The Influence of Merton Priory
by Richard Chellew
Richard Chellew’s talk at our April 2014 meeting has now been published under the title The Influence of Merton Priory.
Richard, a Merton councillor, became intrigued with the priory when investigating the possibility of removing the electricity pylon that blights the area. Initial hopes to have the priory site recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site proved unrealistic, so Richard turned his considerable talents to the surviving manuscripts belonging to, or connected with, the priory for possible inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
There is a wealth of documents in a variety of archives – Richard has identified more than 50 manuscripts from just the first two centuries of the priory’s existence. These are being copied by Timothy Noad, a Herald Painter at the College of Arms in London and a Scribe to the Crown Office at the House of Lords, using vellum and inks matching the originals.
They range from the famous Provisions of Merton of 1236, the first entry in the Statute Books, to brief notes recorded in the Patent Rolls and Close Rolls, such as the safe conduct issued from Merton in 1215 by King John allowing the barons’ representatives to meet his representatives prior to the meeting at Runnymede and the granting of Magna Carta; from entries in the priory’s own Annals to accounts by the eminent 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris; from letters from popes and archbishops to a letter from one of the early canons of Merton. Ten of these superb facsimiles are reproduced in this booklet.
But in addition to getting these documents copied, Richard has been investigating the story they tell. Why was Merton priory so influential? In this study Richard explores its reputation for piety, its roles as a training ground for saints and as a centre of learning, its political influence and its key role in helping to shape the English legal system.
This booklet is illustrated by full-colour copies of the splendid facsimiles of the original documents specially prepared by a calligrapher from the College of Arms.
Extracted from reviews in MHS Bulletins 190 (June 2014) and 191 (September 2014)
MERTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY 2014
The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield,
an Augustinian foundation contemporary with Merton priory.
Reproduced courtesy of the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great
Front Cover: Detail from the heading of the Provisions of Merton, 1236
Facsimile by Timothy Noad from a 16th-century transcript in the British Library,
MS Cotton Claudius D.II ff.145-147
Merton priory is a very special place that celebrates its 900th anniversary
in 2014. Age alone does not necessarily make something special, so what
is it that makes this priory so special?
It is certainly not for the splendour of its surviving buildings, because all
that remains of Merton priory are the foundations of its chapterhouse
and they are hidden under the A24. Nevertheless, what it lacks in good
looks, it makes up for in a wealth of documentary evidence consisting
of over 50 manuscripts that tell an amazing story.
A selection of these documents, about 35 in all, has recently been
painstakingly copied onto vellum by a Herald Painter at the College of
Arms in London, and these are collectively known as the ‘Merton Priory
Manuscripts’. It is these manuscripts that form the basis of this essay.
In order to try and visualize the magnificent setting that once existed
within the precinct of Merton priory, I would like you to imagine yourself
standing in the magnificence of St Bartholomew’s priory in Smithfield.
For those not personally familiar with St Bartholomew’s, it was used
as the backdrop to the films Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, and The
Other Boleyn Girl, together with many others set in that period. I have
chosen St Bartholomew’s because it is comparable to Merton in size; and
being an Augustinian priory it is also of the same religious order, with a
foundation charter, like Merton’s, granted by Henry I. Indeed only two
years separate their foundation charters.
Although Merton priory was to last more than 400 years, I am only
going to discuss its first two centuries. From its beginning Merton
priory attracted men of learning who had previously enjoyed positions
of authority, and this practice was to continue, yet the priory was still
able to retain a reputation for piety. Furthermore, in its formative years
it became a training ground for saints – few of England’s monasteries
could claim that – and it was also acknowledged as a centre of learning
at a time when not even Oxford enjoyed university status.
Consequently, Merton priory was able to exercise political sway with the
lords both temporal and spiritual. By lords temporal I mean the barons,
who administered worldly affairs, whilst lords spiritual are of course the
bishops who administered religious affairs. The two most senior were
the archbishops, followed by bishops, abbots and priors.
We usually look upon our monasteries as places of seclusion, with some
of the most important founded by outstanding individuals, many of
whom were subsequently elevated to sainthood. However, in the case
of Merton priory it was not left to any one individual to determine its
destiny; the priory relied upon the strengths of its community, who
comprised men of substance and learning. We know for example that,
of the 15 initial members, one was an Italian scholar, while another
was a chaplain to the earl of Huntingdon (later to become David, king
of Scotland). Its initial members also included a former archdeacon of
Surrey as well as a former dean of Salisbury. Their prior must have been
an exceptional man to have been able to control such a community,
but, of more significance, it tells us that the members were at home
in the temporal world as well as the spiritual; that would prove to be
one of its greatest strengths.
An example of the high regard in which Merton’s priors were held is
to be found in a letter from John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury.
Writing in the year 1282 to his representatives at the papal court in
Rome he lists the prior of Merton as one of five judges who he considers
would be best suited to investigate disputes about his jurisdiction over
various abbeys. Such was the respect Merton’s priors commanded that,
even during a time when rank was all important, they could still be
relied upon to settle disputes between their superiors.
