Luke Coppen visits the remains of Merton Priory SHOPPERS in colourful acrylic summerwear stop and peer in through the graffitistained plastic windows. Through the grimy smear they see a bunker lit by brilliant strip lights. In the centre is a bed of fine earth, embedded with clumps of stone arranged like a set of teeth.
The shoppers may not realise the significance of what they see. They are looking at the spot where Henry III met Louis, Dauphin of France, for peace talks; the site where the young Thomas a Becket and England's only Pope, Nicholas Breakspeare, studied; the place where King Henry VI was crowned and the first statute in English history produced.
They are looking at the remains of Merton Priory one of the most powerful and illustrious priories in the history of the Catholic Church in England — housed in a bunker with all the aesthetic charm of an underground car park.
Nor is the bunker easy to find. It is situated beneath a relief road on the grounds of a sprawling supermarket in Colliers Wood, south London. Shoppers visiting the supermarket notice the site as they walk under the road, through a dingy subway towards the Savacentreshopping mall, owned by J Sainsbury. Most look for a moment and walk on, bewildered.
The Savacentre is a gigantic shopping complex, replete with hassled mothers, pushchairs, four-lane escalators, drinks machines, arcade amusements. It stands over the old Priory church, where many of the most important figures in the English Church worshipped and deepened their faith.
The church was excavated in 1988 by archaeologists from the Museum of London. They uncovered cross-shaped foundations, 100 metres long and 45 metres wide. They found the skeletons of senior monks and lay dignitaries lying in lead coffins in shallow graves. They concluded that the church was the largest and most important building in the Priory. But this did not prevent it from being covered over to make way for the Savacentre.
The Priory's only visible remains are now enclosed in the concrete bunker beneath the shopping centre and the car park. The bunker contains the foundations of the chapter house. The chapter house was the Priory's nerve centre, where monks would gather daily to hear a chapter of the rules of St Augustine, to make confessions and conclude business deals. It was also used by royal patrons for privy council sessions, work on the nation's legal codes and urgent diplomatic missions.
All this is difficult to imagine standing in the cool, vacant bunker, ventilated by crude metal grids. The chapter house is closed most of the year, opening for the infrequent curious visitor, or for an annual service marking the Priory's opening in 1117.
On May 2 this year, around 50 people gathered for the memorial service. Lionel Green, a local historian who has studied the priory for 50 years, gave an introduction, pointing out the Priory's important role in English history. "One student went on to be Pope, another to be a martyred bishop," he said, as curious shoppers peered in through the reinforced windows.
J Scott McCracken, the archaeologist who oversaw the full excavation of the chapter house in 1976, is among the worshippers. A bearded man in his late forties, he is enthusiastic about the site, but concerned by its present dilapidated state. "My feeling is that there should be an organisation to look after it. If you could get someone to take responsibility for it, you could put displays in it," he says. He
wonders whether a society could be created, the Friends of Merton Priory, to ensure the site has the upkeep it deserves. With that he inspects the priory's foundation stones, which are now covered in a thick patina of dust. He picks up a broom and begins to brush it off.
Also present is Sr Mary of the Holy Family Sisters of St Emily. an energetic supporter of the priory. "I'd like to see the chapter room used more efficiently, with better lighting," she says. "I'd like to see it open for school parties. I think it could be a centre of interest and culture. It could bring money in."
Interest in Merton Priory has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks to the enthusiasm of its supporter and the patient study of historians. Together they have built up a rich and compelling picture of the priory.
MERTON Priory was built on land given to a certain Gilbert the Norman, the sheriff of Surrey, in 1114. At the time the site was an open field, hemmed in by the River Wandle and its tributaries. Gilbert obtained a license to build a monastery and invited the Augustinian Canons one of the most dynamic missionary orders at the time — to settle there.
The Priory soon had six chapels, a guest house, an infirmary, a large cloister, as well as the Priory church and chapter house within its sprawling 60 acre precincts. The Priory's influence stretched well beyond its capacious walls. At the time of its dissolution in 1538, it was the second richest Priory in Digland, after Circencester. It had 202 estates in 16 counties and ten prestigious daughter houses in towns such as Canterbury, Holyrood, Plymp ton and Taunton. In the 13th century, one Walter de Merton studied at the Priory. He went on to become the Chief Justice of England and the founder of Oxford University's Merton College. The Priory also has links to Merton Hall, Cambridge and Godmanchester, the site of the prior of Merton's house.
Merton Priory also served as a place of sanctuary for people who fell from favour. In 1232, the Justiciar of England, Hubert de Burgh sought refuge in the Priory grounds. A century later the Chancellor of England, William de Wykeham followed suit.
The Priory's heyday was cut dramatically short when Henry VIII ordered the abolition of the monasteries of England. The Priory was surrendered to the king's commissioners and the priory church demolished. Henry must have coveted Merton, as many of the church's stone were transported to Cheam to build Nonsuch palace.
Over the next 400 years, the Priory was gradually erased from history. In 1724, a calico printing works was erected over it. In 1881, the ownership of the works fell into the hands of William Morris, the master artist and designer, who led the Arts and Crafts movement. By the 19th century there were no visible remains of the church or its ancillary buildings.
The Priory foundations were rediscovered in 1921 by local archaeologist Colonel H E Bidder. His tentative excavations revealed the basic groundplan of the church and the chapter house. Except for a few digs in the summer of 1962 and 1963, work on the priory abated for the next 50 years, until J Scott McCracken took up the shovel and uncovered the chapter house.
The most extensive phase of excavations began in 1986, when J Sainsbury sought planning permission for the Savacentre. The company sponsored a massive dig by Museum of London archaeologists, which uncovered some 700 skeletons as and the infir
mary. The team carted away stones, bones and other artefacts for analysis. They hope to produce a detailed report which will answer some of the riddles surrounding the life of the great priory, such as what the canons ate, what activities took place in the different parts of the priory, what medicines were used in the infirmary and what the priory church would have looked like.
But Merton Priory may never achieve the recognition it deserves. The campaign to restore and preserve it is run on a shoe string. Unless it attracts influential backers, the Priory will be nothing more than a bunker glimpsed and then forgotten by curious shoppers.