Merton College Oxford, England

Founded in 1264, Merton College is the oldest college in Oxford. Its large 14th-century chapel has an impressive collection of medieval stained glass.

View from Merton Field
Holly Hayes All Images »

Facts & Stats

Best Known As
Merton College
Full Name
Merton College
51.750899° N, 1.252141° W  (map)

Contact Info

Merton Street
(0)1865 276310


Untitled Event Merton College
Untitled Event Merton College

Highlights of Oxford

OK, finally catching up on Oxford. We had lovely weather in Oxford during our short visit and it was really fun to see all the old familiar places again. Our hotel in the former prison was pretty fun, too!

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Hotel hallway - the architecture and railings are all original from the prison.

Our small but very comfortable room. Loved the plaid.

Immediately after arriving in town early Sunday afternoon, we set out to find a good Sunday roast. Unfortunately we didn't have time to go to one of our old favorites outside of Oxford, such as the Trout Inn, Victoria Arms, or Lamb Inn. We had never eaten at many pubs in town so we asked our hotel for advice, and they recommended the Head of the River near Christ Church Meadow. We've been there once or twice before but couldn't remember how the food was, so we took a gamble. It turned out to be very enjoyable - the food was only about average, but I did get my traditional Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and we sat at a great table overlooking the water.

The Head of the River pub

The Thames River right next to our table

Sunday roast. We've never had it in a giant Yorkshire pudding before (normally it's a smaller one on the side), but the more Yorkshire pudding, the better.

Then we went our separate ways for the afternoon - David to move the car to the hotel and then wander at his leisure, and me to run around my favorite colleges and churches at a fast clip, trying to get some good new photos during the lovely sunshine and the short opening hours.

The place I was most looking forward to visiting was the newly remodeled and expanded Ashmolean Museum, which was still under construction when we left. It was magnificent! I was so impressed with it and had a long and enjoyable visit.

Right: the Ashmolean Museum; left: the Randolph Hotel, the fanciest hotel in Oxford, with wedding-decorated Rolls Royce.

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Sunset on the Radcliffe Camera and University Church of St Mary

All Souls College and a medieval church from St Mary's Church tower

Radcliffe Camera from the tower

Evening shadows in St Mary's Passage

Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library

Martyrdom site of Thomas Cranmer in Broad Street

Balliol College on Broad Street

Brasenose College

Merton College

Flowers at Merton

But the biggest highlight of Oxford was a fantastic visit to Christ Church College Monday morning - details in the next post!

More Oxford Sightseeing

Last Thursday evening we had to run an errand in Oxford, and since the weather was nice we brought our cameras along for about an hour of sightseeing. My main goal was to bring David and his zoom lens to Merton College for the medieval stained glass windows and maybe stop by Magdalen College as well.

We found a parking spot on Longwall Street near Magdalen, where surprisingly we have often found an empty spot. We headed to Merton first, which I'm not sure we've visited since the week we arrived in Oxford. It was nice to see it again. It has some attractive buildings and it is the oldest college in Oxford, founded in 1264.

merton college plan
Aerial map of Merton College I made for the article on Sacred Destinations

front quad
Front quad of Merton College

Merton's chapel was planned as a large monastic church, since there was no set pattern yet for what a college chapel should look like. They never got around to building the nave, but the tower and interior are larger than most other Oxford chapels. And there is a great cathedral-like vault under the tower:

tower crossing (1448-52)

The main highlight is the stained glass in the chapel, which is a rare medieval survival - most medieval windows in England were smashed either at the Reformation or during the Civil War.