It was of course a combination of all these things together with Merton’s
proximity to Westminster that enabled Merton priory to have such
an influence. In order to provide a better understanding of this, I am
going to conduct a whistle-stop tour under four headings, allocating
a little more space for my final section – Helping to Shape the English
Legal System – because that is the key to this study.
A REpuTATION fOR pIETY
Merton priory was founded in 1114 in an area we know today as
Merton Park. Its inhabitants, finding the site unsuitable, soon moved
to another by the banks of the River Wandle, adjacent to the area now
known as Colliers Wood.
Although the inhabitants of the priory belonged to a monastic
community bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they
were of the Augustinian order and are referred to as ‘canons regular’.
While observing similar rules and rituals to those of other monks,
especially when in their priory, they were also free to work in the
temporal world, which they frequently did when ordered to do so by
their prior. This helped to keep them in touch with the realities of life
in the outside world and therefore made them a useful administrative
tool for their temporal masters. I should add that there were also
‘secular canons’ who, by contrast, belonged to a community of priests
attached to a church but did not take monastic vows or live in common
under a formal Rule.
Augustinian canons generally had a high level of learning, which
helps explain why both Thomas Becket and Hubert Walter elected
to become ‘canons regular’ immediately prior to their enthronement
at Canterbury. However, having been appointed archbishops at
Westminster, they would have had to pass the Augustinian priories of
Aldgate, Clerkenwell, St Bartholomew’s and Southwark on their way
to Canterbury to be enthroned. So why go to Merton, thereby adding
days to their journey? The answer is that here we begin to see the
connection between Merton’s learning and its influence at Canterbury.
In fact Merton was to have an unparalleled association with Canterbury
between 1123 and 1236, as will be observed below.
We talk today about ‘hitting the ground running’ and that is exactly
what the canons of Merton did. Even before they had completed
their first stone church in 1135, they had established eight daughter
houses, three of which were abbeys. Only one survives today – that of
Cirencester – where Henry I of England asked the canons of Merton
to introduce the Augustinian rule in the year 1131. Serlo, one of
the priory’s initial members,
then become its abbot. Three
years earlier David king of
Scotland had asked the canons
to establish an Augustinian
community in Edinburgh, to
become Holyrood abbey, where
Alwin, another initial member,
became its first abbot. Holyrood
is of course the location of the
present Scottish parliament. The
bishop of Coutances asked the
canons of Merton to establish an
Augustinian house at the abbey
church at St Lô in Normandy.
What is interesting about this
daughter abbey is that the
request occurred during the
of merton Priory
height of the Norman oppression. For a Norman bishop to have entrusted
such a prestigious abbey as St Lô to an English priory demonstrates that
Merton’s reputation went well beyond the jurisdiction of Canterbury.
I have already mentioned Peckham’s letter but, of the 15 initial canons,
two would eventually become abbots – a very high honour indeed
considering that the vast majority of Augustinian houses were priories.
Guy of Merton, whom we shall learn more about shortly, is described
in a letter to his son as little short of saintly, which leads me into …
A TRAINING GROuNd fOR SAINTS
During its first 120 years, Merton priory saw two of its former protégés
canonized: Thomas Becket, who had studied at Merton as a young
boy, and Edmund Rich who, although not educated at Merton priory,
spent more than a year there preparing his lectures before returning to
Oxford. (Canonization must not be confused with canons, the former
being the elevation to sainthood, while the latter refers to a group of
religious clerics or monks.)
Thomas was murdered in Canterbury cathedral in 1170 and canonized
three years later. This was a spectacularly swift rise to sainthood. Even
Edward the Confessor had to wait 95 years for his canonization and that
was by no means a very long period in what was, and usually still is, a
very drawn out process.
Numerous letters were sent to the pope in support of Edmund’s
canonization – from bishops, abbots and priors around Europe. Most
of these letters are couched in the same form, with phrases constantly
recurring, suggesting that a template had been produced. However,
Robert, the prior of Merton, wrote in very personal terms, describing
Edmund as a pious man who was respected by all who came into contact
with him during his stay at Merton. This demonstrates once again the
personal relationship the priory enjoyed with the office of Canterbury.
Although taking slightly longer than Becket, seven years in all, Edmund
was also very rapidly canonized after his death in 1240.
The consecration of archbishop Edmund by Roger bishop of Salisbury.
Redrawn by Timothy Noad from a marginal sketch by Matthew Paris in his Historia
Anglorum, a history of England covering the years 1070-1253, probably written c.1250-55:
British Library Royal 14 C VII f.22
A CENTRE Of LEARNING
Merton priory not only helped promote some of our oldest grammar
schools but it also had a hand in bringing about St Edmund Hall, Oxford,
which claims to be the oldest academic society for the education of
undergraduates in any university. Whilst University College Oxford,
Balliol and Merton all have a claim to be Oxford’s first college,
Peterhouse’s claim to be Cambridge’s first college is undisputed.
