The village of Merton lies to the south of Bicester, close to where the M40 crosses the River Ray. The toponym is derived from the Old English for a hamlet, or settlement, by the mere.
Just before the Norman conquest a Dane called Hacun held the manor of Meretone, as well as the nearby manor of Piddington. But the Domesday Book records that by 1086 Countess Judith of Lens, a niece of William the Conqueror, held the manor. Countess Judith was betrothed to Simon de Senlis but refused to marry him and fled England. Then William confiscated her estates and allowed Simon to marry Judith’s eldest daughter Maud. Simon then received estates including Merton as the honour of Huntingdon. In 1152 Simon’s son Simon II de Senlis, Earl of Huntingdon, gave Merton to the Knights Templar.
In 1185 the manor covered seven hides, making it the Templars’ largest estate in Oxfordshire. In 1312 Pope Clement V ordered the Templars’ dissolution and their English estates were confiscated by Edward II, who granted Merton to the Knights Hospitaller in 1313. In 1540 the Hospitallers were suppressed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and surrendered Merton to the Crown, which left it in the possession of the Templars’ tenant, William Mablyston of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire.
In 1554 the Mablystons’ lease expired and Robert Doyley, of Chiselhampton, and his son, John, acquired the manor. John died in 1593 and his widow Anne married Sir James Harington, 1st Baronet, in 1613. In 1640 Sir James Harington, 3rd Baronet, married Katherine, daughter of Sir Edmund Wright, Lord Mayor of London.
Sir James was a Member of Parliament from 1646 until 1655, and during the English Civil War he served as a major-general in the Parliamentarian army. After the English Restoration his baronetcy was forfeited for life in 1661 under the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. Sir James then fled to the European mainland and died in exile.
Sir James’ father-in-law had remained a Royalist throughout the Civil War and Commonwealth, which helped Lady Katherine to claim she did not share her husband’s politics. In 1662 the Crown granted letters patent placing the estate in trust, and upon Lady Katherine’s death in 1675 it passed to her and Sir James’ eldest son, Sir Edmund Harington, 4th Baronet.
The Harington baronets owned Merton until Sir James Harington, 6th Baronet, ran up large sporting debts and in 1740 mortgaged Merton to Sir Edward Turner, 2nd Baronet, of the neighbouring parish of Ambrosden. Sir James was a Jacobite who supported the Stuart claim to the United Kingdom. In 1747 he joined Charles Stuart in exile, and in 1749 Sir Edward Turner obtained Merton by foreclosing the mortgage. The Turner (later Page-Turner) baronets then retained Merton until 1930.
The Doyleys built the manor house in the latter part of the 16th century. It is thought to have been L-shaped, but after Sir Edward Turner bought the manor in 1749 he had the south wing demolished and the surviving wing turned into a farmhouse.
In 1838 the house’s oak panelling was sold. Then, in 1860, the house was modernised and its Elizabethan porch, gables, stone roof and mullioned windows were all removed. The original kitchen and stone-arched cellar survive, and the cellar includes a well. A dairy wing was added late in the 19th century. The house’s 17th century square, two-storeyed dovecote also survives. The house is now a nursing home.
The parish church of Saint Swithun is Decorated Gothic, built early in the 14th century. It has a south aisle, linked with the nave by an arcade of four bays. Late in the 15th century the Perpendicular Gothic clerestory was added to the nave. The chancel windows and one window in the south aisle are also Perpendicular Gothic. The font is much older than the church, dating from late in the 12th century.
At one time the church also had a north aisle, but it was demolished in the 15th or 16th century. Its arcade of three bays was blocked up but remains visible in the north wall of the nave. The tower had a spire but it became unsafe and in 1796 it was removed.
A turret clock was made for the church late in the 17th century. Its original dial had only an hour hand, but in 1867 this was replaced with a new dial that had both hour and minute hands. Some time after 1989 a new turret clock was installed and the 17th century original is now displayed in the nave of the church.
The Gothic Revival architect Charles Buckeridge restored St Swithun’s from 1865 until 1872. St Swithun’s had been decorated with mediaeval wall paintings, once brightly coloured but by 1823 described as “dim with age”. But during the restoration work it was found impossible to remove the layers of whitewash covering them.
A Congregational chapel was built in 1890 and was still in use for worship in 1953.
The Knights Templar established a watermill in the parish. The earliest known record of it is from 1156–66.
West of the parish church is a rubblestone tithe barn that may have been built in the 15th or early 16th century. It has a queen post roof and was thatched. In the late 20th century it was converted into four homes.
In 1814 one of the earliest National Schools to be established under the auspices of the National Society for Promoting Religious Education was opened in Merton. A new stone-built school building, complete with lodging for the matron, was completed in 1829. Ownership and management of the school were transferred to the vicar and churchwardens in 1870 and the school was enlarged in 1872 and 1893. The number of pupils then declined and in 1913 the school was closed and 12 pupils were transferred to Ambrosden. In 1930 the house and school were sold and became a private home.
Merton used to have a public house, the Plough Inn, whose building is partly Tudor. In the 2000s the owners closed the pub and applied for planning permission to redevelop the site for housing. Since the Plough’s closure the village has held real ale festivals at least once a year in its village hall.