The Augustinian Priory of St Mary Merton and its Destruction.

Reblogged from A Medieval Potpourri sparkypus.com

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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.

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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.

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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.   

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Henry V, as Prince of Wales.  Artist Homas Hoccleve c.1411-1413.

Many important personages are associated with Merton Priory including:

Thomas a Becket (1119-1170) 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 I (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.

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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. 

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