As we have already seen, adopting the
habit of a canon in England at this time
was generally a sign of education. In 1123
William Corbeil, the then archbishop of
Canterbury, enhanced Merton priory’s
reputation by instructing the canons of
Merton to introduce the Augustinian
rule to St Gregory’s, Canterbury, with
‘canons regular’. This also helps explain
the similarities between St Gregory’s
school of music and grammar and that of
Huntingdon, as Huntingdon was Merton
Augustinian canon of the 16th century, from Sir William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum
St Edmund Hall Oxford
St Edmund’s name was given to both St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and St
Edmund’s College, Cambridge – the then newly formed institution of
learning that would eventually rival Oxford. He is credited by St Edmund
Hall as having been the first Regent Master in the Arts, probably in the
1190s. Subsequently he became the first archbishop of Canterbury to
enter office with a degree. Thereafter, the need to wear a canon’s habit,
as we saw with Becket and Walter, to denote what we call today ‘a man
of letters’, was no longer necessary and the practice ceased.
During the Oxford riots of 1213-1214 between students and townspeople,
Edmund chose to study at Merton priory, where he wrote his lectures on
theology. Once normality returned to Oxford, so did Edmund, in order
to disseminate his teaching of theology. Consequently, Merton priory
had once again influenced the development of our education system
by helping to bring about the first degree in theology. As we shall see,
Edmund would eventually return to Merton where he would help craft
the Provisions of Merton, England’s first statute.
Merton College Oxford
In 1262 Walter de Merton endowed Merton priory with two of his Surrey
estates to provide for the education of scholars. Initially this endowment
was for the education of his nephews. Walter then revised his plans,
setting up in 1264 an educational foundation in Malden, Surrey, to
administer the estates. The foundation was intended to be self-governing
and not under the control of any outside body such as a religious house,
and he expressly prohibited scholars from taking religious vows.
Ten years later the warden, bailiffs and ministers were transferred from
Malden to a permanent home at Oxford. In his final statutes, issued in
August 1274, Walter de Merton once again borrowed from his experience
at Merton priory, with the idea of a corporate life under a common
rule, supported by secure endowments. As in the Malden charter, the
foundation was to be self-governing. It controlled its own academic
standards and opened the way for secular as well as religious learning.
Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge, founded in 1284, states in
its charter that the scholars ‘shall live together according to the rule of the
scholars at Oxford who are called of Merton’. Thus Walter de Merton, by
modelling his new college on the philosophy of Merton priory, helped to
mould both Oxford and Cambridge colleges into having the autonomy
they enjoy to this very day.
However, it is somewhat ironic that, during its formative years, Oxford
owed as much to Thomas Becket as to either Edmund Rich or Walter
de Merton, because it was as a result of Thomas’s quarrel with Henry II
that English students studying in Paris were recalled to England, thereby
helping Oxford to establish itself as a university.
1121 charter of Henry I granting the vill of Merton to Merton priory.
Facsimile by Timothy Noad from an enrolled copy in The National Archives,
C 52/20 (5), formerly Cartae Antiquae, U. No. 5
Following the granting of its royal charter by Henry I in 1121, Merton
priory’s influence continued to grow and it was not confined to the
spheres of religion and education, though its political influence was
deeply rooted in these aspects of its life.
The Annals of Merton tell us about archbishop Stephen Langton’s stay at
Merton priory with the bishops of Ely, Lincoln and London soon after
his return from exile. He, of course, was to be the principal architect of
A page from the Annals of Merton for 1213.
The previous page
ends with the words
‘This year the lord
landed at Dover 7
July’ and the sentence
is continued at the
top of this page:
‘and with him the
lord William bishop
of London and the
lord Eustace bishop
of Ely and the
lord Hugh bishop
of Lincoln. And
came to Merton 1
August and there
were lodged the
lord Stephen of
Canterbury, the lord
Eustace of Ely and
the lord Hugh of
Lincoln, and thence
they proceeded to
Timothy Noad from
MS 59 f.171v
The Annals of Merton also record the part played
by Merton priory at the very beginning of Henry
III’s reign, when the French prince Louis, who
had been invited by English rebels to depose king
John, threatened the kingdom. Peace was agreed
on an island in the Thames outside Kingston.
During these negotiations the pope’s legate and
arbitrator, Guala, stayed at Merton priory, where
A page from the Annals of Merton for 1217.
The final eleven lines on
this page read:
‘Also the lord legate
Guala came to Merton
the Sunday after the
Exaltation of Holy Cross
and there was received
with a great procession
and solemnity, staying
until the Saturday. On the
Monday after the arrival
of the lord legate there
came to Merton almost
all of the most important
people of all England,
namely the lord Louis and
his companions, the count
of Brittany, the count of
Nevers, Robert Dreux’
and continues overleaf:
‘and many others of
France, more bishops of
England and the queen
of England and the earls
and barons and many
knights, and peace was
the lord king Henry
and Louis. Also on St
Maurice’s day the lord
Louis came to Merton and
penance was imposed on
him by the penitentiary
of the lord legate. Who
relinquished the tower of
London to the lord Peter
bishop of Winchester and
withdrew from London
on the next Saturday, and
the lord legate conducted
him as far as the sea.’
Facsimile by Timothy
Noad from Corpus
Library MS 59 f.173
prince Louis underwent penance before being escorted to Dover to
board ship for France.
From 1227 onwards Henry III paid for the upkeep of accommodation
for his own use at Merton priory, thereby giving the prior frequent
access to his monarch.
Hubert de Burgh, one of the most powerful lords in England during the
13th century, sought sanctuary at Merton priory. Why Merton one must
ask? After all, not even Canterbury had protected Becket.
