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Merton Priory

1994/5 p9


Merton Priory


From 1158 to 1538 Ewell Manor was owned by Merton Priory, and the following notes may be of interest.


Merton Priory was founded by Gilbert the Knight with the help of Henry I, who gave the manor of Merton to the priory in 1121. The community was organised by Gilbert’s friend Robert, the Sub-Prior of Huntingdon Priory, who came with some of his monks. Many distinguished guests, including royalty, stayed there, and these rich connections led to the Priory being given estates all over the country, some as far flung as Cornwall. By 1242 more than 200 estates were held in 16 different counties, including the manor of Ewell, which was granted in 1158 by Henry II.


Merton was an Augustinian priory, and the black monks, as they were known, were supposed to follow rules of silence and poverty. ‘At the table the monks should use their jaws for eating only, and their ears for hearing the word of God’.


The priory was the most important Augustinian priory in Surrey: it had a large cruciform church, and a chapter house big enough to accommodate meetings of State Councils, including that of the Great Council in 1236, when the Statute of Merton, relating to the rights of the barons, was passed. When it came to the administration of their extensive estates, the monks were not the best of landlords: around 1320 tenants complained to the king about the harsh way in which they were treated. Neither was the administration of the priory itself above reproach. A prior had to resign in 1305 for his lack of discipline, and in 1314 there were accusations that services were being neglected.


William of Wykeham rebuked the brethren in 1387 for wearing precious furs, knotted sleeves, silk girdles and gold and silver ornaments, and for hunting. Furthermore, some of the Canons slept without drawers or shirts, contrary to the rules of observance.


All that is left of the priory today consists of fragments of walls and an archway that has been moved to a site near Merton parish church. At the Dissolution the destruction of the buildings started even before the document surrender was signed, and many loads of stones were taken to be used in the building of Nonsuch Palace. Squared stones were used in the walls, but many tons of carved stones including sculptured heads and window tracery were consigned to the foundations.


At the time of the dissolution, the priory was not in a flourishing condition. It had run down until there were only 14 inmates left. They were given pensions by the king or received employment elsewhere.


Charles Abdy

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