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n the year 1274, "the House of the Scholars of Merton," since called Merton College, was solemnly founded, and settled upon its present site in Oxford, by Walter de Merton, Chancellor to King Henry III. and King Edward I. Ten years earlier, in the midst of the Civil War, this remarkable man had already established a collegiate brotherhood, under the same name, at Maiden, in Surrey, but with an educational branch at Oxford, where twenty students were to be maintained out of the corporate revenues. . . . These statutes are justly regarded as the archetype of the College system, not only in the University of Oxford, but in that of Cambridge, where they were adopted as a model by the founder of Peterhouse, the oldest of Cambridge Colleges. In every important sense of the word, Merton, with its elaborate code of statutes and conventual buildings, its chartered rights of self-government, and its organized life was the first of English Colleges, and the founder of Merton was indirectly the founder of Collegiate Universities.

Left: The Library Interior. Right: The Tower. Both W. G. Blackall. c. 1920 Source: The Charm of Oxford/ [Click on images to enlarge them.]

His idea took root and bore fruit, because it was inspired by a true sympathy with the needs of the University, . . . To combine monastic discipline with secular learning, and so to create a great seminary for the secular clergy, was the aim of Walter de Merton. The inmates of the College were to live by a common rule under a common head; but they were to take no vows, to join no monastic fraternity, on pain of deprivation, and to undertake no ascetic or ceremonial obligations. Their occupation was to be study, not the claustralis religio of the older religious orders, nor the more practical and popular self-devotion of the Dominicans and Franciscans, ”the intrusive and anti-national militia of the Papacy.” They were all to read Theology, but not until after completing their full course in Arts; and they were encouraged to seek employment in the great world. As the value of the endowments should increase, the number of scholars was to be augmented; and those who might win an ample fortune (uberior fortuna) were enjoined to show their gratitude by advancing the interests of “the house.” While their duties and privileges were strictly defined by the statutes, they were expressly empowered to amend the statutes themselves in accordance with the growing requirements of future ages, and even to migrate from Oxford elsewhere in case of necessity. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as Visitor by virtue of his oflfice, was entrusted with the duty of enforcing statutable obligations.

Merton College Library. W. Matthison [?]. c. 1909. Source: Artistic Colored Views of Oxford.

The Merton Statutes of 1274, as interpreted and supplemented by several Ordinances and Injunctions of Visitors, remained in force within living memory, and the spirit of them never became obsolete. The Ordinances of Archbishop Kilwarby, issued as early as 1276, with the Founder's express sanction, chiefly regulate the duties of College officers, but are interesting as recognizing the existence of out-College students. Those of Archbishop Peckham, issued in 1284, are directed to check various abuses already springing up, among which is included the encroachment of professional and utilitarian studies into the curricuhun of the College; the admission of medical students on the plea that Medicine is a branch of Physics is rigorously prohibited, and the study of Canon Law is condemned except under strict conditions and with the Warden's leave. The Ordinances of Archbishop Chicheley, issued in 1425, disclose the prevalence of mercenary self-interest in the College, manifested in the neglect to fill up Fellowships, in wasteful management of College property, and so forth.

The ordinances of Archbishop Laud, issued in 1640, are specially framed, as might be expected, to revive wholesome rules of discipline, entering minutely into every detail of College life. Chapel-attendance, the use of surplices and hoods, the restriction of intercourse between Masters and Bachelors, the etiquette of meals, the strength of the College ale, the custody of the College keys, the costume to be worn by members of the College in the streets, and the careful registration in a note-book of every Fellow's departure and return — such were among the numerous punctilios of College economy which shared the attention of this indefatigable prelate with the gravest affairs of Church and State. A century later, in 1733, very similar Injunctions were issued by Archbishop Potter; and on several other occasions undignified disputes between the Wardens and Fellows called for the decisive interference of the Visitor. But the general impression derived from a perusal of the Visitors' Injunctions is, that a reasonable and honest construction of the Statutes would have rendered their interference unnecessary, and that it was a signal proof of the Founder's sagacity to provide such a safeguard against corporate selfishness and intestine discord, in days when public spirit was a rare virtue.

While the University of Oxford has played a greater part in our national history than any other corporation except that of the City of London, the external annals of Merton, as of other Colleges, are comparatively meagre and humble. The corporate life of the College, dating from the Barons' War, flowed on in an equable course during a century of French Wars, followed by the Wars of the Roses.. . . But the College, as a body, was unmoved either by continental expeditions, or by the storms which racked English society in the Middle Ages; and its "Register," which commences in 1482, is for the most part ominously silent on the great political commotions of later periods. During the reign of Henry YIL, indeed, occasional mention of public affairs is to be found in its pages. Such are the references to extraordinary floods, storms, or frosts; to the Sweating Sickness; to the Battle of Bosworth Field; to Perkin Warbeck's Revolt, and other insurrectionary movements of that age; to notable executions; to the birth, marriage, and death of Prince Arthur; to the death of Pope Alexander VI., and to Lady Margaret's endowment of a Theological Professorship. After the reign of Henry VII. the brief entries in this domestic chronicle, like the monotonous series of cases in the Law Reports, almost ignore Civil War and Revolution, betraying no change of style or conscious spirit of innovation . . .