Roger of Wendover’s contemporary chronicle helps to explain by telling
us of an extraordinary event during the year 1232. King Henry, not
wishing to send his own men to defile Merton priory, ordered the mayor
of London to raise all citizens who could bear arms to go to Merton
priory and take Hubert de Burgh, dead or alive. This obviously raised
many eyebrows and prompted the earl of Chester to intervene, with the
result that the mob returned to London without de Burgh.
Although de Burgh escaped with his life he did not escape imprisonment,
but his choice of Merton priory probably helped in his release. Edmund
Rich, as we have seen, was a very pious man who knew Merton and its
prior well. Consequently, Edmund’s first act on becoming archbishop
of Canterbury was to appear before the king and threaten him with
excommunication if he refused to release de Burgh from prison. Henry
capitulated, his favourites were dismissed and Hubert de Burgh was
Nor was it just lords spiritual and temporal who came to Merton priory.
In 1255 the mayor of London was summoned to Merton priory and
ordered to pay 3,000 marks to help meet the king’s expenses abroad.
During this period many of the wealthier abbeys applied to Rome for
permission for their abbot to wear a mitre, thereby signifying that their
jurisdiction went beyond the precincts of their abbey, and such abbots
were known as mitred abbots. We are told that the priors of Merton were
summoned to court during the 13th century as mitred abbots (which is
supported by the fact that the spiritual lords are always depicted at court
wearing mitres) and, of course, Merton priory was extremely wealthy.
This could help explain why some historians have mistaken Merton
Hubert de Burgh seeks sanctuary at Merton priory in 1232, from Matthew Paris’s Historia
Anglorum. Up to 1235, this is an illustrated edition of Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum.
Facsimile by Timothy Noad from British Library Royal 14 C VII f.119
priory for an abbey. However, other than demonstrating the high regard
in which the priors of Merton were held, in keeping with its reputation
for piety Merton priory always remained a priory, and those who claim
otherwise are mistaken.
Between 1208 and 1214 England was under a papal interdict, due to king
John’s refusal to appoint Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury.
An interdict was the most powerful weapon within a pope’s arsenal,
because, unlike excommunication that was imposed upon an individual,
an interdict embraced a whole community in order to try to sway them
against an erring ruler by banning certain privileges. Whilst under an
interdict, the general public was forbidden from attending mass or other
public church services except on the five principal days of the Christian
calendar. Even on these occasions there would not have been any ringing
of church bells or playing of music.
In 1212 a delegation of six was sent to Rome to negotiate with the pope
in order to try and lift the interdict, but three were kidnapped on the
journey. At first the pope refused to see those who did arrive. They
comprised the abbot of Beaulieu together with representatives of both
the Templars and Hospitallers, who in themselves made up a formidable
Although not all the sources agree, the Cottonian manuscript clearly
states that Richard de Merton was one of those kidnapped. Consequently,
as a representative of Merton priory, Richard of Merton’s absence was
likely to have been the prime reason why the pope at first refused to
meet with those of the delegation who did arrive. However, the pope
retracted the interdict two years later, in 1214, and Stephen Langton
returned to England as archbishop of Canterbury, visiting Merton soon
after his return, as we saw above.
History is always open to interpretation, and quite rightly so. Therefore
there will be those who would wish to put a different interpretation on
these documents. However, what would be difficult to dispute is that
collectively the ‘Merton Priory Manuscripts’ demonstrate beyond any
reasonable doubt the powerful influence Merton priory held during
HELpING TO SHApE THE ENGLISH LEGAL SYSTEM
Merton priory was not just a centre of learning; it was a place where
one could reflect. How wonderful it would be if our present-day leaders
could find such a sanctuary to reflect upon their decisions before pressing
their ‘send’ buttons.
However, it was the effect Merton was to have on four particular
individuals that would have a profound influence in determining the
development of this nation. At least three of these understood the
power of the pen and used it to help bring about tremendous change,
the benefits of which we reap to this very day.
As mentioned above, Thomas Becket and probably Walter de Merton
were educated at the priory as children. Consequently, whatever their
misgivings may have been in their earlier life, they eventually returned
to the virtues that had been instilled in them during their childhood at
Merton – to quote the Jesuits, ‘give me the boy and I will show you the
man’. On becoming archbishop Becket appointed Robert de Merton, a
canon of the priory, as his confessor; one needs to look no further to
find the evidence of the influence that Merton priory was to have on
Nor can the importance of Stephen Langton be underestimated; as one
of the principal architects of king John’s Magna Carta he was to have a
profound influence on our legal system. Langton, unlike the other three,
did not study at Merton priory but, as we have seen, the priory took an
active role in supporting his return to England.
Finally Edmund Rich, who, as noted previously, studied at Merton
priory before going up to Oxford to teach theology, had an influence
in drafting the Provisions of Merton. It is to these men that we owe so
much in helping to bring about a legal system that has been adopted by
very many countries throughout the world.
Although England’s legal system has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon past,
in the reign of Henry II there was a major shakeup. The 1166 Assize of
Clarendon was to play a major part in bringing about that change by
defining the role of the jury.