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On our way back to the car, we stopped at Magdalen College, which is another of my favorites. This is partially because C.S. Lewis taught here for 29 years, I admit, but also because it is on beautiful grounds and has some great architecture.

map of magdalen college, oxford
Map of Magdalen College

Here the zoom lens got us some great close-up photos of the tower, which has all kinds of fantastic characters that you can't see from the ground. The tower is old (1492) but these are very new, and it seems they must be caricatures of real people associated with the college. I wonder if Lewis is in there somewhere!

magdalen tower characters magdalen tower characters

Inside the college, we visited the beautiful Great Quad (built 1474-80), which looks a lot like a monastic cloister. In fact, Oxford colleges were originally set up very much like monasteries.

magdalen cloisters

One of the best parts about Magdalen's cloisters are the intriguing characters that sit on top of the buttresses. Unlike the funny guys on the tower, these are actually medieval, added at the same time as the cloister. My book on Oxford architecture says they are called "hieroglyphs" but their symbolic meaning (if they have any) is entirely unknown.

magdalen cloister character
This one is especially interesting - a lizard sitting upright and holding a human head in one hand and an owl in the other. Hmm.

And finally, David got this lovely photo of Mary Magdalene (the college's namesake), which is over the main gate, from across the street:

mary magdalene

Many more photos and all the details are now online for Magdalen College and Merton College.

Friday: More Oxford

Miraculously, we ended up having two sunny days in a row, so Friday morning I tried the Great Milton to Oxford bus for the first time. I really enjoyed my walk to the bus stop in Great Milton - it was still early enough that there was a slight dewiness and crispness to the air, the leaves were beginning to change and swirl around on the sidewalks, and it gave me nostalgic autumn feelings of going back to school. Not this year, though!

In Oxford, I revisited several colleges and churches I'd been to before, and then got into two colleges I had never toured: Queen's and Brasenose, neither of which were open to visitors at the time.

Queen's College seemed the tougher nut to crack - it had a huge sign that said, "THIS COLLEGE IS NOT OPEN TO TOURISTS." I was planning to show my Bod card at the lodge but the warden was busy, so I put my camera in my bag and walked in like I belonged there, which worked just fine. It was Fresher's Week and there were lots of nervous and excited-looking freshman standing in line for lunch at the Hall and pretty much no one anywhere else. I took some photos of the main quad without anyone seeming to mind, got a little lost trying to find the chapel, then had the chapel entirely to myself.

queen's college, oxford
Queen's College main quad

queen's college chapel
Queen's College Chapel - too new for my taste, but glad to see it anyway.

Brasenose College did have opening hours but they hadn't started yet, so I approached the lodge and made my case with the friendly warden. I showed him my card and told him I was an Oxford student but not of Brasenose, and confessed I had recently "expired", but wondered if I could take some photos of the chapel. He said that was no problem at all and pointed me in the right direction.

old quad (1509-18)
Main quad of Brasenose, with entrance tower

I really liked Brasenose. (Its funny name comes from a "brazen nose" knocker that hung on one of the college doors.) The front quad was much the same as other colleges, but the quad with the chapel was small and leafy and ivy-covered, and had a very cozy feel.

brasenose chapel (1656-63) autumn light

brasenose chapel porch (1656-63)
The chapel's porch made me feel like I was in a stone submarine...

antechapel (1656-63)
And the chapel was pretty nifty too, mainly because of the painted, fan-vaulted ceiling.

tower view
And the quad behind the chapel was apparently built exactly to frame the tower of St. Mary's Church next door.

My goals for the day pretty well accomplished, I had a nice solo lunch at QUOD, where we celebrated my birthday last year. I had a comfy little booth with a great view across the High Street to St. Mary's Church and Brasenose College, read my book on Oxford architecture, did some text messaging with David (which I am still rubbish at), and had a very unusual pizza - pears, pecorino cheese, spinach and pine nuts. It was pretty good, although could have used some kind of sauce.

lunch at quod

Finally at around 3:00 I waited for my bus on St. Aldate's Street, where I got to admire lovely Christ Church across the street to pass the time. I do like Oxford quite a lot and it was nice to visit again.

Further Resources

  1. Official Website of Merton College. Official source.