Although hundreds of monasteries were either totally destroyed or converted for other uses after the Dissolution, many survived in some form. Several exist as beautifully restored ruins, romantic ruins set in landscaped parks, re-laid foundations in delightful flower and herb gardens, or whole sections incorporated in modern houses. Unbelievably, the sparse remains of Merton Priory in Surrey are afforded no such glory, and receive no recognition from government bodies.
Formerly one of the great priories of England, Merton was founded in 1114 by Gilbert, a long-serving sheriff of Henry I. By 1117 the foundation was colonised by canons from the Augustinian priory at Huntingdon and re-sited close to the River Wandle. Within a few years Merton Priory had established a good reputation, and was visited by Gilbert's godmother Queen Matilda. Merton Priory also became distinguished as an important centre of learning through the teachings of Guy de Merton, attracting such pupils as Nicholas Breakespeare in 1125 (who became the first English Pope in 1154), and Thomas a Becket in 1130. Furthermore, ten daughter houses were established by the Merton canons within the first 50 years, located in Scotland, Normandy and across the West Country.
Gilbert never lived to see Merton Priory built in stone, having died five years before it was begun in 1130. Before the end of the 12th century Merton Priory had been completed, and it continued to prosper. Securing land and estates in many counties, purchasing livestock, and being favoured with regular visits from the monarch of the day, Merton Priory thrived on its good name for almost 350 years. But, like so many others, this wealth became the catalyst of Merton Priory's downfall when, in 1538, it was forced to surrender to Henry VIII during his disssolution of the monasteries. After everything of value had been dispersed, the buildings were systematically destroyed, with several hundred tons of the stone quarried away for the construction of the King's new Nonsuch Palace.
The ruinous site, referred to as 'Merton Abbey', eventually became lost among later developments. Towards the end of the 19th century some discoveries were made when the railway and water pipes were laid, but these were passed over at the time. Further finds were made between 1914 and 1920, which led to Colonel Bidder being invited to make extensive excavations to try and identify the monastic buildings of Merton Priory. He successfully established the entire floorplan of the vast Norman church, as well as some of the major priory buildings to the east.
The majority of church foundations now lie beneath the access roads to the Savacentre complex. Unfortunately no studs have been incorporated into the tarmac to assist the visitor in interpreting the modern site. All other excavations have since been back-filled with the exception of the apsidal-ended Chapter House foundations, which now lie preserved beneath the modern link-road. These remains are generally kept secure to avoid vandalism, and are located in an enclosed area within the subway. For more information contact The Friends of Merton Priory (firstname.lastname@example.org), who work tirelessly to promote the site, with the limited resources they have available.
The south and part of the east claustral range and part of the infirmary, as well as the probable sites of the Prior's Lodgings, Guest House and King's Chamber, have been partly excavated. However, this whole area of the scheduled ancient monument has now been redeveloped and built upon, ensuring a major part of this important monastic site has now been lost to future generations.
In 1959 a garden was created on the site of the church, along with a commemorative plaque, which was subsequently 'given in perpetuity' to the people of Merton. This we now know was a hollow promise as the garden soon became victim to the bulldozer. All is not completely lost however as its history is remembered once a year, not not only at Merton Priory but in many connected sites. For more information on this event please email email@example.com