The Assize of Clarendon 1166. The Assize of Clarendon 1166.
Facsimile by Timothy Noad from Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Rawlinson C. 641 ff.43r-44r
The Assize of Clarendon also introduced a criminal justice system of
roving judges, to travel from town to town dispensing the king’s justice.
It was this system that was to come into direct conflict with Canon Law
and bring about the downfall of Becket. Canon Law, which refrained
from imposing hanging or mutilation, only applied to clerics, who had
the right to be tried under its provisions. There were other issues, where
Canon Law helped to protect the church’s interests. However, Langton
and Rich cast a much wider net.
Thomas Becket did not have the same intellectual prowess as Stephen
Langton, Walter de Merton or Edmund Rich, but he did have a very close
relationship with Henry, especially during their earlier association, and
therefore we must assume that, prior to his enthronement at Canterbury,
they were of one mind.
The uproar caused by Thomas’s martyrdom frustrated Henry’s wish to
impose his law upon the clerics, but it also had a more serious impact
upon the crown by helping to swing the pendulum against the king’s
supreme authority. One might even say that Thomas’s murder was
Henry’s Watergate. In 1174, long after the murder, when Henry was
facing his most serious rebellion – from his wife and all his sons – he was
forced to go to Canterbury where, we are told: ‘He asked for absolution
from the bishops then present, and subjected his flesh to harsh discipline
from cuts with rods, receiving three or even five strokes from each of
the monks in turn, of whom a large number had gathered’. This single
act did more than anything else to secure for him the crown of England.
In 1215, soon after the barons seized the City of London, king John fled
from London, first to Windsor, then Winchester, returning to Windsor
via Merton priory. There is no record of what occurred at the priory
on that occasion. Nevertheless it is reasonable to assume that the prior,
a friend of Langton, would have advised the king to meet his barons
to try to prevent civil war, because it was from Merton priory that the
letters of safe conduct were dispatched enabling the lords to meet their
king at Runnymede. And it was at Runnymede that Langton was able
to finish much of what Becket had started, although this did not extend
to incorporating Canon Law into the law of England.
Above: Letters Patent dated from Merton 8 June 1215, granting safe conduct to the barons’
representatives. Facsimile by Timothy Noad from The National Archives C 66/14 m.24: Patent
Roll 17 John. The following translation is from Thomas Duffus Hardy The Patent Rolls in
the Tower of London; to which is added an Itinerary of King John (1835) p.31
‘The King to all who shall view these letters, greeting. Know ye, that we have taken under
our safe conduct all those who shall come on behalf of the barons to Staines, on Tuesday in
the week of Pentecost, in the 17th year of our reign, in coming thither, and returning, and
during their stay there, to make and establish peace between us and the same barons; and
this conduct shall be in force until the close of the following Thursday; and in testimony hereof
we send you these our letters patent. Witness ourself at Merton, on the eighth day of June.’
Below: Clause 39 from king John’s Magna Carta. Facsimile by Timothy Noad from an original
in Salisbury Cathedral, courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury
Above: The opening lines of king John’s Magna Carta, from the facsimile
However, the memory of St Thomas’s martyrdom may also have inspired
many, especially within the church, to support the barons in their
rebellion against Henry’s youngest son, king John. One only has to read
the first clause in Magna Carta to understand that:
In the first place we have granted to God,
and by this our present charter have
confirmed, for us and our heirs forever,
that the English Church shall be free, and
shall have its rights undiminished and its
Today we look upon Magna Carta as
being the cornerstone of justice within
our constitution but neither the king nor
his barons would have seen it in those
terms. To them it was merely a document
to determine their own privileges, but
Langton, its author, saw it in different
terms. He was able to craft his words to
bring about a very different meaning.
Lord Denning, when Master of the Rolls,
frequently referred to the text, saying that
we find set down in the 39th clause the
guarantee of freedom under the law:
No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseized, outlawed, banished,
or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him,
except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.
The facsimile of Magna Carta
Unfortunately, when Magna Carta was written, few of the signatories (if
that is the right word, for few of them could read, let alone write) would
have understood, or indeed cared about, its greater meaning.
Turning now to the Provisions of Merton, Edmund Rich, its author,
followed in Langton’s footsteps by crafting the document in such a way
that, whilst fulfilling the barons’ demands, it also addressed some of
the more unjust elements of the law. For example, whilst confirming
the barons’ right to claim a fee when marrying off their wards, it also
gave the wards the right to object. In addition, it raised the legal age of
marriage from 12 to 14. Indeed, on examining the whole document, it
will be seen that, of its ten clauses, the first two concern the rights of
widows whilst three others deal with those of minors.
The role of Canon Law was also determined at Merton priory. Edward
Walford, when writing Greater London in 1883/4, put it extremely
well: when referring to Merton he says ‘here in A.D. 1236, was held the
Great Council of the Nation which passed the Statute of Merton, and in
which the king and the pope, acting for once in unity, endeavoured to
introduce the provisions of the Canon Law, but were met by the famous
declaration, “We are unwilling to change the laws of England”.’ The
bishops’ demands that Canon Law should prevail in cases of illegitimacy
were thus vociferously rejected, thereby demonstrating in England’s first
statute the supremacy of Common Law.
