Little remains of this priory which once stood on the banks of the River Wandle in Surrey (and is now encompassed in Greater London).

The priory, which was founded as an Augustinian house in the early 12th century, rose to become one of the most influential in all of southern Britain.

The institution was created thanks to Gilbert, the Sheriff of Surrey, Huntington and Cambridge, who was granted the village of Merton by King Henry I. Gilbert came to live in Merton and there established a priory, building a church and small huts on land thought to be located just to the west of where the priory was later located.

Gilbert had been impressed with what he’d seen of the Augustinians, also known as the Austin friars, at Huntington and so gave control of the new church to their sub-prior, Robert Bayle, along with the land and a mill.

It was based on Bayle’s advice that the site of the priory was then moved to its second location and a new, larger wooden chapel built with William Gifford, Bishop of Winchester, coming to bless the cemetery. The canons – there were now 17 – moved in on 3rd May, 1117.

Among the high profile people to visit the new priory was Queen Matilda, who brought her son William with her. In the early 1100s, a certain Thomas Becket (later the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury) received an education here as did Nicolas Breakspeare (later the first English Pope, Adrian IV).

The priory expanded considerably over the next century and in 1217 its chapter house was the location of a peace conference between King Henry III and Louis, the Dauphin of France. The Statutes of Merton – a series of legal codes relating to wills – were formulated here in 1236.

The connection with royalty continued – in the mid-1340s, King Edward III is thought to have passed the Feast of the Epiphany here while King Henry VI apparently had a crowning ceremony here – the first outside of Westminster Abbey for more than 300 years – in 1437.

The priory remained in use until the Dissolution of King Henry VIII. The demolition of the buildings apparently started even before the priory had been formally surrendered to the commissioners – stones from its building was used in the construction of Henry’s new palace – Nonsuch – as well as, later, in the construction of local buildings.

The site came to be referred to as ‘Merton Abbey’ and, passing through various hands, was used to garrison Parliamentarian troops during the Civil War. It later became a manufacturing facility, works for the dying and printing of textiles, one of which became the workshops of William Morris.

Some of the priory buildings survived for some years after but the only remains now left as sections of the perimeter wall (the arch which now stands over the entrance to Merton parish church is reconstructed – there’s another ornamental gateway in the outer court wall which was also replaced with a replica in the 1980s).

The foundations of the unusually large chapter house, meanwhile, have been excavated and are now preserved in a specially constructed enclosure under a roadway. Construction is now underway to build better public access to the remains.

PICTURE: A ceiling boss from Merton Priory which still bears traces of its original red paint and guilding. It was found during excavations at Nonsuch Palace in 1959-60 is now on display in the Museum of London. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) (licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0).

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the_jesse_cope_detail_ca-_1310-25_c_victoria_and_albert_museum_londonObjects associated with some of the most notable personages of the Middle Ages – from King Edward I and his wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile through to Edward, the Black Prince, and martyred archbishop, Thomas Becket – will go on show at the V&A in South Kensington as part of a display of medieval embroidery. Opening Saturday, Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery features embroidered treasures such as a seal-bag which, dating from the early 12th century, was made to hold the foundation document of Westminster Abbey, the Toledo Cope which has been brought back to England from Spain for the first time since its creation in the 14th century and an embroidered vestment associated with Thomas Becket. There’s also the Hólar Vestments from Iceland, the Jesse Cope from the V&A’s own collections (pictured), the Daroca Cope from Madrid and an embroidered tunic worn by Edward, the Black Prince. As well as embroidery, the display features panel paintings, manuscripts, metalwork and sculpture. Runs until 5th February along with a season of events. Admission charges apply. See www.vam.ac.uk/opus for more. PICTURE: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Two works by Spanish painter Fray Juan Bautista Maino have gone on exhibition for the first time in the UK at The National Gallery, off Trafalgar Square. The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Adoration of the Kings, dating from 1612-14, have been loaned from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, and can be seen for free in a display being held in conjunction with the upcoming exhibition Beyond Caravaggio. Each of the paintings measures more than three metres in height and were originally part of a retable (altarpiece) created for the altar of the Dominican church of San Pedro Martir in Toledo. The work took three years to complete and it was while he was doing so that Maino took religious vows and joined the Dominican Order (there’s also a chance he included a self portrait in the work in the form of a pilgrim on the altar’s far left). Can be seen until 29th January. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

