Review – The Charterhouse

5 mins read
Charterhouse Square is the final resting place of many of London’s plague dead. Walter Manny founded a Carthusian monastery at the site in 1371. (Image: L Marchini)
A recently opened museum at London’s Charterhouse illuminates centuries of life at this former medieval monastery. Lucia Marchini explores some of the highlights.

As a Carthusian monastery, a private mansion, a school attended by the likes of William Makepeace Thackeray, and an almshouse, the complex of buildings that make up London’s Charterhouse have had a long and varied history. It was here that Elizabeth I met with her Privy Council in 1558 in preparation for her coronation, and where her Stuart successor, James I, stayed in 1603 when he ascended the throne, holding court in the Great Chamber.

A community of some 40 brothers (as of 2016, women are not excluded by this term) live in the Charterhouse today, and some recent changes at the institution, carried out through the Revealing the Charterhouse project, have enabled it to open its doors to more visitors. The modestly sized but well stocked on-site museum is a new addition, telling the site’s story through a range of artefacts. Starting with a section devoted to the lives of the brothers in the Charterhouse today and in the preceding four centuries, the museum follows a reverse timeline back to the mid-14th century and the time of the Black Death.

Just above the bell tower’s lowest windows is a gap called a hagioscope. This pointed to the location of the original chapel’s altar and the founder’s tomb. (Image: L Marchini)

Then, the land at Charterhouse Square, which lay just beyond the medieval walls of the City of London, was used as an emergency burial ground for plague victims. Part of this cemetery was uncovered in 2013 by archaeologists excavating along the Crossrail route, revealing the remains of some 25 people buried in three phases corresponding to different outbreaks in the 14th and 15th centuries (see CA 313). The skeleton of one of these individuals – a man between 18 and 25 years of age, whose bones preserved traces of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis – is on display in the new museum. In 1371 the Charterhouse entered the next stage of its history, when Sir Walter Manny founded a Carthusian monastery (chartreuse) on land he had at first leased in 1348 for the plague burials. A year later, Manny died, and in his will he stated: ‘my body is to be buried in the Charterhouse… which house I founded.’ Fragments of his tomb, whose paint is still well preserved, are today housed in the museum. Their presence here is in part down to the heavy bombing that greatly damaged parts of the buildings during the Second World War.

During this onslaught, the chapel of the school and almshouse, with its fine 17th-century wooden features, was saved by a quick-thinking person who shut the thick, heavy door just in time to protect it from a blast. That door still stands by the entrance to the chapel, though its lower half was severely damaged. Other areas were not so lucky, and restorations carried out after the war by architects John Seely and Paul Paget led to an improved understanding of the layout of the original buildings, including the location of the founder’s tomb. Today the chapel’s bell tower has a small, semi-circular window, but this was in fact originally a hagioscope or squint – an internal opening intended to allow a clear view of the altar during services to those in other rooms, for example a monk in a vestry. From the placement of the hagioscope, archaeologists were able to determine the position of the altar of the original chapel and Manny’s tomb, in which he was buried with a papal bulla (now seen in the museum).

Part of the intricate map of the medieval monastery’s water system. Here the Norfolk Cloister and its 24 cells are shown. (Image: Justin Piperger)

On a guided tour of some of the Charterhouse’s inner spaces, secluded from this busy part of central London, further details of its history emerge. As a monastic institution, the place is in part made up of a series of cloisters and courtyards. One, the Washhouse Court, is where the laundry resides, just as it did centuries ago. Another, known as the Norfolk Cloister after the duke who lived and was placed under house arrest here in the late 16th century, was once home to 24 monks’ cells. Only about half of one of the quadrangle’s sides has survived, and post-war restoration work identified one cell with a doorway and two hatches. One such hatch is not unusual as a way for an isolated monk to receive food, but this cell has a second, lower hatch of an unknown purpose.

The cells themselves are all marked on a fascinating document in the museum – a medieval plan of the site’s 1430s water system. Four large sheets of vellum detail the pipes, gutters, and cisterns that brought water from Islington to supply Charterhouse’s brewhouse, church, laundry, and kitchen. Annotations show that this map was in use for generations until it was replaced by later revised versions.

After the Dissolution, Sir Edward North, an advisor to Henry VIII, purchased the Charterhouse and made his home there. He reused masonry from the monastery to develop the mansion, as can be seen in the exterior wall of the Great Hall and in the museum’s late 15th-century statue of St Catherine, which was hacked to give it flat edges that made it a suitable building block for a wall in Master’s Court. The Great Hall (still serving as the brothers’ dining room) and the Great Court appear largely as they did in North’s day, thanks to restoration work. The next owner, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, named the place Howard House and made improvements to the Great Hall, as well as constructing a large terrace at the Norfolk Cloister. He was later executed when a letter linking Norfolk to the Ridolfi plot (a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots) was uncovered on the site.

The coat of arms of the Duke of Norfolk from Howard House (Image: Justin Piperger)

The next figure in the Charterhouse’s history, and one of the most important, is Thomas Sutton, who, in 1611, established an almshouse and school at the site. The school has since moved to Godalming, Surrey, but both are still active. Around the Charterhouse are reminders of Sutton’s philanthropy, placed there after his death by the institution’s governors. His coat of arms, featuring greyhounds (animals which appear at the end of pews in the chapel), is present in a number of rooms, and a plaster overmantel panel depicting the three virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity – now stands in the museum. ‘Riche Sutton’, as he was nicknamed, having garnered a substantial fortune from arms and provisions, coal-mining, and usury, kept in his Fleet Street offices an iron chest, reputedly so heavy with gold coin that neighbours were worried it would fall through the floorboards. The museum and the buildings that are now home to this chest offer no shortage of (historical) riches of their own.

This review appeared in CA 336.

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