IN A little-visited corner of Smithfield, in central London, there is an air of Oxbridge. Mature trees are visible behind a high, 15th-century stone wall. A Gothic gateway of the same date leads to a series of quiet quadrangles and squares.
This is the Charterhouse, or “Grande Chartreuse” — so called after the mother house of the Carthusian order which occupied the buildings from 1371 until the Reformation. Surprisingly, the Charterhouse remains a living community with resident Brothers.
Viewers of such television series as Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge have had occasional glimpses within the walls. Scenes for the film The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Jeremy Irons, were shot there. In Tulip Fever, to be released next year, the ancient buildings become Amsterdam streets.
Appropriately, the Charterhouse was also the location for one of the ancestry.co.uk advertisements. Soon, thanks to a long-planned project known as “Revealing the Charterhouse”, the public is to be invited inside.
THE site, which once belonged to the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew’s Hospital near by, was first leased in 1348 as being a suitable spot for burying Black Death victims “outside London”. (Today, the buildings still fall just within the borough of Islington rather than the City’s Square Mile.) A knight in the service of Edward III, Walter de Manny, built a chapel for the dead, which soon became the focus for the Carthusian priory.
Twenty-first-century tunnelling work for the Crossrail Underground railway has disturbed some of the 40,000 plague bodies beneath Charterhouse Square outside the gateway, and so drawn attention to the forgotten community. Now, specialist contractors are busy not only restoring the leafy square — which is being opened during daylight hours for the first time — but also preparing to open the Charterhouse itself for public access. A learning centre and museum are expected to put the community and its extraordinary history on the capital’s tourist trail, alongside St Paul’s Cathedral just over half a mile away.
But the Charterhouse buildings are much older than Christopher Wren’s 17th-century monument. The first Carthusian brothers wore white woollen habits and lived in individual cells around a cloister, which partly survives. In the centre of the cloister garden from 1431 was a conduit-house that channelled fresh water from the spring that became known as Sadler’s Wells to the 24 two-up and two-down “cells”. The mason was Henry Yevele, whose work includes the naves of Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, and Southwark Cathedral tower.
THE many famous long-stay visitors to the Charterhouse included St Thomas More, who remained — on and off — for five years, while a law student. But this was shortly before the Reformation closed the monastery. The Carthusians, like More, were unwilling to renounce the Pope to suit the King’s desire for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In 1535, six Carthusians, including the Prior, John Houghton, were executed. Nine were left to starve to death in Newgate Prison, where now the Old Bailey stands. An arm of Houghton, who was canonised in 1970, was hung over the monastery gate in Charterhouse Square.
With the expulsion of the remaining monks in November 1538, the property was expropriated by the Crown to became a grand London residence for the Duke of Norfolk. Exactly 20 years later to the month, the newly ascended Queen Elizabeth came direct from Hatfield House to spend the first week of her reign there. Her accession Privy Council was convened in the great chamber, from where she left for her coronation. Her successor, King James VI of Scotland, also went to the Charterhouse, having arrived in the capital to claim the English crown.
IT WAS in James’s reign that a former “Master of the Ordnance in the Northern Parts”, Thomas Sutton, said to be “England’s wealthiest commoner”, bought the property and established a foundation to maintain a school and almshouses. The school, for 40 boys, was the beginning of Charterhouse School. Later, John Wesley and William Makepeace Thackeray were pupils. In 1872, the school moved to Godalming, taking the young Robert Baden-Powell to complete his schooling in Surrey.
Left behind were the Sutton’s Hospital pensioners, who now formed the community of the Charterhouse. To qualify for entry you must be single or widowed, and aged over 60. In the 1600s, the criteria were more specific: you had to be a former royal servant; decrepit; an old sea captain; a merchant fallen on hard times, having been ruined by shipwreck; or an ex-Turkish prisoner.
Among the pensioners was Captain George Fenner, who had fought against the Spanish Armada. In 1629, the Scottish composer Tobias Hume was welcomed into the community. Later, the Victorian playwright John Maddison Morton (of Box and Cox farce fame) retired there. In the next century, the painter Walter Greaves found shelter after falling into obscurity. The writer Simon Raven came at the close of the 20th century.
TODAY, there are 43 Brothers, including seven clergy. There are also actors, an artist, a butcher, a cathedral organist, journalists, a management consultant, a museum curator, and several teachers. Some Brothers have been active in their retirement: Patrick Rowe’s colourful collages joined the formal portraits of past governors, such as Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon and the Duke of Wellington.