The bishop of Lincoln, an Oxford scholar, argued during the Council of
Merton that the law of the Church was of superior validity to Common
Law. Pope Gregory IX, a canon lawyer, theologian and defender of papal
prerogatives, having successfully introduced the Inquisition into France
only two years earlier, would have been confident of Lincoln’s success.
But the barons rejected the king’s and his bishops’ attempt to introduce
Canon Law into English law, and hence Common Law prevailed.
This was to have far-reaching implications for English law; furthermore,
it was done at a time when the rest of Europe was moving closer to Canon
Law and, of course, the Inquisition.
The influence this was to have is best demonstrated some 70 years later,
at a time when Stephen de Stapelbrugge, a Templar, was imprisoned in
Instruction for maintenance of a Templar at Merton priory in 1313. Facsimile by Timothy Noad
from The National Archives C 54/131 m.20: Close Roll 7 Edward II. The following summary is
from Calendar of the Close Rolls Edward II AD 1313-1318 (1893) p.22
‘Nov 4 Westminster: To Henry de Cobeham, keeper of the late Templars’ lands in the county of Surrey.
Order to pay to H. bishop of Winchester the arrears of the wages assigned for the maintenance of
Stephen de Stapelbrigg, a Templar delivered to him to do penance in the monastery of St Mary,
Merton, to wit 4d a day, from the time of his appointment as keeper, and to continue to pay the same.’
Merton priory, during which time the pope sent two of his Inquisitors
to England to examine those Templars who were accused of heresy.
When the Templars were accused of heresy, those in France were subject
to Canon Law, and could be tortured to obtain a confession, whereas
this was not allowed under English law. Even after Edward II agreed to
his bishops’ request to proceed against the Templars according to Canon
Law, the pope’s two principal Inquisitors complained to the archbishop
of Canterbury, Robert of Winchelsey, that they could find no one
willing to proceed with such tortures, and suggested that all the English
Templars be sent to the king’s domains in France. These, although part
of the king’s sovereignty, did not suffer from the restraints of English
law. There is of course a parallel here with what is currently occurring
in Guantanamo Bay.
The importance of the Provisions is not, however, just in its text; it is
also about the meeting at Merton priory that brought it about. Of course
our monarchs had gathered the nobility together on many occasions to
impose their will upon their subjects, or to succumb to their demands,
but what was significant about this meeting at Merton priory was that it
was not made under any form of duress. Furthermore it also embraced
people beyond the lords spiritual and temporal because the records state
that ‘others’ attended.
Therefore, unlike Magna Carta in 1215, when a resentful king had
unwillingly yielded to demands forced upon him, the Statute of Merton,
as the agreement made at Merton priory in 1236 is now known, was
continued on p.26
The Provisions of Merton 1236
Facsimile by Timothy Noad from a 16th-century transcript in the British Library, MS Cotton
Claudius D.II ff.145-147
The provisions of MertonIt was Provided in the Court of our Lord the King, holden at Merton on Wednesday the Morrow after
the Feast of St Vincent, the 20th year of the Reign of King Henry the Son of King John, before William
Archbishop of Canterbury, and other his Bishops and Suffragans and before the greater part of the Earls
and Barons of England there being assembled, for the Coronation of the said King, and Hellianor the
Queen, about which they were all called; where it was treated for the Commonwealth of the Realm upon
the Articles underwritten; thus it was provided and granted, as well of the foresaid Archbishops, Bishops,
Earls and Barons, as of the King himself and others.
I damages to Widows on a Writ of dower. FIRST, Of Widows which after the Death of their Husbands
are deforced of their Dowers, and cannot have their Dowers or Quarentine without Plea, whosoever deforce
them of their Dowers or Quarentine of the Lands, whereof their Husbands died seised, and that the same
Widows after shall recover by Plea; they that be convict of such wrongful Deforcement shall yield Damages
to the same Widows; that is to say, the Value of the whole Dower to them belonging, from the time of the
Death of their Husbands unto the Day that the said Widows, by Judgement of our Court, have recovered
Seisin of their Dower, &c. and the Deforcers nevertheless shall be amerced at the King’s Pleasure.
II Widows may bequeath the Corn on their Lands. ALSO, From henceforth Widows may bequeath the
Crop of their Ground, as well of their Dowers as of other their Lands and Tenements, saving to the Lords
of the Fee, all such Services as be due for their Dowers and other Tenements.