Left: Chapel . Right: Chapel Interior. Both W. Matthison [?]. c. 1909 Merton College, Oxford Source: Artistic Colored Views of Oxford [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Whether John Wyclif was actually a Fellow of Merton is still an open question, though no sufficient evidence has been produced to rebut a belief certainly held in the next generation after the great Reformer's death. That his influence was strongly felt at Merton is an undoubted fact, and the liberal school of thought which he represented had there one of its chief strongholds until the Renaissance and the Reformation. Being anti-monastic by its very constitution, and having been a consistent opponent of Papal encroachments, Merton College might naturally have been expected to cast in its lot with the Protestant cause at this great crisis. A deed of submission to Henry VIII. as Supreme Head of the Church, purporting to represent the unanimous voice of the College,. . .. Nevertheless, the sympathies of the leading Fellows appear to have been mainly Catholic. William Tresham, an ex-Fellow, zealous as he was in the promotion of learning, was among the adversaries of the Reformation movement, and was rewarded by Queen Mary with a Canonry of Christ Church. Though he signed the acknowledgment of the Royal Supremacy, Richard Smyth was a still more active promoter of the Catholic re-action. He also received a Canonry of Christ Church, with the Regius Professorship of Divinity, and preached a sermon before the stake when Ridley and Latimer were martyred, on the unhappy text — "Though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." . . . . there is clear evidence that both sides were strongly represented in the College.

notices of the great struggle then convulsing the nation are few and far between in the minutes of the College Register. With the Restoration of Charles II., the short-lived connection of Merton College vvith general history may be said to have closed. It had the honour of lodging the Queen and. favourite ladies of Charles II. in the plague-year, 1665; it cashiered a Probationer-Fellow in 1681 for maintaining that Charles I. died justly; it took part in the enlistment of volunteers for the suppression of Monmouth's rebellion; and it joined other Colleges in the half-hearted reception of William III. But its records are devoid of political interest, except so far as it became a cliief stronghold of Whig principles in the University during the Jacobite re-action which followed the Revolution, was encouraged by the avowed Toryism of Queen Anne, and almost broke out into civil war on the accession of George I. Charles Wesley expressly mentions it with Christ Church, Exeter, and Wadham, as an anti- Jacobite society. . . .

In the absence of contemporary letters or biographies, it is only from casual notices in Visitors’ Injunctions, Bursars' Rolls, and (after 1482) the College Register, that we can obtain any light on the life and manners of Merton scholars, whether senior or junior, before the Reformation-period. That it was a haven of rest for quiet students, and a model of academical discipline to extra-collegiate inmates of halls and lodgings, during the incessant tumults of the fourteenth century, admits of no doubt whatever. A notable proof of this is the special exemption of Merton “et aularum consimilium” — probably University, Balliol, Exeter, Oriel, and Queen's Colleges— from the general rustication of students which followed the sanguinary riot on St. Scholastica's day in 1354. But the rules laid down by the Founder, and enforced by successive -Visitors, were expressly directed to secure good order in the Society. By the Statutes of 1274, summary expulsion was to be the penalty of persistence in quarrelsome or disorderly behaviour. By the Ordinances of Archbishop Peckham and several other Visitors, the inmates of the College are strictly prohibited from taking meals in the town or entering it alone, and enjoined always to walk about in a body, returning before nightfalL Other Regulations, of great antiquity, but of somewhat uncertain date, emphatically warn the Fellows against aiding and abetting, even in jest, the squabbles between the Northern and Southern " Nations," or between rival "Faculties."

In 1508, the College itself legislated directly against the growing practice of giving out-College parties in the city and coming in late, "even after ten o'clock." By the Injunctions of Archbishop Laud, it was ordered that the College gates should be closed at half-past nine and the keys given to the Warden, none being allowed to sleep in Oxford outside the College walls, or even to breakfast or dine, except in the College Hall, carefully separated according to their degrees. Whether the scholars of Merton, old and young, originally slept in large dormitories, or were grouped together by threes and fours in sets of rooms, like those occupied singly by modern students, is a question which cannot be determined with cer- tainty. The structure of " Mob Quadrangle," however, together with the earliest notices in the Register, justifies the belief that most of them lived in College rooms, and that in those days the College Library, far larger than could be required for the custody of a few hundred or thousand manuscripts, was the one common study of the whole College, perhaps serving also as a covered ambulatory. This building is known to have been constructed, or converted to its present use, about 1376; but the dormer windows in the roof were not thrown out until more than a century later; and in the meantime readers can scarcely have deciphered manuscripts on winter-days, in so dark a chamber, without the aid of oil lamps. Fires were probably unknown, except in the Hall, whither inmates of the College doubtless resorted to warm themselves at all hours of the day. It is to be hoped that, at such casual gatherings, they were relieved from the obligation to converse in Latin imposed upon them during the regular meals in Hall. But intimacy between juniors and seniors was strictly prohibited; and though Archbishop Cranmer allowed the College to dispense with the practice of Bachelors "capping" Masters in the Quadrangle, it was thought necessary to revive it.

As for manly pastimes, which occupy so large a space in modern University life, they are scarcely to be traced in the domestic history of Merton, though a ball-court is known to have existed at the west-end of the Chapel. Football, cudgel- play, and other rough games, were certainly played by the citi- zens in the open fields on the north of Oxford; but if Merton men took part in them, it was against the spirit of Merton rules, since these playful encounters were a fertile source of town and gown rows. There seem to have been no academical sports whatever; rowing was never practised, cricket was not invented, archery was cultivated rather as a piece of warlike training; and it is to be feared that poaching in the great woods then skirting Oxford on the north-east was among the more favourite amusements of athletic students.

Links to Related Material


Artistic Colored Views of Oxford Being Proof Sheets of the Postcards of Oxford. Oxford: E. Cross, nd. Internet Archive version of a copy in St. Michael's College Toronto. 3 October 2012.

The Colleges of Oxford: Their Histories and Traditions. Ed. Andrew Clarke, M.A. London: Metheuen, 1891. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 30 November 2022.

Wells, J. The Charm of Oxford. Illustrated by W. G. Blackall. 2nd ed. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton Kent & Co., [c.1920]. Internet Archive version of a copy in St. Michael's College Toronto. 3 October 2012.

Last modified 30 November 2022