasenose College purchased the Hall in 1889, they returned the doorknocker to Oxford, and it now sits on the College’s door.