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Merton College

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Merton College

Colleges and halls of the University of Oxford

Merton College

College name The House or College of Scholars of Merton in the University of Oxford
Motto "Qui Timet Deum Faciet Bona"
Named after Walter de Merton
Established 1264
Sister college Peterhouse, Cambridge
Warden Prof. Sir Martin Taylor
Undergraduates 308[1] (2011/2012)
Graduates 354

Merton College, Oxford

Location of Merton College within central OxfordCoordinates: 51°45′04″N 1°15′07″W / 51.751°N 1.252°W / 51.751; -1.252

Boat Club
Blazon Or, three chevronels party per pale, the first and third azure and gules, the second gules and azure.

Merton College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. Its foundation can be traced back to the 1260s when Walter de Merton, chancellor to Henry III and later to Edward I, first drew up statutes for an independent academic community and established endowments to support it. The important feature of Walter's foundation was that this "college" was to be self-governing and that the endowments were directly vested in the Warden and Fellows.[2]

By 1274 when Walter retired from royal service and made his final revisions to the college statutes, the community was consolidated at its present site in the south east corner of the city of Oxford, and a rapid programme of building commenced. The hall and the chapel and the rest of the front quad were complete before the end of the 13th century, but apart from the chapel they have all been much altered since. To most visitors, the college and its buildings are synonymous, but the history of the college can be more deeply understood if one distinguishes the history of the academic community from that of the site and buildings that they have occupied for nearly 750 years.[3]

Merton is among the wealthiest colleges and had an estimated financial endowment of £175 million, as of 2012.[4]


Foundation and origins

Merton College was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Rochester. It has a claim to be the oldest college in Oxford, although this claim is disputed between Merton College, Balliol College and University College. The substance of Merton's claim to the title of oldest College is that Merton was the first college to be provided with "statutes", a constitution governing the College set out at its founding. Merton's statutes date back to 1264, whereas neither Balliol nor University College had statutes until the 1280s. Merton was also the first to be conceived as a community of scholars working to achieve academic ends, rather than just a place for the scholars to live in.

St Alban Hall

St Alban Hall was an independent academic hall owned by the convent of Littlemore until it was purchased by Merton College in 1548 following the dissolution of the convent. It continued as a separate institution until it was finally annexed by the college in 1881.[5]

Parliamentarian sympathies in the Civil War

During the English Civil War, Merton was the only Oxford college to side with Parliament. The reason for this was Merton's annoyance with the interference of their Visitor William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Due to this, the college was moved to London at the start of the Civil War and its buildings were commandeered by the Royalists and used to house much of Charles I's court when Oxford was the Royalists' capital. This included the King's French wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, who was housed in or near what is now the Queen's Room, the room above the arch between Front and Fellows' Quads.

Differences were quickly settled after the war, however, and a portrait of Charles I hangs near the Queen's Room as a reminder of the role it played in his court.


The "House of Scholars of Merton" originally had properties in Surrey (in present day Old Malden) as well as in Oxford, but it was not until the mid-1260s that Walter de Merton acquired the core of the present site in Oxford, along the south side of what was then St John's Street (now Merton Street). The college was consolidated on this site by 1274, when Walter made his final revisions to the college statutes.

The initial acquisition included the parish church of St John (which was superseded by the chapel) and three houses to the east of the church which now form the north range of Front Quad. Walter also obtained permission from the king to extend from these properties south to the old city wall to form an approximately square site. The college continued to acquire other properties as they became available on both sides of Merton Street. At one time, the college owned all the land from the site that is now Christ Church to the south eastern corner of the city. The land to the east eventually became the present day garden, while the western end was leased by Warden Richard Rawlins in 1515 for the foundation of Corpus Christi (at an annual rent of just over £4).[6]


Main article: Merton College Chapel

By the late 1280s the old church of St John the Baptist had fallen into "a ruinous condition",[7] and the college accounts show that work on a new church began in about 1290. The present choir with its enormous east window was complete by 1294. The window is an important example (because it is so well dated) of how the strict geometrical conventions of the Early English Period of architecture were beginning to be relaxed at the end of the 13th century.[8] The south transept was built in the 14th century, the north transept in the early years of the 15th. The great tower was complete by 1450. The chapel replaced the parish church of St. John and continued to serve as the parish church as well as the chapel until 1891. It is for this reason that it is generally referred to as Merton Church in older documents, and that there is a north door into the street as well as doors into the college. This dual role also probably explains the enormous scale of the chapel, which in its original design was to have a nave and two aisles extending to the west.[9]

A new choral foundation was established in 2007, providing for a choir of sixteen undergraduate and graduate choral scholars singing from October 2008. The choir is directed by Peter Phillips, currently also director of the Tallis Scholars and Benjamin Nicholas, director of music at Tewkesbury Abbey.

