Merton was first recorded in a Saxon charter of 949, as Mertone, meaning farmstead or estate (tun) by the pool (mere) (in context, either on or near the River Wandle). It was later recorded in the Norman “Domesday Book” of 1086 as Meretone; the manor as belonging to the King, William I. Later still a large Augustinian priory was built here in the Medieval period, which survived until the post-Medieval (see below). Huguenots settled the area in the sixteenth century, and set up cottage industries on the banks of the Wandle. Liberty then set up their print-works on the same spot in the eighteenth century, and William Morris his workshop in the nineteenth. The modern town developed during the late nineteenth century, in part as a garden suburb founded by the successful local businessman John Innes – he of compost fame!
Saxon Greater London is discussed on our “Dark Age London” themed special walk.
A large Augustinian priory dedicated to St Mary was founded on the east bank of the Wandle in Merton by Gilbert, Sheriff of Surrey, in 1117, which survived for over four hundred years until its eventual dissolution under Henry VIII in 1538 (*). At its height, it was one of the most wealthy and influential of all the English Augustinian houses, finding particular favour under Henry III (r. 1216-72), who was a frequent visitor. Among those educated at the priory were Nicholas Breakspeare (1100-1159), who went on to become Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman ever to hold that exalted office; Thomas Becket (1118-70), who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury; and Walter de Merton (1205-77), who went on become Chief Justice of England, and to found the college in Oxford that to this day still bears his name.
Essentially only the foundations of the former chapter house of the priory survive to this day, in an underpass under Meratun Way. Note, though, that parts of the formerly surrounding wall and ditch can also still be seen. Note also that a fine Norman doorway from the priory can still be seen, albeit in a remote location, outside the originally twelfth-century church of St Mary in Merton Park.
(*) It is said that materials salvaged from the priory were re-used by Henry in the construction of his grand and now-lost Nonsuch Palace in neighbouring Sutton.
A Museum of London Archaeology Service monograph describes in details the findings from archaeological excavations undertaken at the priory site between 1976-90 (Miller & Saxby, 2007, The Augustinian Priory of St Mary Merton, Surrey, MoLAS Monograph, 34). Findings from excavations in the priory burial grounds showed that at least 517 of the 664 studied inhumations were of adult males, including at least 22 of the 23 in the chapter house (in context, likely priors), suggesting a certain amount of restriction of burial right to male clergy and select laity. Interestingly, approximately 9% of the total number of studied skeletons, including 100% of those from the chapter house and church, showed evidence of Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis or DISH, a form of pathology associated with a high-calorie diet, obesity and diabetes, and apparently comparatively common among high-ranking clergy! Approximately 13% bore evidence of healed fractures, possibly, although by no means incontrovertibly, treated in the priory infirmary. None bore any evidence of surgical intervention, possibly because surgical cases would not have been admitted to the priory infirmary, it being understood from the so-called “Barnwell Observances” that the Master of the Farmery [Infirmary] would not necessarily have any detailed medical knowledge.
Some important artefacts from the priory site are on display in the Museum of London.
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