Merton College was founded towards the end of the thirteenth century and quickly assumed the primacy in science that had belonged to Franciscan friars, who numbered among their most distinguished scientific thinkers Roger Bacon. Nearly every English scientist in the fourteenth century was at some time connected with Merton. The school of astronomers, mathematicians, physicists, and medical men at medieval Merton assisted in transforming the conception of science inherited from Aristotle into the beginnings of modern mathematical and experimental science.

The sundial on the external wall of the chapel was constructed in 1629, either by John Bainbridge, first Savilian Professor of Astronomy, or Henry Briggs, first Savilian Professor of Geometry. The memorials to both men are to be found in the antechapel - one in marble, with an effusive epitaph in Latin and decorated with mathematical instruments; the other a plain stone slab bearing only a Latinized name. In the antechapel, near the entrance, is the monument to Sir Henry Savile, who founded the Savilian Professorships of Geometry and Astronomy. This scholar was a Fellow of Merton College at the age of sixteen. He lectured in mathematics and was Warden of the college for thirty-seven years. He also helped Sir Thomas Bodley found his library. The monument in Merton chapel is a lovely example of seventeenth-century church memorials. Notice the globe at the base.

On the wall opposite the Savile memorial is a list of former Wardens of Merton College. These include William Harvey (1578-1657), who discovered the circulation of the blood. Harvey had studied at Cambridge and Padua, and initially his main interest was in embryology. Robert Boyle wrote that Harvey's idea of circulation came from physical observation of the heart's valves and veins. Harvey was physician to King Charles I and tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future King Charles II. During the English Civil War he accompanied the royal household and was present at the battle of Edgehill. In 1645 he was nominated by the king as Warden of Merton, but when Oxford surrendered to Cromwell in June 1646, Harvey retired from public life.

Also in the antechapel is the fine monument to Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), lecturer in Greek at Merton. In 1587 he married a wealthy widow and spent her money on the conversion and extension of Duke Humphrey's library, collecting books from all over Europe. This library, now part of the Bodleian, stands in Radcliffe Square and has been in use as the University library since its opening in 1602.

However, it is Merton that possesses the oldest library in the country. An excellent tour of the library, which includes illuminated manuscript books, Chaucer's astrolabe, terrestial and stellar globes, a chained book, and ghost, is available to visitors. Adjacent to the hall, the Fitzjames arch has signs of the zodiac carved in a lively and engaging way.