7. The Merton Pinnacle

Photo: Isobel Holling

In the College garden, as an elegant folly, stands a gothic pinnacle which was originally one of eight on the tower of the chapel of Merton College (1448-51). It was removed some time between the two World Wars and stored in the yard of the builders Wooldridge and Simpson Ltd. There, in 1978, it was spotted by Bill Beaver (an American graduate student) who saw its possibilities and persuaded the Grounds sub-Committee that it would make a pleasant ornament for the College grounds, and one that could suitably commemorate the generosity of Merton in contributing to the founding of Iffley College (the former name of Wolfson) in the 1960s. The pinnacle was purchased and erected, and at Sir Henry Fisher’s suggestion (as President at the time) a Latin verse composed by Tom Braun was inscribed on a plaque at its base (approximate translation by Richard Hewitt, Corpus Christi College):

Tradidit hunc lapidem lycidae
Mertonia Donum:
Plus Maneat Saxo Robur Amicitiae.

[Merton presented this stone
As a gift to the good men of Wolfson:
Longer than rock may there live amity’s oak in our midst.]

Photo: Isobel Holling

There was a problem: these words suggested that Merton had gifted the pinnacle, when in fact Wolfson had purchased it. But a solution was found: Merton agreed to contribute modestly to erect the pinnacle, so “gift” was appropriate.

There was one mistake to the original wording: “amicitiae” had been carved without the third “i”, as “amicitae”. Classicists noticed the mistake at the cold, wet unveiling that November, and Richard Hewitt had the couplet reinscribed, this time on water-resistant slate, in tribute to his former Classics tutor.

Tim Hitchens, with thanks to John Penney and Roger Tomlin