III punishment in cases of Redisseisin. proceeding by the Sheriff in such Cases. ALSO, If any be disseised
of their Freehold, and before the Justices in Eyre have recovered Seisin by Assise of Novel disseisin, or by
confession of them which did Disseisin, and the Disseisee hath had Seisin delivered by the Sheriff, if the
same Disseisors after the Circuit of the Justices, or in the mean time, have disseised the same Plaintiff of the
same Freehold, and thereof be convict, they shall be forthwith taken and committed, and kept in the King’s
Prison until the King hath discharged them, by Fine or by some other mean. And this is the Form how such
convict Persons shall be punished; when the Plaintiffs come into the Court of our Lord the King, they shall
have the King’s Writ directed to the Sheriff, in which must be contained the Plaint of Disseisin framed upon
the Disseisin: And then it shall be commanded to the Sheriff, that he, taking with him the Keepers of the
Pleas of the King’s Crown, and other lawful Knights, in his proper Person, shall go unto the Land or Pasture,
whereof the Plaint hath been made, and that he make before them, by the first Jurors, and other Neighbours,
and lawful Men, diligent Inquisition thereof; and if they find him disseised again, as before is said, then let him
do according to the Provision aforementioned; but if it be found otherwise, the Plaintiff shall be amerced, and
the other shall go quit; neither shall the Sheriff execute any such Plaint without special Commandment of the
King. In the same manner shall be done to them that have recovered their Seisin by Assise of Mortdauncester;
and so shall it be of all Lands and Tenements recovered in the King’s Court by Enquests, if they be disseised
after by the first Deforceors, against whom they have recovered any wise by Enquest.
Iv Common of pasture by freeholders within great Manors. Approvement by Lords Remedy for
freeholders. ALSO, Because many great Men of England, which have infeoffed Knights and their Freeholders
of small Tenements in their great Manors, have complained that they cannot make their Profit of the residue
of their Manors, as of Wastes, Woods, and Pastures, whereas the same Feoffees have sufficient Pasture as
much as belongeth to their Tenements; It is provided and granted; That whenever such Feoffees do bring an
Assise of Novel disseisin for their Common of Pasture, and it is knowledged before the Justicers, that they
have as much Pasture as sufficeth to their Tenements, and that they have free Egress and Regress from their
Tenement unto the Pasture, then let them be contented therewith; and they on whom it was complained
shall go quit of as much as they have made their Profit of their Lands, Wastes, Woods, and Pastures; And if
they alledge that they have not sufficient Pasture, or sufficient Ingress and Egress according to their Hold,
then let the Truth be inquired by Assise; And if it be found by the Assise, that the same Deforceors have
disturbed them of their Ingress and Egress, or that they had not sufficient Pasture, as before is said, then
shall they recover their Seisin by view of the Inquest: so that by their Discretion and Oath the Plaintiffs
shall have sufficient Pasture, and sufficient Ingress and Egress in form aforesaid; And the Disseisors shall
be amerced, and shall yield Damages, as they were wont before this Provision. And if it be certified by the
Assise, that the Plaintiffs have sufficient Pasture with Ingress and Egress as before is said, let the other make
their Profit of the residue, and go quit of that Assise.
v usuries shall not run against Minors. LIKEWISE, It is provided and granted by the King, that from
henceforth Usuries shall not run against any being within Age, from the Time of the Death of his Ancestor,
whose Heir he is, unto his lawful Age; so nevertheless, that the Payment of the principal Debt, with the
Usury that was before the Death of his Ancestor, whose Heir he is, shall not remain.
vI unlawful Marriage of Heirs; if under fourteen; if of that Age, or above. disparagement of Wards
in Marriage. OF Heirs that be led away, and withholden, or married by their Parents, or by other, with
Force against our Peace, thus it is Provided; That whatsoever Layman be convict thereof that he hath so
withholden any Child, led away, or married, he shall yield to the Loser the Value of the Marriage; and for
the Offence his Body shall be taken and imprisoned until he hath recompensed the Loser, if the Child be
married; and further, until he hath satisfied the King for the Trespass; and this must be done of an Heir
being within the Age of Fourteen Years. And touching an Heir being Fourteen Years old or above, unto his
full Age, if he marry without Licence of his Lord to defraud him of the Marriage, and his Lord offer him
reasonable and convenient Marriage, without Disparagement, then his Lord shall hold his Land beyond
the Term of his Age, that is to say, of One and Twenty Years, so long that he may receive the double Value
of the Marriage, after the Estimation of lawful Men, or after as it hath been offered before, without Fraud
or Collusion, and after as it may be proved in the King’s Court. And as touching Lords, which marry those
that they have in Ward to Villains, or other, as Burgesses, where they be disparaged, if any such an Heir be
within the Age of Fourteen Years, and of such Age that he cannot consent to Marriage, then, if his Friends
complain of the same Lord, the Lord shall lose the Wardship, unto the Age of the Heir; and all the Profit
that thereof shall be taken, shall be converted to the Use of the Heir being within Age, after the Disposition
and Provision of his Friends, for the Shame done to him; but if he be Fourteen Years and above, so that he
may consent, and do consent to such Marriage, no Pain shall follow.
vII Refusal of Heirs to marry. IF an Heir, of what Age soever he be, will not marry at the Request of his
Lord, he shall not be compelled thereunto: but when he cometh to full Age, he shall give to his Lord, and
pay him as much as any would have given him for the Marriage, before the Receipt of his Land; and that
whether he will marry himself, or not; for the Marriage of him that is within Age of meer Right pertaineth
to the Lord of the Fee.
vIII Limitation of Writs. Writ of Right. Writs of Mortdauncestor, &c. Writs of Novel disseisin.
