As we prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the admission of women students at Merton, it is easy to imagine the College as an entirely male environment before that time. Yet women had been involved with Merton in varied ways throughout the College’s history. The founder, Walter de Merton, might have expected no different. He had seven sisters and in part the College was founded to educate their sons. One sister, Christina, received a pension from the College estates after Walter’s death. Another, Edith, held part of Walter’s manor of Kibworth Harcourt in Leicestershire before it passed to the College and eventually starred in Michael Wood’s TV series Story of England.
Women also donated to the College. One stands out: Ela Longespée, Countess of Warwick. She was already a benefactor together with her second husband, a political ally of Walter’s, when she retired to Godstow Abbey. From there she took a close interest in the College. She wrote heartfelt letters to the Warden in French – rather than the Latin used by the scholars – and endowed an annual drink for the Fellows, while the College sent her gifts and tipped her servants as they set up her room in the nunnery. Her greatest successor was Julia de Lacy Mann, the College’s first woman Honorary Fellow. She was an economic historian and long-serving Principal of St Hilda’s who gave generously to Merton out of her inheritance from her uncle, Thomas Bowman, who had been Warden here.