A spire from the chapel has resided in Pavilion Garden VI of the University of Virginia since 1928, when "it was given to the University to honor Jefferson's educational ideals."[10]

Front quad and the hall

The hall is the oldest surviving college building, but apart from the door which has medieval ironwork almost no trace of the ancient structure has survived the successive reconstruction efforts, first by James Wyatt in the 1790s and then again by Gilbert Scott in 1874. The hall is still used daily for meals and houses a number of important portraits. It is not usually open to visitors.

Front quad itself is probably the earliest collegiate quadrangle, but its informal, almost haphazard, pattern cannot be said to have influenced designers elsewhere. A reminder of its original domestic nature can be seen in the north east corner where one of the flagstones is marked "Well". The quad is formed of what would have been the back gardens of the three original houses that Walter acquired in the 1260s.

Mob quad and library

Main articles: Mob Quad and Merton College Library

Visitors to Merton are often told Mob Quad, built in the 14th century, is the oldest quadrangle of any Oxford or Cambridge college and set the pattern for future collegiate architecture, but Front Quad was certainly enclosed earlier (albeit with a less unified design) and other colleges, for example Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, can point to their own older examples.

The old library occupies the upper floor of the south and west ranges of Mob Quad, and the original archive room is still in the north east corner; it houses one of the most complete sets of college records in Europe.

Fellows' quad

The grandest quadrangle in Merton is the Fellows' Quadrangle, immediately south of the hall. The quad was the culmination of the work undertaken by Sir Henry Savile at the beginning of the 17th century. The foundation stone was laid shortly after breakfast on 13 September 1608 (as recorded in the college Register), and work was complete by September 1610 (although the battlements were added later).[11] The southern gateway is surmounted by a tower of the four Orders, probably inspired by Italian examples that Warden Savile would have seen on his European travels. The main contractors were from Yorkshire (as was Savile), John Ackroyd and John Bentley of Halifax did the stonework and Thomas Holt the timber. This group were also later employed to work on the Bodleian Library and Wadham College.[12]

Other buildings

Most of the other buildings are Victorian or later and include: St. Alban Quad (or "Stubbins"), designed by Basil Champneys,[13] built on the site of the medieval St. Alban Hall (elements of the older façade are incorporated into the part that faces onto Merton Street); the Grove building, built in 1864 by William Butterfield but "chastened" in the 1930s;[14] the buildings beyond the Fellows' Garden called "Rose Lane"; several buildings north of Merton Street, including a real tennis court, and the Old Warden's Lodgings (designed by Champneys in 1903);[13] and a new quadrangle in Holywell Street, some distance away from the college.


The garden fills the southeastern corner of the old walled city of Oxford. The walls may be seen from Christ Church Meadows. Among other things, the gardens contain a mulberry tree planted in the early 17th century, an armillary sundial, a beautiful lawn, and the old Fellows' summer house (now a music room).

T.S. Eliot Lecture Theatre

A new lecture theatre named after T.S. Eliot, a former member of the college, opened in 2010. It has a bust of the writer by Jacob Epstein, presented by Frank Brenchley – a former member and fellow of the college. Brenchley presented his collection of Eliot first editions and ephemera to the college, which is believed to be the second largest collection of such material worldwide. The foyer is illuminated by a lighting display representing three constellations that were visible on the night of 14 September 1264, the day the college was founded.[15]

Modern academic community

Merton College admits both undergraduate and graduate students. It admitted its first female students in 1980 and was the second former male college to elect a female head of house (in 1994). Merton has traditionally had single-sex accommodation for 1st year undergraduates, with female students going into the Rose Lane buildings and most male students going into three houses on Merton Street. However, this was changed in 2007, with all accommodation being mixed by gender and course.

Since the introduction of an official Norrington Table published by the University in 2004, Merton occupied one of the top three positions every year (often coming 1st), until 2012 when it dropped to 14th.[16] It is one of the most academically successful colleges in the last twenty years.

Undergraduate admission to the college, like other Oxford colleges, is based solely on academic potential.[17] In 2010, it was (incorrectly) reported that Merton had not admitted a black student in the previous five years. A university spokeswoman commented that black students were more likely to apply for oversubscribed subjects.[18] The University also reported that Merton had admitted at least one black undergraduate since 2005.[19]

Student activities

At the (in)famous Time Ceremony students dressed in formal academic dress walk backwards around the Fellows' Quad drinking port. Traditionally, participants also hold candles, but in recent years this practice has been dropped, and many students have now adopted the habit of linking arms and twirling around at each corner of the quad. The purpose of this tradition is to maintain the integrity of the space-time continuum during the transition from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, which occurs in the early hours of the last Sunday in October. There are two toasts associated with the ceremony, the first is "to good old times!", or "to a good old time!", whilst the second is "long live the counter-revolution!". The ceremony was invented by two undergraduates in 1971, partly as a spoof on other Oxford ceremonies, and partly to celebrate the end of the experimental period of British Standard Time from 1968 to 1971 when the UK stayed one hour ahead of GMT all year round.

