The Charterhouse

Another real bargain in London … Last week I took a tour of the Charterhouse. In my case it was organised by the Friends of Strawberry Hill, but you can book online yourself. I was escorted there by kind relatives (who know all too well that the four-month-old relative has a better idea of London than I do), first to the Barbican Tube, and thence to a building that I thought I recognised. ‘Is that Covent Garden?’ ‘No, it’s Smithfield.’

The main entrance to Smithfield Market, soon to become the Museum of London.

In fact I was first led across Charterhouse Square and beyond, to the gatehouse of the Priory of the Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, which I had long been intending to visit. I was then dumped, with the instruction to find my way back to the Barbican via the Charterhouse and make sure I got on the eastbound train.

The two sides of St John’s Gatehouse.

The gatehouse is all that survives of the great hospital built in Clerkenwell (outside the walls of the City) in the 1140s to serve as a refuge for the sick – except, interestingly, lepers, since leprosy was regarded as both highly infectious and completely incurable (a belief which sadly still held sway in the early twentieth century: see Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’).

A leper with sores on his face and a bell to warn of his approach. (I remember being terrified by a scene in Stevenson‘s The Black Arrow where a leper slowly approaches our hero: it turns out to be his evil guardian, running away from battle in disguise.)

Lepers were expelled from cities in England by Edward III in 1346, and the Church developed leper houses – again, well clear of cities – to minister to these outcasts. The first seems to have been St Mary Magdalene outside Winchester (founded c.1000), and perhaps the most famous survivor is St Mary Magdalene (aka the Leper Chapel) outside Cambridge (c. 1125).

Maiolica jars containing medicine, with the shield of the Order of St John as decoration.

But everything that could be cured, the Knights of St John would have a go at. Their history worldwide is extremely complicated, and bound up with the fate of the Frankish kingdoms in the Holy Land, and the Order’s subsequent establishment in Rhodes and then Malta, but the Gatehouse Museum sells a highly illustrated short history, and the (free) museum itself is designed to tell the story chronologically, up to the present day, where the work of the Knights continues in the activities of the (volunteer) St John’s Ambulance Brigade.

More jars, one containing dragon’s blood and another soft soap … French chalk is used to prevent pneumothorax (not just for dress-making, then).

… and a gorgeous Iznik pot.

The Museum has not one but two of the little models of the Holy Sepulchre brought back by pilgrims from Jerusalem.

Caravaggio stayed with the Knights in Malta, was admitted to the Order, and painted two works for their church. This version of ‘The Cardsharps’, on loan to the museum, is believed to be an earlier version of the one now in the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas.

I walked back to Charterhouse Square, not with the aid of pebbles or breadcrumbs, but thanks to memorising landmarks such as this rather odd street name:

A clue …

A magnolia (possibly ‘Leonard Messel‘?) in the square.

I met up with the tour party at the entrance. Our tour guide was Brother Mansel David, who looked vaguely familiar: I later discovered that he is an actor and writer, and inter much alia, had appeared in an episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ which I had (re)watched (it simply doesn’t stale!) quite recently. The Brothers of the Charterhouse (there have been female Brothers since 2018, and the current Master is female) have been living there in fraternal contentment since 1611, as our fascinating tour revealed.

The modern entrance gate.

The Charterhouse turns out to be a huge (7 acres) and very green site, not unlike a Cambridge college – the brickwork courts were very reminiscent of Queens’. And in fact the Charterhouse has stood in for Cambridge (as well as for London in all periods) in films and television: did you know that Hercule Poirot’s apartment is in Charterhouse Square?

Somewhere in there is Poirot’s well-appointed flat.

The very brief history of the foundation is that it began life as a chapel to serve the huge plague pits dug to bury the victims of the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348. In 1349, Sir Walter Manny, a soldier and courtier of Edward III, bought the land for this purpose, and built the (now demolished) chapel in which he is buried, bequeathing in 1372 a sum to establish a Carthusian monastery, which grew and grew.

The modern grave slab covering Walter Manny’s tomb. When it was opened in 1947, the lead seal of a papal bull was found inside.

Being an enclosed (and frequently silent) order, the monks did not live communally, but had each an independent cell with access to a small garden. They had lay brothers to serve them, bringing their food and leaving it in an L-shaped squint beside the closed cell door, while another squint at ground level allowed for waste disposal. Contemplation, prayer and gardening were the main activities. Before the Reformation, there were nine Charterhouses in England, and one in Scotland.

The original gatehouse, to which part of Houghton’s body was nailed, with the Georgian Master’s Lodgings above and to the side.

Henry VIII did for the English ones, of course: the London monks were especially harshly treated because they resisted, with the prior, John Houghton, being hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn (the upper left quarter was then nailed to the gate of the Charterhouse), and ten monks left in Newgate to rot; nine starved to death, one was later executed.

Part of the circuit wall of the Charterhouse, with Tudor building beyond.

The property then passed into the hands of Sir Edward, later Lord, North, one of the Tudor period’s great survivors. By no coincidence at all, he was the treasurer of the Court of Augmentations, set up precisely to redistribute monastic lands … Extraordinarily, he found favour with Mary Tudor (in spite of having supported Lady Jane Grey), being sworn of the Privy Council, and attending the marriage of Mary and Philip of Spain (it was in her reign that he acquired the title of 1st Baron Kirtling). Moreover, when Queen Elizabeth succeeded, it was in North’s house that she spent six days before her coronation, and she made him Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire. He must have been a completely indispensable counsellor, regardless of who was in power.