TOUCHING Conveyance of Descent in a Writ of Right from any Ancestor from the Time of King Henry
the elder, the Year and Day, It is Provided, that from henceforth there be no mention made of so long
Time, but from the Time of King Henry our Grandfather; and this Act shall take Effect at Pentecost, the
one and twentieth Year of our Reign, and not afore, and the Writs before purchased shall proceed: Writs of
Mortdauncester, of Nativis, and Entre, shall not pass the last Return of King John from Ireland into England;
and this Act shall take effect as before is declared. Writs of Novel disseisin shall not pass the first Voyage of
our Sovereign Lord the King, that now is, into Gascoine; and this Provision shall take his Effect from the
Time aforesaid, and all Writs purchased before shall proceed.
IX Special bastardy. TO the King’s Writ of Bastardy, whether one being born before Matrimony, may
inherit in like Manner as he that is born after Matrimony, all the Bishops answered, That they would not,
nor could not answer to it; because it was directly against the common Order of the Church. And all the
Bishops instanted the Lords, that they would consent that all such as were born afore Matrimony should be
legitimate, as well as they that be born within Matrimony, as to the Succession of Inheritance, forsomuch
as the Church accepteth such for legitimate. And all the Earls and Barons with one voice answered, that
they would not change the Laws of the Realm, which hitherto have been used and approved.
X Attornies in County Courts. IT is Provided and granted, that every Freeman, which oweth Suit to
the County, Trything, Hundred, and Wapentake, or to the Court of his Lord, may freely make his Attorney
to do those Suits for him.
XI Trespassers in parks, &c. CONCERNING Trespasses in Parks and Ponds it is not yet discussed; for
the Lords demanded the proper Imprisonment of such as they should take in their Parks and Ponds, which
the King denied; wherefore it was deferred.
Translation from Statutes of the Realm I (1810) pp.1-4
the result of debate. It was also the first to be recognized as a statute in
England and therefore heralds the birth of statute law. This extraordinary
document provides for the principle that it should no longer be left to
just one person to dictate the law. This meeting was indeed the first
Parliament, even though that term was not used until ten months later.
More than three billion people now live under a system of law that
derives from the Provisions of Merton.
The importance of the Provisions, over and above its status as the first
statute, or the manner in which it arose, is revealed by the fact that it
took a further four official communications to finally clarify it. In other
words parliament had now taken firm control in determining the law.
Amidst all the toing and froing in clarifying the Provisions of Merton
an unusual event took place. In November 1236, just ten months after
the Council of Merton, a court case was adjourned by the king in order
that ‘parliament’ could determine the law. This is the first known use
of the word ‘parliament’ in an official document of the English Crown,
which was only fitting because the Council of Merton had introduced
debate as opposed to mere consultation. This not only endorsed the
importance of the Council of Merton in defining the law but also the
fact that it was the council’s prerogative to determine the law and no
longer the sole right of the monarch.
Although today most people would probably look upon the king John
version as the true Magna Carta there were in fact four. The later three,
though not identical, reaffirmed what John had agreed. The last of these,
agreed by Edward I in 1297, not only reaffirmed the previous charters
but, like the Provisions of Merton, was elevated to the status of a statute
and was therefore enshrined within our constitution. Consequently,
it now needed the approval of both king and parliament to change or
The ‘Merton Priory Manuscripts’ set out to show the extraordinary
influence the priory once had in helping to bring about a form of
democratic government that now embraces – and here I have pleasure
in repeating myself – over three billion people throughout the world.
They also highlight the significance of the Provisions of Merton in the
evolution of parliamentary government.
It is frequently argued that for an assembly to be called a parliament
it must have the power to legislate and the freedom to debate. When
agreeing the Provisions of Merton at the beginning of 1236, the Council
of Merton certainly fulfilled both criteria.
It is also said, and here there is disagreement, especially as to the date
when this first occurred, that the assembled body must be representative
of the people for whom it legislated. However, the 1236 Council of
Merton did indeed represent those for whom it legislated. This may
not have been democracy as we understand it today, but the informal
franchise now went beyond the monarch’s ‘appointed advisers’.
Over the years scholars have attempted to argue at what point in its
development parliament truly represented the people. Some have
suggested it occurred during the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 or at Simon
de Montfort’s Parliament of 1272. Personally, if that were the route you
would wish to travel, then I would favour 1928 when the Equal Franchise
Act gave women the same voting rights as men. However, there can be
little doubt that parliament existed prior to 1928. Therefore the first
parliament cannot be determined by the degree of representation but
by the opportunity for independent individuals to debate and establish
As a result of the great influence Merton priory had in 1236, those
meeting to debate at the Council of Merton were worthy of their
authority, and in developing the first statute they began a process that
remains at the heart of democracy to this day. Therefore if you are ever
fortunate enough to see the ‘Merton Priory Manuscripts’ in Merton
priory’s Chapter House, you will be standing on the site of the first
This booklet is based on a lecture to Merton Historical Society by Richard Chellew
BA, Merton Councillor 2006–2014, in April 2014
The Society is grateful to Richard Chellew, Timothy Noad and the copyright holders,
the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, for permission to reproduce these facsimiles,
and to the various archives for allowing their original documents to be copied.
ISBN 1 903899 70 0
Published by Merton Historical Society – July 2014
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained
from the Society’s website at www.mertonhistoricalsociety.org.uk,
or from Merton Library & Heritage Services, Merton Civic Centre,
London Road, Morden, Surrey. SM4 5DX