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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of Merton College in Oxford

What is Merton College?

Merton College is a Medieval college with the oldest quad in Oxford whose alumni include Sir Thomas Bodley and poet T. S. Eliot.

Merton College

Merton College History

Foundations, Growth, and Historic Firsts

Merton was founded in 1264 by the eponymous Walter de Merton, Chancellor to two kings. It was only ten years later, though, that the institution was established at its current site in the south-east corner of medieval Oxford, flush to the former city walls. The hall, chapel, and rest of the front quadrangle were built before the end of the 13th century and are the oldest assemblage of college buildings surviving in Oxford. You might notice how this quadrangle feels a little more like a medieval village than other, more architecturally unified equivalents in Oxford. This is partly due to the speed with which the builders were working, eager to provide space for an established and growing body of students and fellows to live, work, and study. Mob Quad, found through a passageway to the right of the hall, is the oldest quadrangle in Oxford. The library, meanwhile, located in the south buildings in Mob Quad, is the oldest continuously functioning academic library in the world.

Merton During the Civil Wars, and Ghosts!

Merton College was particularly active during the Civil Wars. Some of its private quarters were inhabited by Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, when the king was forced to relocate his court to Oxford from London, which had fallen to Parliament. In a bewildering irony, Merton was nevertheless unique among Oxford colleges in that its Warden, Nathaniel Brent, sided with the Parliamentarians. Brent had been involved in an open dispute with William Laud, a favourite of Charles as well as Archbishop of Canterbury. When Laud was put on trial for treason in 1644, with charges that he had exercised undue influence over the government of the country, Brent gave evidence against Laud, clearly resolved that his church government was corrupt, but perhaps also resenting the fact that the king had commandeered residential parts of his own college. In 1646 Oxford surrendered. Periodic reports circulate of a ghost: Francis Windebank, a Royalist soldier executed against the south wall of the college, who haunts the old library in Mob Quad. Because the original floor has since been raised, Francis appears only from the knees up.

Merton Time Ceremony

Merton is also home to one of the strangest traditions in Oxford: the ‘Time Ceremony’, performed every time Britain moves (on the last Sunday of March) from Greenwich Mean Time to British Summer Time. The ceremony, entirely particular to Merton, supposedly preserves the space-time equilibrium. As Summer Time kicks in at 1am and the clocks leap forward, all fellows and students of Merton, along with the old members who started the tradition in 1971, gather in Fellows’ Quad, decked in full academic dress (a dark suit, white shirt, bow tie or ribbon, and a gown), with a glass of port, and walk backwards for an hour. After this, the assembled members of college make three toasts: the first, ‘to a good old time!’; the second to the sundial and the nearby mulberry tree, and the third, ‘long live the counter-revolution!’ The ghost of Charles I, if he can hear this last exclamation, will be relieved.

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