Merton is the only college in Oxford to hold a triennial winter ball, instead of the more common Commemoration ball. The next of these will be held on 30 November 2013.[20]

Merton also plays host to a number of drinking and dining societies, along the lines of other colleges. These include the Myrmidons, female-equivalent Myrmaids and L'Ancien Régime. Merton College is also rumoured to be the college of the founding members of the alleged Haxley Society, a university-wide establishment and reportedly a chapter of Yale's similarly prestigious Gamma Gamma Phi fraternity.

There is a society for every subject studied at Merton, the most notable of which are the Halsbury Society (Law)[21] and the Chalcenterics (Classics).[22] Other more academic societies include the Neave Society, which aims to discuss and debate political issues, and the Bodley Club, founded in 1894 as a forum for undergraduate papers on literature but now a speaker society, inviting 'fabulously interesting' luminaries from all walks of life.


Merton has a long-standing sporting relationship with Mansfield College, with the colleges fielding amalgamated sports teams for nearly all major sports, except rowing. The JCR Football Premier Division was (jointly) won for the first time by a Merton team in 2010/11.[23] The side, captained by a Mertonian undergraduate, also reached the semi-finals of Cuppers only to lose out to the eventual champions Worcester.[24]

In rowing, Merton College Boat Club has been Head of the River in Summer Eights once; its men's 1st VIII held the headship in 1951. Merton's women have done better in recent years, gaining the headship in Torpids in 2003 and rowing over to defend the title in 2004.[25]


The college preprandial grace is always recited before formal dinners in Hall and usually by the senior postmaster present. The first two lines of the Latin text are based on verses 15 and 16 of Psalm 145.

Oculi omnium in te respiciunt, Domine. Tu das escam illis tempore opportuno.
Aperis manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione tua.
Benedicas nobis, Deus, omnibus donis quae de tua beneficentia accepturi simus.
Per Jesum Christum dominum nostrum, Amen.

Roughly translated it means:

The eyes of the world look up to thee, O Lord. Thou givest them food in due season.
Thou openest thy hand and fillest every creature with thy blessing.
Bless us, O God, with all the gifts which by thy good works we are about to receive.
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Amen.

For the relevant verses of the Psalm, the Authorized Version has:

15. The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season.
16. Thou openst thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.

At the University of Cambridge, a slightly different version of the Latin text of these verses is painted (apparently as a decoration) around Old Hall in Queens' College, Cambridge, and is "commonly in use at other Cambridge colleges".[26]

By contrast with the rather long pre-prandial grace, the post-prandial grace is brief: Benedictus benedicat ("Let him who has been blessed, give blessing"). The latter grace is spoken by the senior Fellow present at the end of dinner on High Table.

Former students and Wardens

Main articles: List of alumni of Merton College, Oxford and List of Wardens of Merton College, Oxford

Merton alumni (Mertonians) have achieved careers across a variety of disciplines, this includes writers, politicians, academics and four Nobel prize winners: poet T. S. Eliot,[27] physicist Sir Anthony Leggett, zoologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and chemist Frederick Soddy.[28]

Former students with careers as politicians and civil servants include, diplomats Sir Leonard Allinson, Terence John O'Brien, Sir Michael Palliser, politicians Reginald Maudling, Airey Neave, Jesse Norman, Ed Vaizey and Zimbabwean politician Arthur Mutambara. In business, former Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson,[29] CEO of Stonewall Ben Summerskill, CEO of Sony Sir Howard Stringer, co-founder of Punch Taverns Hugh Osmond, investment banker David Freud and businesswoman Juliet Davenport. In philosophy and theology, theologian Thomas Bradwardine, John Wycliffe, John Jewel, philosophers F. H. Bradley, Theodor Adorno and John Lucas. In the fields of science and mathematics, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, mathematician Sir Andrew Wiles[27] who proved Fermat's Last Theorem, chemist Sir George Radda, geneticist Alec Jeffreys and systems biologist Tim Mitchison. Other Merton alumni are Bodleian Library founder Thomas Bodley,[27] the Oxford Calculators and Principal of King's College London Rick Trainor.

Author J. R. R. Tolkien was a Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.[30]

The current Warden of the college is Sir Martin J. Taylor, former Professor of pure mathematics at the University of Manchester.


See also



  • Bott, A. (1993). Merton College: A Short History of the Buildings. Oxford: Merton College. ISBN 0-9522314-0-9.
  • Martin, G.H. & Highfield, J.R.L. (1997). A History of Merton College. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-920183-8.

External links

  • Merton College website
  • Merton JCR website
  • Merton MCR website
  • Virtual tour of Merton
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