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The Charterhouse is a historic complex of buildings in London, dating back to the 14th century. Located near to the Barbican and Smithfield Market, the Charterhouse has an extraordinary history, as a monastery, school, mansion and almshouse, and formally opened its doors to the public last year, with the launch of a new museum.
To understand some of the complex history of the site, we joined an official tour of the site which are undertaken a number of times throughout the day
The site upon which the Charterhouse stands was acquired in the middle of the fourteenth century as a burial ground for the many victims of the Black Death. In 1371 a Carthusian Monastery was established by Sir Walter de Manny, one of Edward III’s senior advisers, a church built alongside the burial ground became the priory church.
Remarkably, parts of the Carthusian Monastery still exist, most notably in the Norfolk Cloister. The monks had quite large living accommodation on two levels with their private garden. The prior and monks were able to enjoy this relative luxury for over 150 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. Resisting Henry VIII religious authority, the Prior, John Houghton was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and ten monks were sent to Newgate Prison where nine starved to death and the tenth was executed at Tower Hill.
After the monastery was suppressed, the property and land was passed to the crown. Subsequently it was granted to Lord North, who began to transform the old monastery buildings into a grand Tudor mansion which was later sold to the fourth Duke of Norfolk.
Lord North built the Great Hall and the Great Chamber, such was the status of the mansion it attracted royal visitors. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth I used the house during the preparations for her coronation and James I held court here on his first entrance into London in 1603. Charterhouse was also the scene of considerable Tudor intrigue when the property was owned by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. For scheming to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, Norfolk was placed under house arrest at the Charterhouse. Eventually Norfolk’s involvement in the Ridolfi plot was his undoing and he was executed in 1572.
The Great Hall and the Great Chamber are still in use and are visited as part of the tour, together with a visit to Master’s Court which reveals the grandeur of Lord North’s Tudor mansion.
The next phase of Charterhouse history transforms the building from large mansion populated by the ‘movers and shakers’ of the Tudor court to an almshouse and school, endowed by Thomas Sutton in 1611. Thomas Sutton was considered the richest commoner in Britain, he was appointed Master of Ordnance in Northern Parts, but showed commercial acumen to build up a considerable fortune. Before he died, he endowed a hospital on the site of the Charterhouse and bequeathed money to maintain a chapel, hospital (almshouse) and school. The foundation he created was used to provide a home for up to eighty male pensioners, and to educate forty boys.
Before the school moved out in 1872 to Godalming, Surrey, it did have some distinguished pupils including William Makepeace Thackeray and John Wesley. Stuart and Graham may not have been famous but their graffiti from 1765 on a wooden column still remains.
Some of the historic buildings of the Charterhouse were severely damaged during the Blitz. However the restoration between 1950 and 1959 exposed some of the medieval, 16th and 17th century fabric and led to the discovery of the remains of Walter de Manny, the founder of the monastery, buried in a lead coffin before the high altar of the monastic chapel. A white stone now marks his resting place in the small garden at the front of the main entrance.
Walking around Charterhouse, you are made aware that it still continues to serve as an almshouse to up to 40 pensioners, known as Brothers, although they are no religious connotations. The Brothers dine is some splendour in the Great Hall and have self-contained accommodation around the various courts. There would be very few establishments that have provided these services for over 400 years.
The tours are a fascinating insight into one of London’s oldest and yet least known historical sites. For centuries, many of its secrets were maintained behind large walls. However, the public opening of Charterhouse provides an opportunity to explore of the intriguing stories of the past and strangely of the present. Recent Crossrail excavations at the corner of the site have confirmed the presence of a large number of remains of people who died from the Black Death in the 14th century.
We would recommend that you go on one of the excellent tours around Charterhouse to fully understand its historical importance, but if you have limited time, the small comprehensive museum and the chapel that includes the memorial to Thomas Sutton has free admission.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
Visit the museum and chapel free Tuesdays to Sundays, 11.00am to 4.45pm
Standard tour of the main buildings: Tuesday to Saturday at 11.30am, 12:00pm and 2.00pm and on Sundays at 2:00pm and 3:15pm. £10 book in advance or on the day if there is availability
A tour guided by one of the Brothers – the residents in the Almshouse. Tuesday to Saturday at 11.30am, 12:00pm and 2.00pm and on Sundays at 2:00pm and 3:15pm. £15 book in advance or on the day if there is availability.
There are also other tours including the extensive gardens that are bookable through the website.
For more information , visit the Charterhouse website here
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