Kirtling Tower, part of the country residence built by North.

After North’s death in 1564 (he died in the Charterhouse but was buried in Kirtling, Cambs., where he had rebuilt the original castle as a luxurious home, only the (impressive!) gatehouse of which survives today), the site was sold to the 4th Duke of Norfolk, who spent a lot of time there under house arrest after his plan for marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots, was revealed.

The emblematic ceiling of the Great Chamber.

(The entwined thistles and oak leaves in the ceiling of his Great Chamber must have been a none too subtle clue to his intentions.) He also built a garden terrace which led to a tennis court, but his luck ran out when the Ridolfi plot was discovered (an incriminating letter was found under a mat, apparently), and he was executed on 2 June 1572. (He had been convicted of high treason in January, but Elizabeth was reluctant to sign the death warrant – as of course she was later in the case of Mary herself.)

The inscription on Sutton’s elaborate tomb in the chapel: another Cambridgeshire man by adoption.

The house passed to Norfolk’s son, another Thomas, and history repeated itself: James I held court there before entering London for his coronation. But it was then sold to Thomas Sutton, a very rich man (originally from Lincolnshire) who had lands near Newcastle-upon-Tyne where coal was discovered, and become Master of Ordnance (i.e. in charge of weapon supply, engineering and fortifications) for the north of England.

Sutton’s memorial, with the old gentlemen listening to a sermon above the symbols of passing time.

A bubble-blowing cherub shows the transitory nature of life.

Sutton died without direct heirs in 1611, leaving a very large portion of his estate to set up a charitable foundation based in the Charterhouse. It was challenged in law by his (distant) heirs, but in the Case of Sutton’s Hospital, the great jurist Sir Edward Coke ruled that the charity had been properly constituted, and Sutton’s executors proceeded to set up an institution that provided a home for 80 ‘gentlemen by descent and in poverty, soldiers that have borne arms by sea or land, merchants decayed by piracy or shipwreck, or servants in household to the King or Queens Majesty’. There was also to be a school for 40 poor boys. Two of the Governors are always the reigning monarch and his or her spouse, and one is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Memorial to John Wesley, a former pupil, in the corridor to the chapel.

The school grew, began to take paying pupils as well as the poor scholars, and eventually (in 1872) moving to a completely new, albeit rather bizarre, set of buildings in Godalming, Surrey. Lord Baden-Powell, later soldier and founder of the Boy Scouts, was a pupil at the time of the move.

The modern memorial to Thackeray.

Other famous Old Carthusians include Thackeray (who apparently hated the place), Lord Ellenborough (the Lord Chief Justice who said that refugees had human rights and that (à propos of copyright), ‘one must not put manacles on science’), and John Wesley. And at one point, John Hullah, the composer and enthusiast for choral singing, was the chapel organist.

The memorial to Lord Ellenborough in the chapel.

The difficult-to-read memorial to John Hullah.

Now that the boys have gone, the Brothers are left in their apartments among the lovely gardens and courts.

The Charterhouse has its own ancient mulberry (thankfully not under siege from developers!).

An enormous fig tree, just coming into leaf.

Four meals are served a day in the Great Hall (though you don’t have to be sociable, as you have your own kitchen), and (non-obligatory) chapel services are held daily. There is also an infirmary which takes care of the inmates in the last stages of their life. In fact, I would imagine that the only downside for the Brothers is the guided tours from the outside world which intrude on their peace and calm.

The talbots line up on guard.

Thomas the Talbot in his new home.

By the way, the heraldic dogs on the front rail of Thomas Sutton’s tomb are called talbots, and I’m happy to report that Thomas the Talbot made his way back to east London with me to be rehomed in a loving family after my Grand Afternoon Out.


P.S. More pictures below!

Brickwork with symbols in one of the walls.

Changing building materials in one court.

The royal shield (probably of Charles II) over a gateway. The sundial show’s Sutton’s coat of arms …

… which is repeated over an archway …

… and over the fireplace in the Great Hall, which is also decorated with cannon, a reference to Sutton’s role as Master of Ordnance.

This memorial to John Law, one of Sutton’s executors, is on the inside wall above the chapel entrance.

A memorial to Nicholas Mann, antiquarian and self-proclaimed Arian, Master of the Charterhouse from 1737 to his death in 1753. (He apparently put the plaque up well in advance …) The chapel is beyond.

At the other end of the chapel corridor is a memorial to the boys of the Charterhouse who later lost their lives serving in the British army. The main entry is for Sir Henry Havelock, the hero of Lucknow, who died of dysentery a few days after the end of the siege; his elder brother William, who had fought at Waterloo, and died in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, also appears.

The organ gallery in the chapel, where Hullah must have played. The woodwork has a nice line in Palladian perspective.

And finally, just as St John’s has an unexpected Caravaggio, so the Charterhouse has an unexpected Hogarth: this is Mrs Salter, hanging in the Great Hall. There is a 1741 Hogarth portrait in Tate Britain of Mrs Salter, née Secker, who in 1744 married Dr Samuel Salter, who became Master in 1761. The rules had to be changed to allow her to live on the premises, the first woman to do so. Dr Salter died in 1778: is this sober lady his widow?


This entry was posted in Art, Biography, Gardens, History, London, Museums and Galleries, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Charterhouse

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