Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Walter of Merton

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Bishop of Rochester and founder of Merton College, Oxford, b. probably at Merton in Surrey or educated there; hence the surname; d. 27 Oct., 1277. He came of a land-owning family at Basingstoke; beyond that there is no definite information as to the date or place of birth. We know that his mother was Christina Fitz-Oliver and his father William, and that in 1237 both parents were dead, and Walter was a clerk in Holy orders. In 1241 Walter already held a number of livings in various parts of the country; in 1256 he was an agent for the Bishop of Durham in a law- suit; in 1259 prebendary of St. Paul's, London; and in 1262 prebendary of Exeter and canon of Wells. Walter was also prothonotary of the chancery in 1258; and in 1261 Henry III made him chancellor, in place of Nicholas of Ely. It was in this same year that Walter first set aside two manors in Surrey for the priory at Merton, for the support of "scholars residing at the schools". This was the beginning of Merton College. In 1264 Walter drew up statutes for a "house of the scholars of Merton", at Malden in Surrey; ten years later these scholars were transferred to Oxford, and a permanent house established.

Merton College, thus founded and endowed by Walter, is the earliest example of collegiate life at Oxford. Walter's statutes provided for a common corporate life under the rule of a warden, but as vows were to be taken and scholars entering a religious order forfeited their scholarship, the college was really a place of training for the secular clergy. While labouring for the establishment of Merton College, Walter was removed from the chancellorship when the barons triumphed in 1263, but was restored again on Henry III's death in 1272. He is mentioned as a justiciar in 1271, and three years later (21 October, 1274) he was consecrated Bishop of Rochester. While fording the Medway, Bishop Walter fell from his horse and died two days later from the effects of the accident. He was buried in Rochester cathedral, and is described in the "Annales monastici" as a man of liberality and great worldly learning, ever ready in his assistance to the religious orders.

Annales monastici in R.S.; Flores historiarum in R.S.; HOBHOUSE, Sketch of the Life of Walter de Merton (1859); BRODRICK, Memorial of Merton College, Oxf. Hist. Soc.; FOSS, Judges of England; KINGSFORD in Dict. Nat. Biog., s.v. Merton, Walter de.

Joseph Clayton.