The governing body includes three royal governors — the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales — reflecting the parts played by James I and his heir, Charles I, in supporting Thomas Sutton’s new lay-pensioner community. This was at first known as “The Hospital of King James, founded in Charterhouse within the County of Middlesex”. Today’s Prince Charles is taking a special interest in the opening up of Charterhouse Square, which, until recently, was a car park. He envisages a walk-through, greenery-covered pavilion in one corner, to evoke the presence of the first chapel known to the Carthusians.
THE Carthusian Brothers had their meals delivered to their cells through a hatch, and dined together for Sunday lunch only. Now, their successors meet three times a day for meals in the great hall, built in the 1540s. A huge Caen-stone chimneypiece was added in 1614 for the first of Sutton’s Brothers.
Brothers enter the community for life. An infirmary above Victorian cloisters is available to those who become ill. This has a view over the lush Preacher’s Court garden. The monks enjoyed an orchard, a vegetable garden, and a “wilderness” where rabbits and small game were reared.
One of today’s Brothers describes the Charterhouse as having a micro-climate, and claims that, on passing through the back gate from the noisy Clerkenwell Road on a hot day, he can feel the temperature drop. Mulberries, from trees planted 400 years ago, and herbs, are harvested for the kitchen.
THE revealing of the Charterhouse project is being undertaken in partnership with the Museum of London, which is to move to Smithfield from its present home in the Barbican. “I am thrilled that the project is now a reality,” the museum director, Sharon Ament, says. “We will be working even more closely with this remarkable site, that has played such a key role in London’s history, to ensure that it becomes an irresistible destination for visitors.”
Crossrail, opening in December 2018, will bring visitors to the door; Farringdon Station, with its long Elizabeth-line platform below ground, will have a new eastern exit at Charterhouse Square.
The new Charterhouse museum, café, learning centre, and entrance have been designed by Eric Parry Architects, who were responsible for the renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields. “The invaluable lesson of the Charterhouse”, Eric Parry says, “is the continuity, relevance, and adaptability of its architecture in a city context that would be astoundingly incomprehensible to its founders.”
A raised York-stone causeway will take the visitor across a garden, which is the site of the original chapel, with an outline of the altar position still visible. In front lies the tomb of de Manny; behind, on the east wall, is a tablet commemorating the Carthusian martyrs. A box hedge will mark the outline of the nave.
Exhibits destined for the museum include two pieces of the founder de Manny’s tomb-chest, together with the leaden bulla of Pope Clement VI, which was found in his grave. Another survival from pre-Reformation days is a statue of St Catherine of Alexandria which still has its original paintwork. A 15th-century diagram reveals the complex cloister plumbing system.
FUNDING for the ambitious scheme has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund, after backing from a wide range of donors, including the Wolfson Foundation, the Lyon Family Trust, and the City Bridge Trust.
Admission to the museum will be free, and visitors will now enter the museum, and view the chapel, through the chapel cloisters. A tea room will be opened in two neighbouring Georgian houses. This should tempt visitors to book a tour, led by the Brothers, who will describe not only past happenings in the ancient buildings, but also what it is like to live there now.
THERE is continuity in the rhythm of the Brothers’ year. Special days observed include the anniversary of de Manny’s burial, the feast of the Annunciation — which is the day of the priory’s dedication — and St Bruno’s Day, when all Carthusian houses remember their founder. In 2007, an annual ecumenical Commemoration of the Carthusian Martyrs was added to the calendar.
The focus for these high days is the chapel, where morning and evening prayer are said daily. The Sunday service is at 9.45 a.m. and is already open to the public. With the original priory church gone, worship now takes place in the former chapter house. Having once had to accommodate not only Brothers, but many schoolboys, it has plenty of seating for visitors.
The chapel contains Sutton’s elaborate tomb. A modern addition is an icon of the Annunciation by Ivan Djidjev, whose work is also in the Vatican. Tablets commemorate two organists: John Pepusch, who arranged the music for The Beggars’s Opera, and William Horsley, best known for his setting of the hymn “There is a green hill far away”.
Volunteers are being sought to help in the museum and learning centre, assist the resident gardener, visit Brothers, and steward some of the 150 events which take place in the various grand rooms every year.
THIS opening up of the site for the first time in 700 years is not the only pending change. Citing biblical precedents, the Carthusian Rule prohibited women from the monastery. Most of the staff of the new museum and learning centre, however, are female; this year, Ann Kenrick, who formerly chaired the London Cycling Campaign, will be installed as the new Master of the Charterhouse. This follows the recent decision to include women as residents. It has yet to be decided whether they will be known as Sisters or Lady Brothers, but it appears that the choice will be theirs.
The museum opens to the public on 27 January. The official opening of the completed project is scheduled for March.