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Merton’s House of Scholars

Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor to Henry III, Bishop of Rochester, and founder of Merton College, Oxford, was born c.1205 to a land-owning family. He began the process of establishing a scholarly foundation in Oxford in 1261, with the statutes for a “house of the scholars of Merton” approved several years later in 1264. By 1270, the Merton foundation held estates across England, including the Stone House in Cambridge. 

Merton's primary objective in the acquisition of the Stone House appears to have been to provide continued support to the scholars of his foundation in Oxford. Given Oxford's volatile state during the thirteenth century, the migration of scholars to other towns and cities was not unusual at this time. In addition to isolated incidents of violence between members of the university and the townspeople, Oxford’s role as an administrative centre for the military campaigns of Henry III further exacerbated tensions and unrest.

The first major migration of scholars from Oxford to Cambridge occurred in 1209. By 1226, a great enough number of scholars resided in Cambridge to form an official organisation, and by the time Merton purchased the Stone House in 1270, Cambridge had a small, but thriving academic community, suitable for scholars fleeing possible persecution and civil disturbance - although minor disputes between scholars and the town burgesses was as much in evidence in Cambridge as it was elsewhere.

If Merton intended that the Stone House became a domus scholarium, however, the need seems not to have arisen for it to have been used for this purpose. Rather, after Merton's death in 1277, the Stone House was  managed by a series of tenant-farmers and bailiffs appointed on behalf of Merton College. Besides the Stone House itself, Merton College obtained property in Chesterton and Grantchester, the total of which amassed to some 180 acres and which was cultivated by a small team of agricultural labourers. From this point until its purchase by St. John's College in 1959, the School of Pythagoras, together with the adjacent Jacobean timber-frame extension known as Merton Hall and the surrounding grounds, was owned by Merton College - a period spanning more than 600 years.