Wimbledon Heritage: How Merton brought law to the land
Exactly 777 years ago this week, King Henry III (1207-1272) came straight to Merton from his wedding to Eleanor of Provence at Canterbury Cathedral and signed England’s first ever statute establishing parliamentary law throughout the land.
It remained in effect for the next seven centuries and the basic principle is still significant today to half of the world’s population.
It was a dreadful winter that year and the River Thames had broken its banks. Westminster Hall was flooded so Henry decided that the century-old Merton Priory (between today’s Merton Abbey Mills and Sainsburys) would be a more convenient place to sort out matters with the bishops and barons at a Great Council.
Merton Priory was a substantial monastery, the precinct covering 65 acres, and included a 330-foot long church. The priory also owned land right across the country.
Henry, the bishops and barons had all gathered together anyway for the wedding celebration. The King knew Merton well, having maintained lodgings at the priory for the past decade. Rooms had been set aside for government business and back in 1215 his father, King John, had also stayed there while preparing for the meeting with the barons at Runnymede that culminated in his signing of Magna Carta.
Archbishop of Canterbury Edmund Rich, a former Merton Priory resident, officiated at the wedding on 20 January 1236 and then joined Henry at his old home, where the King gave the Prior a gift of Gascony wine as a thank you present for his hospitality.
Just three days later, on 23 January, the Statute of Merton was officially on the books and would not be replaced until 1948.
The Great Council resulted from the barons’ concerns that Henry was relying too much on advice from foreigners and ignoring their own traditional counsel. They were worried that the King might abolish the Common Council of the Realm and replace it with a small court of 12 lords patterned on the French court.
By agreeing the Statute of Merton, they were able to clarify points of law that dovetailed with the fundamental freedoms confirmed by Magna Carta.
It had nothing to do with democracy. Parliament in 1236 included only the House of Lords and it would be many years before elected knights of the shires or burgesses of the towns would join them as the Commons. Not surprisingly then, the statute’s 11 chapters especially favoured the nobility for the next 712 years.
However, one chapter in particular would prove significant. This gave rights to lords of the manor to enclose commons and waste lands, provided that sufficient land was available to satisfy customary tenants’ rights.
It was this statute that led to the confrontation in the 1860s between Wimbledon’s own lord of the manor, Earl Spencer, and the local community (See Heritage page 16 November 2012). Spencer tried to enclose Wimbledon Common, partly for development and partly for his own use, by buying off the local commoners’ rights. The row ended with the 1871 Act of Parliament that preserved Wimbledon Common in perpetuity.
On 27 January 1236, four days after the Statute of Merton was signed, everyone left the priory for Westminster Abbey where Henry’s new bride was crowned Queen of England. In the centuries to come, Merton Priory would see King Henry IV hold a Privy Council in 1412 and King Henry VI actually crowned in 1437. In 1533, King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary, the future monarch, stayed there.
But the omens were bad. When her father dissolved the monasteries soon afterwards, Merton Priory became a quarry, providing hundreds of tons of masonry which were used to build Nonsuch Palace at Ewell from 1538. This was probably the grandest of Henry VIII’s building projects but it was itself demolished in the 17th century.
As for Merton Priory, all that remains today is an archaeological site beneath Meratun Way.
(With thanks to the Merton Historical Society).
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