Oxford University - Merton College. Image courtesy of Jonathan.

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Merton College

As one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England, Merton College dates back to the 1260s when Walter de Merton, chancellor of Henry III and Edward I, first drafted statutes for an independent academic community.

It has been claimed that Merton College is the oldest college in Oxford. This claim, however, is disputed by Balliol College and University College. Merton was, however, the first one to be provided with statutes to govern it. 

What's the History of Merton College?

Merton College was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, Lorch Chancellor and Bishop of Rochester. Walter’s foundation included a requirement that the “college” be self-governing, and that the endowments would be directly delegated to the Warden and Fellows. When Walter retired from royal service in 1274 and revised the college statutes for the last time, the community was consolidated at its current location in the southeast corner of Oxford city, and a rapid building program started.

Merton has an unbroken line of wardens dating back to the year 1264. Many of these had a great influence on the development of the college. For example, scholar and mathematician Henry Savile led the college to flourish by extending its buildings in the early 17th century. 

In 1333, masters from Merton College and Brasenose College left Oxford to found a new university at Stamford. After lobbying by Oxford and Cambridge University, King Edward III suppressed the institution in 1335. Merton College purchased St Alban Hall, an independent academic hall, in 1548 and annexed it in 1881. 

During the English Civil War, Merton was the only Oxford college to side with Parliament. The college’s buildings were commandeered by the Royalists and used to house Charles I’s court when the city became the Loyalists’ capital. The King’s French wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, was housed in or near the Queen’s Room, a room above the arch between Front and Fellow’s Quads. 

Old Photos of Oxford University Merton College

The Buildings of Merton College

The present site in Oxford was acquired by Walter de Merton in the mid-1260s. The college was consolidated on this site in 1274. Walter also got permission from the king to extend the initial three houses and parish church of St John south, to the old city wall. The college continued to purchase properties on both sides of Merton Street. 

The Chapel

The old church of St John the Baptism had fallen into a ruinous condition by the 1280s so work began on a new one in 1290. The present choir was completed in 1294. The east window shows the strict geometrical conventions of the Early English Period of architecture. The south transept was completed in the 14th century and the great tower in 1450. The chapel continued to serve as the parish church until 1891 – reason why numerous older documents refer to it as “Merton Church”. 

The Front Quad and the Hall

Merton College’s hall is the oldest surviving building of the college. The door has medieval ironwork although several successive reconstruction efforts have erased much of its medieval past. The hall is still used for daily meals and houses several valuable portraits. The quad itself has an informal pattern, a reminder of its domestic nature. 

Mob Quad and Library

Although the Fron Quad is older, the Mob Quad is still one of the earliest quadrangles in all of Oxford. It’s set to have set the pattern for future collegiate architecture, such as Corpus Christy College, Cambridge. 

Fellow’s Quad

Fellow’s Quad is the grandest quadrangle in Merton College. It’s immediately south of the hall and was finished at the beginning of the 17th century. The sourthern gateway is surmounted by a tower of the four Orders, possibly inspired by Italian designs seen by Savile in his travels. 

Other Buildings

Most of the other Merton College’s buildings are Victorian or later. These include St Alban’s Quad, the Grove building, and “Rose Lane”, several buildings north of Merton Street. Merton College’s gardens fill the southeastern corner of the old walled city of Oxford. 

What is it Like to Study at Merton College, Oxford?

Merton College admits undergraduate and graduate students. Traditionally a male college, the first female ones were accepted in 1980. Merton is actually the second former male college to elect a female head of house. First-year students had single-sex accommodation – with females going into the Rose Lane buildings and male ones into three houses on Merton Street. Since 2007, all accommodation became mixed. 

Merton College occupied one of the three positions in the Norrington Table until 2012, when it dropped to 4th. 

Merton holds the popular “Time Ceremony“, where students dress in formal academic dress and walk backwards around the Fellow’s Quad drinking port. Participants used to also carry candles, but this practice has been abandoned. Students usually link arms and twirl around at each corner of the quadrangle. 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“. Merton College also holds a triennial Winter Ball. 

There are several drinking and dining societies, such as the all-male Myrmidons, as well as a number of subject-specific societies. One of the most notable is the Halsbury Society (Law) and the Chalcentrics (Classics). 

The Bodley Club is a speaker society founded in 1894 as a forum for undergraduates to deliver academic papers on literature. The club was reformed in the 1908s as a speaker society. 

Merton College also has a long-standing sporting relationship with Mansfield College and run several amalgamated sports teams for major sports. Merton has been Head of the River in Summer Eights once. 

Where is Merton College?

Merton College is located in Merton Street (OX1 4JD), Oxford. Tel 01865 276310.

Merton College Coat of Arms
Arms: Or, three chevronels party per pale, the first and third azure and gules, the second gules and azure.

Can you Visit Merton College?

Yes, Merton College is open to the public. 

  • Open: Mon-Fri 14.00-17.00 (or dusk if earlier), Sat-Sun 10.00-17.00 (or dusk if earlier).
  • Charge: Adults £3. Free to children. Free to University members and alumni.
  • Groups: Groups of more than 10 must book in advance.

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