One of Merton Priory’s gates. Possibly entrance to the guest accommodation or hospitium thought to have been located to the west of the priory. Rebuilt and resited in 1935 outside St Mary’s Church, Merton. Photo thanks to Mr Joel’s Photography.
Merton Abbey, Colliers Wood, London, SW19 does not exactly conjure up ‘magnificent’ does it? In fact it sounds like the headquarters of one of those clothing catalogues so popular in the 1970s. And yet that is exactly what Merton Abbey or Merton Priory to give it its correct name was – magnificent. Founded in 1117 by Gilbert le Norman, Sheriff of Surrey who would die at the priory in 1125. Built on the banks of the River Wandle the priory was on a par with great abbeys such as that at Westminster and until its total destruction in 1538 numbered amongst the largest and most important of the monastic houses covering an area of 60 acres. Westminster would survive, although no longer a monastery, no doubt aided by the fact that even Henry VIII could hardly destroy the burial place of his parents. However the Augustinian Merton Priory along with many others did not. It was razed to the very ground it stood upon and practically no visible signs a prestigious priory once stood there remains. Every part of it from stones to roof slates was carted away to build Henry’s new palace, later known as Nonsuch Palace, which was built upon the site of the medieval village of Cuddington. Fifty carters were employed from Cheam, Clapham, Cuddington, Malden, Merton, Mitcham, Morden, Putney, Sutton, Tooting, Wandsworth and Wimbledon. Each received eightpence for a ton load for the four mile journey and by July 1538 2719 tons of stone had been conveyed from the priory to Cuddington (1).
The village, its church and burials, were demolished to make way for Henry’s new extravaganza. Nonsuch would in its turn suffer the same fate and also be totally razed to the ground. However remnants of the priory were recovered from the site of Nonsuch such as the beautiful ceiling boss below.
Ceiling boss recovered from the site of Nonsuch Palace in 1959 but originally part of the Priory. Museum of London. Photo Mike Peel.
The priory’s location was lost until the 1920s and later excavations in the 1970s revealed the foundations of the chapter house. Further foundations were revealed in the 1980s. Today a few remnants remain above ground such as a small section of wall rebuilt using materials from the original and a 12th century gateway that was also rebuilt in 1990 and moved to a different position. A marker indicates its original site. Much of the foundations of priory are now below Sainsbury’s Savacentre but the remains of the chapter house were left uncovered and can be seen today in an enclosed area below Merantun Way, the road which was built in 1988. This road was originally known as the A24, the straightness of which bear witness to its origins as a Roman road which later evolved into a medieval thoroughfare known as Stane/Stone Street. Such is progress although it pains me to say so.
Head with coronet discovered in 1797 on the site of the priory by Sir William Hamilton. The head would have originally been painted, and the coronet around the head, gilded, with traces of the latter still visible. Hairstyle closely resembling the popular hairstyle dating from the early 15th century – think of a young Henry V. In fact is this Henry V? See portrait below for comparison. Owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London now on loan to the British Museum.
Henry V, as Prince of Wales. Artist Homas Hoccleve c.1411-1413.
Many important personages are associated with Merton Priory including:
Thomas a Becket (c.1118-1170) Educated at Merton from 1128 aged 10. Thomas would later employ Robert, one of the priory’s canons as his chaplain and confessor.
Nicholas Breakspeare In c.1120 the only Englishman to become pope as Adrian IV.
Henry Ist (1068-1135) Lay in repose at the priory in 1135.
King John (1166-1216) Said to have stopped off at Merton on his way to nearby Runnymede and it was from Merton that he issued letters of safe conduct to allow the barons to leave London.
Henry III (1207-1272) A major patron and having stayed at the priory no less than 54 times had his own quarters there. It was from Merton when he was nine years old he attended a peace conference between England and France. He would instruct his own mason to aid with major rebuilding work that was in progress between 1222 and the 1260s after a severe storm caused the spire to collapse. Supplied a total of 16 oaks from Windsor forest towards the work. Henry brought his bride Eleanor of Provence to the Priory 1236 after their wedding at Canterbury Cathedral for their honeymoon.
Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent (1180-1243). Henry III’s Justiciar. Took himself to Merton Priory to prepare his defence in 1232 after falling out of the king’s favour. Things got a bit sticky for Hubert – and the priory – when he refused to leave and a very cross king ordered him to be seized dead or alive. A mob of armed London citizens, who had their own axes to grind, Hubert having hanged the leader of a popular riot in 1222, begun to wend their merry way to Merton (2). Things were rapidly getting out of control and the Bishop of Chichester pleaded with Henry to call a halt to these events while the Earl of Chester warned Henry about the danger of mob rule. Henry wisely listened and aborted the lynching which no doubt would have taken place. Hubert, who had spent the intervening period awaiting the mobs arrival prostrated in a state of undress before the altar, took the opportunity to leave the Priory, possibly by a back entrance if he had any sense, and enter sanctuary at Brentwood Chapel in Essex. He would be removed from there and deposited in the Tower for a while until things blew over. Surprisingly Hubert would survive until 12 May 1243 when he died ‘full of days’ at Banstead on the 12th May 1243 and was buried at Blackfriars (3) Today Hubert is remembered in a local road – De Burgh Road.
Hubert de Burgh at Merton. Hubert is depicted kneeling, holding a cross, before the altar at Merton in 1232. Image taken from Historia Anglorum. Artist Matthew Paris. British Library.
Walter de Merton (c.1205-1277). Studied at the priory. Founded Merton College in 1264 and set aside two manors in Surrey for the support of ‘scholars residing at Merton‘. This Merton College would later be transferred to Oxford after Walter purchased two houses there and so was founded the collegiate systems at both Oxford and Cambridge.
Henry VI (1421-1471). On Ist November 1437 Henry held a crown wearing ceremony at the priory to mark the emergence from his minority (4).
Mary Ist (1516-58). Visited while she was still a princess in 1532 having supper there on the 17th October and staying until dinner on the 19th.
The initial major building work was not to be the last for in 1393 the Prior notified the Bishop of Winchester that the chapel was ‘in a truely decayed and ruinous state‘ and that further repairs were needed (5). Tragically it would take a much, much shorter time to destroy the glorious priory that had evolved and taken centuries to reach completion. Strange as it may seem but gothic buildings were fairly easy to demolish. As Lionel Green who has made an extensive study of the priory explains ‘Each arch depended on the support of a neighbour. A miner could dig under one of the crossing piers, shoring up with timber as worked progressed. A fire lit within the shoring would sink the pier, and all the arches above it would collapse. Adjoining arcades, deprived of their abutment, would fall, bringing down the heavy vaults they had safely carried for centuries’ (6). To add to the tragedy the destruction of the Priory was not even to echo what happened to other priories and abbeys such as Whitby, Rievaulx, Hailes, Glastonbury and so many others that left glorious and evocative ruins. Merton’s destruction would be complete.
In the 17th century the site became known as Merton Abbey, a name that has stuck ever since and used for various industries. It has been excavated several times between 1921 and 2004 and a wealth of artefacts found including pre medieval finds such as prehistoric pick axes and Roman building material. Medieval finds from the priory include moulded stone fragments, window glass, roof tiles, decorative tiles, pottery, lead coffin, leather shoes, buckles, keys, knives, coins and much else including 738 burials. One poignant find was a gold ring inscribed ‘je ne weil aymer autre que vous’ which translates ‘ I am not seeking to love anyone other than you’..
Fragments of a glass window. Museum of London. Photo Mike Peel.
Remnants of a traceried window. Now in the Museum of London. Photo Mike Peel.
Buried without coffins the remains of two adult males and child. Tumbled together with obvious haste they were possibly plague victims. Photo Museum of London Archaeology Service
But how did the demise of the Priory impact on the local population? These people would have always had the Priory in their lives, their parents and grandparents before them and its importance to them cannot be underestimated. Throughout their lives it would have been a source of comfort to them, a hospital, a source of employment, somewhere they could get alms from should they fall on hard times and a safe haven for travellers. It’s easy to imagine the despair which would have been felt by many as they saw it crashing down before their very eyes. I will leave it to Lionel Green – whose in depth and superbly researched articles on the Priory can be found on the The Merton Historical Website and who puts it so eloquently:
‘Day after day, day after day, the smoke and dust must have pervaded the district, visible from the surrounding hills. Tears must have been shed as the villagers of Wimbledon, Morden, Mitcham and Tooting witnessed the collapse of the tower, so familiar as part of the view from the heights of Wimbledon and St Mary’s church, from the Ridgway, from Cannon Hill, from Morden and St Lawrence’s church, from Mitcham and its church of St Peter and St Paul and from Park Hill in Tooting. That which had dominated the view for centuries was no more’ (7).
- Destruction of a Monastery. Lionel Green. Merton Historical Society who quotes National Archives E 101/477/12 as his source.
- Roger de Wendover Chronica vol.iv p.250
- Seeking Sanctuary at Merton. Lionel Green. Merton Historical Society. Bulletin 134 June 2000 p.8
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Henry VI. R.A Griffiths.
- The Destruction of a Priory. Lionel Green. Online article of the Merton Historical Society. Bulletin 148 p.11. December 2003
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