Founded in 1264, Merton College is the oldest college in either Oxford or Cambridge and its buildings are among the oldest and most interesting in Oxford. The large 14th-century chapel contains substantial medieval stained glass and a spectacular tower crossing. The college buildings overlook the atmospheric, cobbled Merton Street on one side and the expansive Merton Field on the other.
History of Merton College
Merton was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, twice Chancellor of England and later Bishop of Rochester. His stated purpose for the foundation was "to make some return in honour of God's name for the abundance of his bounty towards me in this life."
The original deed, complete with seals, is in the college archives. The statues of 1274 served as a model for all subsequent colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. By 1300, Merton had 30 fellows in residence.
Being the first, Merton College had no established pattern to follow in laying out the college buildings, and they developed piecemal starting in 1266. The chosen site was a mostly vacant lot within the developing academic quarter.
Occupying part of the site was the Church of St. John the Baptist (on the site of Mob Quad) to the west, which was pulled down in 1290; three houses to the north - one belonging to St. Frideswide's Priory (later Christ Church), one to a Jew named Jacob, and one to Robert Flixthorpe - which were bought by Merton; and St. Alban Hall to the east, which was eventually acquired by the college and incorporated into St. Alban's Quad.
The Hall was the first building to be constructed, before 1277, which provided a place for lectures and communal diing. The chapel followed soon after, in 1290-94. Part of the Mob Quad was built at this time as well. Most of the remaining original buildings date from the 14th century. The Fellows' Quad was added in 1610 and St. Alban's Quad in 1905. Restorations were carried out by William Butterfield in 1849-51 and Gilbert Scott in the 1870s.
Famous members of Merton College over the centuries have included:
What to See at Merton College
Merton College is entered from the north on Merton Street, through a gatehouse of 1418, rebuilt in the 19th century. Over the archway is an interesting reset 15th-century carving of St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, which includes a unicorn and Walter de Merton wearing a bishop's mitre.
The gate leads into Front Quad, which is bordered by the Chapel on the west and the Hall to the south. The Hall was the first purpose-built college building (1277) but was virtually rebuilt in the 19th century by Gilbert Scott. The door with elaborate ironwork, however, is original from the 13th century.
The Old Warden's Lodgings (extended 1299) stand on the site of Robert Flixthorpe's house purchased by Walter de Merton; its hall now serves as the Middle Common Room. In medieval times the Warden, a senior churchman, dined in this hall except on festive occasions, when he sat at the head of the table in the College Hall, like the abbot of a monastery.
A narrow passage between the Hall and Chapel leads to the small Mob Quad, the oldest in Oxford. The northeast corner houses the Treasury (1288), which has an unusual high-pitched roof, covered in limestone slabs rather than the stone slates of the rest of the quad. This was built to house not only the college's money and valuables, but the priceless statues and charters that gave it its constituion and legal independence.
The Treasury is flanked by the north and east ranges (c.1304-11), which are the earliest complete and uniform collection of student residential quarters in Oxford. The familiar quadrangle shape that became the norm was not consciously planned, but evolved gradually: the south and west ranges were built later, in 1371-78. These were funded by a former Bursar, William Rede, Bishop of Chichester. These consist of residential chambers on the ground floor and a library above.
Merton's Library (open on guided tours) is the oldest in Oxford and one of the most notable medieval libraries in England. Merton's library was the first library to store books on shelves rather than lying flat in chests. One volume is still chained to the shelves, which are fitted with reading boards.
Single-light windows in the library illuminate the spaces between the bookshelves, a system which first appeared in the late 13th century at the Sorbonne in Paris. Some of the windows have fragments of 15th-century stained glass from the chapel; the furnishings, plasterwork and dormer windows are late 16th-century to early 17th-century.
The library houses many historical treasures, including old manuscripts, two 14th-century astrolabes, an early Welsh Bible, and a massive chest with a threefold locking mechanism on the lid. Two rooms next to the library are devoted to Max Beerbohm, author of Zuleika Dobson, a classic Oxford novel. Several of his cartoons of late 19th-century celebrities are on display.
The Chapel is reached through a passage in the west range of Mob Quad and entered through the antechapel of 1367-68. This section was inteded as a transept for a large monastic-style church, but the intended nave was never built. The large tower, under which is magnificent crossing vault, was built in 1448-52.
To the right of the entrance to the antechapel, in the would-be south transept, is an unusually high-mounted late 14th-century piscina. On the opposite wall is a monument to the Classical scholar Sir Henry Savile (d.1622), who founded two University professorships.
The north transept has an impressive alabaster and marble monument to Sir Thomas Bodley (d.1613), founder of the Bodleian Library. Carved by Nicholas Stone, it is full of symbolism, such as the Classical pilasters in the form of piled books. Set in the floor beneath the north window (with early 1700s glass) are two magnificent memorial brasses (c.1420 and 1471).
The choir (c.1290-97) is entered through a handsome wooden screen (late 17th-century). It is spacious and wide like many 13th-century English churches. Its wooden roof and massive gabled buttresses, with waterspout gargoyles, overlook Merton Street. The choir stalls, screen, tiled floor and painted ceiling date from William Butterfield's restoration in 1849-51. The altar painting is a Crucifixion of the school of Tintoretto and the brass lectern is from c.1500.
The beautiful east window features Decorated Gothic tracery and is one of the most impressive of its date. It has a row of seven sharply pointed lancets and a circular rose, filled with late 13th- or early 14th-century stained glass. The side windows contain medieval glass of the same date, which was donated by Henry de Mamesfield; he is shown as the donor kneeling in prayer to either side of a saint in each window.
From the Front Quad, the Fitzjames Gateway (1497) on the southeast side leads into the Fellows' Quad. Built by Warden Fitzjames, the gate has a splendid lierne vault with zodiac bosses. The rooms above the gate formed part of the original Warden's Lodgings, but they are now known as the Queen's Rooms since Queen Henrietta Maria stayed here during the Civil War.
The austere buildings of Fellows' Quad (1610) were constructed by two Halifax masons, John Akroyd and John Bentley. They were brought from their home 170 miles away by Warden Savile (a Yorkshireman) to avoid the exceedingly high rates of Oxford craftsmen.
Fellows' was the first Oxford quadrangle to be built to three stories throughout and the first to incorporate a Classical "tower of the orders." It also marked the first large-scale extension to a medieval Oxford college, setting off a period of intensive building activity that continued until the Civil War. Colleges competed with each other to provide more accommodation for the growing number of students, especially the fee-paying commoners.
East of Front Quad is St. Alban's Quad, built by Basil Champneys in 1904-05 on the site of St. Alban Hall, which was incorporated into the college in 1881. The 1599 doorway of the old hall can still be seen, embedded in the newer building on the south side of Merton Street. Across the street is the huge, neo-Jacobean Warden's Lodgings, built by Champneys in 1908.
Quick Facts on Merton College
|Dates:||late 13th-15th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.750899° N, 1.252141° W|
|Hours:||Mon-Fri 2-4pm; Sat-Sun 10am-4pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Merton College|
- Personal visit (October 4, 2007).
- Geoffrey Tyack, Blue Guide Oxford and Cambridge, 6th ed. (2004), 84-85.
- Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide, 27-32.
Map of Merton College, Oxford
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