Reasons for Designation
From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning, and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 225 of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their revenue. The Augustinians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.
Despite modern development and damage, the Augustinian Priory of St Mary at Merton survives well. The foundations provide a remarkably complete ground plan for the priory and the associated cemeteries provide valuable information on the religious population that occupied the site. This Augustinian Priory is of historic importance as one of the most powerful and influential of all the English houses of regular canons during the medieval period. It received a large amount of royal patronage, including numerous visits from Henry III. A large amount of the site has not been excavated and retains considerable potential for further investigation. It will contain archaeological information and environmental evidence relating to the construction, use and history of the priory.
The monument includes an Augustinian priory surviving as upstanding and below-ground remains. It is situated on low-lying ground, east of the River Wandle in Merton. Remains of the priory have been partially excavated, backfilled and preserved below an area of modern development. However part of the chapter house is preserved as upstanding remains in a cover building below Merantum Way. The priory is considered to be located on the alignment of Stane Street Roman road.
The Augustinian priory survives largely as stone foundations, which show the ground plan and layout. The 12th century priory church is evident as part-robbed flint, Reigate stone and chalk foundations up to 2m wide. It is a symmetrical building about 64m long and 38m wide internally, orientated ENE-WSW. It is cruciform in plan with an aisleless nave to the west, a short presbytery, and two side chapels flanking a north transept and probably also the south transept. In the 13th century, the priory church was rebuilt to a similar ground plan on the same site. The stone foundations of this later church are up to 2m wide and 1.6m deep. It is about 62m long and 42.5m wide internally but the transepts are further east than the earlier building and the presbytery shorter. The foundations of the cloistral complex extend at least 65m south of Merantum Way. Attached to the south transept of the church is a slype or passage beside which is the chapter house. The chapter house is rectangular in plan and about 15m long and 7.5m wide internally. The wall foundations are about 1m wide. To the west is the cloister and possible remains of the west range and south range of the monastic complex. South of the chapter house are the east range and the reredorter. To the east is an extensive infirmary complex with hall, cloister, chapel and kitchen. Alterations were carried out to the priory in the 14th century. The foundations of a larger presbytery and a lady chapel at the east end of the church relate to these later alterations. There are also the remains of apse attached to the east end of the chapter house. Further buildings associated with the priory survive to the south of the main cloistral complex. These include the foundations of an aisled hall and watermill. To the north and south of the priory church are extensive inhumation cemeteries. Further burials are contained with the bounds of the priory buildings, particularly the church and chapter house. Partial excavation recovered at least 721 burials from the site. However several areas where burial took place have not been fully excavated. These include parts of the cemeteries and parts of the church and cloister. The inhumations were found in stone, lead and wooden coffins and cists, as well as in the form of plank burials and a single 'ash' burial. The nature of the burials indicated that the north cemetery was used for clerical and lay interments, the area to the south-east for cannons, the chapter house contained priors and the church contained further high-status individuals.
The Augustinian priory of St Mary was founded at Merton in 1117 by Gilbert Sheriff of Surrey. It was initially a timber chapel consecrated by William Gifford, Bishop of Winchester. A stone built church was probably constructed on the site in the mid-12th century. However this was replaced by a new church from about 1170, the foundations of which still survive. In 1222, the tower of the church collapsed in a severe storm. This prompted a major rebuilding programme, which continued into the 1260s. In the 13th century, Henry III was a major patron of the priory, staying on 54 separate occasions. He commanded his mason to assist with the building works, particularly those relating to the King's residence. During the 14th century, archaeological evidence indicates that the priory was altered and enlarged. However in 1393, the Prior sent a certificate to the Bishop of Winchester stating that the chapel was 'in a truly decayed and ruinous state' and further repairs were necessary. By 1536 the priory was an extensive site comprising courtyards, gardens, orchards and ponds as well as other houses within the monastic precinct. In 1538, it was suppressed, most of the buildings were demolished and the stone was used for the building of Nonsuch Palace. In the 17th century the site became commonly known as 'Merton Abbey'. From the 1660's it developed into a textile manufacturing centre and in 1724 the first calico-printing works were established alongside other industries. The site was in use by printing firms during much of the 20th century but is now occupied by retail development.
The priory was partially excavated in 1921-5, 1962-4, 1976-8, 1982-3, 1986-90 and 2001-4, which revealed the foundations and layout, as well as the associated cemeteries. The pre-medieval finds included prehistoric handaxes and struck flint; Roman building material, pottery, glass and a coin; Saxon pottery and antler objects. The medieval finds associated with the priory included moulded stone fragments, window glass, roof tile, decorative tiles, pottery, lead coffins, leather shoes, animal bone, metal buckles, keys, knives and coins, among much else.
The monument excludes all modern standing buildings and structures, the surfaces of all modern roadways, pavements, car parks and walkways, lamp posts, all modern fences and fence posts, gates and gate posts. However the ground beneath all these features is included.
Sources: Greater London SMR 030376/01/00, 030376/06/00, 030647/00/00 - MLO8960, 030376/04/00, 030376/02/00, 030376/05/00, 030733/00/00 - MLO475, 030705/00/00 - MLO549, 023121/00/00, MLO97927, 021225/00/00 - MLO2085. NMR TQ26NE1, LINEAR 173. PastScape 400536, 868177.
Miller, P and Saxby, D, The Augustinian priory of St Mary Merton, Surrey, MoLAS Monograph 34 (2007)
Barry Stow Architect Ltd and Associates, A Conservation and Management Plan for Merton Priory and Merton Abbey Mills Final Draft - June 2007, 1-110, retrieved from http://www.mertonpriory.org/pages/papers/consplan/ on 6th November 2009