A former disused toilet block has been converted into a new cafe overlooking the 150-year-old Italian Gardens in the Kensington Gardens. Formally opened by Loyd Grossman, chairman of the Royal Parks charity, earlier this month, the cafe has a “living roof” aimed at supporting the biodiversity and wildlife of the gardens and has been designed in sympathy with the gardens and the nearby Grade 2* listed Queen Anne’s Alcove, currently being restored. The Italian Gardens were a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria. For more on the cafe, including opening times, head here.

Alderman Andrew Parmley has been elected as the 689th Lord Mayor of London. In keeping with tradition, he will take up the office after the ‘Silent Ceremony’ in Guildhall on 11th November followed by the annual Lord Mayor’s Show parade through the City the following day.

Send all items to exploringlondon@gmail.com for inclusion.

This stunning early medieval casket, dating from around 1180-1190, commemorates one of the most infamous events of the Angevin era – the death of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December, 1170, by four knights of King Henry II.

The murder – for which the king undertook public penance (although whether he ordered the death of Becket, his former chancellor and friend, remains a matter of some dispute) – provoked outrage across Europe and pilgrims soon started flocking to Becket’s tomb.

So much so that the Archbishop was canonised in 1173 and in 1220 a richly decorated shrine was created to house Becket’s remains and serve as a focal point for pilgrims (a pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine is at the heart of Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Canterbury Tale). The shrine was eventually destroyed in 1538 on the orders of King Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The beautiful Becket Casket, made of Limoges enamel, depicts, among other things, Becket’s murder, subsequent burial and the ascension of his soul to heaven. On the rear are four long-haired figures who may represent saints or the Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.

One of more than 40 examples still in existence (the British Museum also has one), it was probably made for an important religious house and may have been used to contain relics of the dead saint.

It can now be found in the collection of the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Gallery at the museum’s premises in South Kensington.

WHERE: Room 8 (case 20), Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington (nearest Tube Stations are South Kensington and Knightsbridge). WHEN: 10am to 5.45pm daily (Fridays until 10pm – select galleries after 6pm)COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.vam.ac.uk.

For more on Thomas Becket, see John Guy’s book Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold.

PICTURE: V&A images

What’s in a name?…Cheapside

September 12, 2011

One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, the name is reflective of its role as a marketplace with the medieval English word ‘cheap’ generally been taken to mean market.

Starting from the intersection of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand through to where it runs into Poultry, the street was apparently originally known as Westcheap – Eastcheap is still located down near the Monument. Cheapside’s surrounding streets – including Poultry, Milk Street, and Bread Street give indication of the sorts of goods that were once sold in the area.

Cheapside was, in medieval times, an important street and was on the processional route royalty would have taken from Westminster to the Tower of London. It is the site of St Mary-le-Bow Church (it’s said that if you’re born within hearing of the Bow bells you’re a true Londoner), and, until the Great Fire of 1666, the eastern end of Cheapside was the site of the end of the Great Conduit where water arrived after being piped in from the Tyburn River in the west.

Key figures associated with Cheapside include slain Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, born there in 1118, poet John Milton, born on the adjoining Bread Street in 1608, and writer Geoffrey Chaucer. A glimpse into the street’s past was found in 1912 when the Cheapside Hoard was unearthed during the demolition of a building there (you can see our earlier post on that here).

The area was heavily bombed during World War II.

Lined with shops, restaurants and office buildings, Cheapside today remains close to the heart of the city and is currently undergoing significant redevelopment, the recently opened swanky shopping centre at One New Change being an example.