Merton can trace its queer history back over 500 years. The College’s Register (pictured below) tells us that on 21 July 1492 Richard Edmund, a Fellow of Merton, was accused of ‘peccato contra naturam’ (‘sins against nature’).
By permission of the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford
The charges against Edmund are listed:
(1) Incit[ing] and provoke[ing] various and different youths to the sin against nature … unto the greatest peril of your soul and the immense scandal of our college.
(2) Visit[ing] suspect spots within the university … [where] you are particularly suspected of unchaste behavior in peril of your conscience and the greatest scandal to our house.
(3) Indulg[ing] in nocturnal prowling within the university to the scandal of the college and you plotted and incited others to do this with you.
(4) Often laying outside the college suspiciously unto the great scandal and infamy of the college.
Brought before the warden and selected masters, Edmund initially admitted the first (and most serious) charge but denied the others. Subsequently, however, he protested his innocence of all the charges claiming that the warden and masters were lying. Edmund continued to waiver between confession and denial until one of the youths whom he had ‘induced to the said sin’ agreed to testify against him. The decision was made to expel Edmund, although he was allowed to remain at Merton until Christmas ‘for the honour of the College’. He responded by seeking grace on his knees and offered a final confession of the first article. He also named four other youths whom he had seduced.
The proceedings against Edmund were exacting, but relatively merciful. The warden and masters were undoubtedly acting to preserve the reputation of the College but may also have been seeking to protect Edmund from the full ferocity of the law which could have seen him executed. Indeed, the proceedings were conducted in such secrecy that Edmund’s name appears in the list of newly awarded doctors in the faculty of arts in February 1483, most likely awarded by scholars who had no knowledge of his expulsion from Merton just one and a half months previously.
Writing on 6 December 1732 Thomas Hearne related how John Pointer, Chaplain of Merton, was brought before the College’s Warden accused of ‘sodomitical practises’. Hearne was convinced that Pointer ‘hath been guilty of this abominable vice many years’. He lamented ‘this and other Vices’ had become so common in England, supposing that it was a foreign import that had taken hold in the country as a result of a ‘most loose Court at London’ [i.e., the court of George II].
News of the affair spread rapidly through Oxford. Another source, Christ Church’s Thomas Wilson also commented on the affair in his diary on 30 November 1732. He wrote:
This evening I hear that Mr. Pointer Chaplain of Merton 40 years standing was called before the Warden and Fellows upon a complaint made by one of the Commoners of the House whom he had got into his chamber, and after urging him to drink, would have offered some very indecent things to him. He has been long suspected of Sodomistical Practices, but could never be fairly convicted of them. They say he behaved with the utmost boldness and confidence
It does seem to be the case that Pointer avoided conviction as the Warden of Merton did not press the case against him. Following the charge however, Pointer left Merton, apparently retreating to his vicarage in Northamptonshire although he also had a small estate near Witney in Oxfordshire.
Travel writer Robert Byron (1905-1941) studied Modern History at Merton although he left without a degree. He was one of the Bright Young Things of ‘Brideshead’ Oxford. Within two weeks of arriving at Merton in 1923 he was fined for attending a dance on Cowley Rd and gated (confined to college after 9pm) for falling foul of a proctor. A dominant personality of the Hypocrites at its queerest, Byron notoriously painted mildly pornographic murals of wrestling men on the walls, entertained the assembled company with ear-splitting renditions of popular ballads on the club’s piano, and performed his legendary impression of Queen Victoria. Aside from all this revelry, he did manage a brief stint as editor of the Cherwell where he began writing accounts of his travels. Still, upon his ninth appearance before the proctors at the end of 1925 whereupon he was again fined and gated, the College authorities insisted that Byron leave Oxford. Tragically, Byron was killed during the Second World War after his ship was torpedoed by a u-boat in the North Atlantic. He is now best remembered for his travelogue The Road to Oxiana (1937), recognised as the first modern example of exemplary travel writing.
Novelist and short-story writer Angus Wilson (1913-1991) was educated at Merton. During the Second World War he was one of the ‘famous homosexuals’ at Bletchley Park where he translated Italian naval codes. After the war he met his lifetime companion, Tony Garrett. Many of Wilson’s works were satirical, expressing his concern about preserving a liberal humanist outlook in the face of fashionable doctrinaire temptations. In 1958 he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. He was knighted in 1980 for his services to literature.
Canadian diplomat, poet, novelist, and professor of literature Douglas LePan (1914-1998) also studied at Merton after attending the University of Toronto and Harvard. In 1990, after a distinguished military and diplomatic career, a celebrated academic career, a lengthy (if difficult) marriage, and two children, LePan surprised the world by publishing a volume of gay-themed love poetry, Far Voyages.
American author Reynolds Price (1933-2011) studied at Merton as a Rhodes Scholar from 1955 to 1958. Among others, he was friendly with WH Auden and Stephen Spender. Price wrote a book about life at Oxford, The Source of Light (1981), but it is a more recent work, his third memoir Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (2009), which stands as a testament to what it was like to be young and queer at Oxford in the 1950s.
Ben Summerskill OBE (b. 1961), Chief Executive of Stonewall between 2003-2014, attended Merton where he was an Exhibitioner (holder of a junior scholarship) but left after two years without taking a degree. He evidently disliked Oxford. He later wrote in The Guardian: ‘I still recall being struck dumb on being shown, as an undergraduate, a note from an Oxford tutor to a successful candidate’s father: ‘Many thanks for lunch, and the trip in the Rolls.’’ A former Labour councillor, Summerskill succeeded Angela Mason as Chief Executive of Stonewall in 2003, expanding its work from parliamentary lobbying into other fields including workplace equality and campaigning against homophobia in schools. He led campaigns for repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, the introduction of Civil Partnerships, and the introduction of 2007 protections against discrimination in the provision of ‘goods and services’, covering areas from healthcare and housing to hotels and holidays. He also led a successful parliamentary campaign in 2007-2008 for the introduction of a criminal offence of incitement to homophobic hatred. In 2015 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the British LGBT Awards. Among other roles, Summerskill is now Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance and an occasional contributor to The Guardian.