Stepping into the Charterhouse London is like going through a time portal. Twenty-first century bustle begins to fade as you turn the corner from Smithfield into Charterhouse Square. A few steps further transports you back to the sixteenth century. Come with me and explore one of London’s most fascinating corners.
How Charterhouse London began
In 1348 as the Black Death raged through London, Walter de Manny acquired the site to use as a plague pit and chapel. The leafy square that you see today is actually the grave of 55,000 medieval Londoners. Work for the new Crossrail disturbed the corner of the square and several skeletons were discovered. One is on display in the Charterhouse Museum.
When Charterhouse became The Charterhouse
Once the plague had subsided, Walter decided to found a Carthusian Monastery in 1371 to pray for the souls of the dead. One of the courtyards has a tiny statue of St Bruno of Cologne, founder of the original Carthusian community in France. Each monk lived in his own cell. You can still see the doorway to one of these cells in the Cloisters. Monastic accommodation always sounds rather cramped and sparse, but here the cells were two storey affairs with at least two rooms. Charterhouse is simply the way that Chartreuse (where St Bruno founded his first monastery) became pronounced in English.
It wasn’t only monks who lived in the monastery. Wealthy Londoners would spend time here in prayer and contemplation too. One of these was Sir Thomas More, who hoped eventually to retire here. But that was not to be.
Charterhouse and the Dissolution
When Henry VIII set about the dissolution of the monasteries, he had hoped for the Carthusians’ support. They went the other way and were among the most vocal opponents. For this they were treated harshly. The Prior was hung, drawn and quartered and then his arm was hung on the gate house as a warning to others. The remaining monks were sent to Newgate prison where most starved to death but one survived to be hung three years later. Immediately after the dissolution, the Charterhouse was used to house a family of Italian musicians who played for the kind and their instruments.
Lord North eventually bought the site and set about transforming it into a grand Tudor mansion. So grand that Elizabeth I stayed here before her coronation. Grand enough even for the Duke of Norfolk who bought it next. Whilst the Duke was living here he was discovered to have taken part in the Ridolfi plot to marry Mary, Queen of Scots and usurp Elizabeth. He was kept under house arrest in the Charterhouse and used his time to make additions to the house, such as the fine fireplace in the Great Chamber and the cloisters leading to his own personal real tennis court.
Royal favour returned with James I. He held court here on his first entrance to London in 1603. The Great Chamber was the venue for James I’s creation of 33 Barons prior to his coronation.
Charterhouse School and Alms House
In 1611 Thomas Sutton bought the Charterhouse. Thomas was an extremely wealthy man. He had made his money as an arms dealer, then coal was discovered on his properties near Newcastle upon Tyne making him even more money. Just for a little bit more icing on the cake he took up money lending. Thomas had no children to leave his vast wealth to and so decided to set up a school and almshouses. When he died the Charterhouse was home for 60 poor men and school to 40 poor scholars.
Charterhouse School still exists, it moved to Godalming in Surrey in the late nineteenth century and is today a boarding school with fees beyond the reach of the poor. John Wesley, William Makepeace Thackery and Lord Baden-Powell all went to school here. The Duke of Norfolk’s cloister became an indoor football ground, its cramped confines led to both the offside rule and throw-in being added to the rules of soccer.
The school boys have gone but the almshouses remain. Forty three brothers are have their home here. Women are now also admitted but they are called brothers too! Each resident has a small apartment and then they all eat together in the dining hall, looked over by the portrait of Thomas Sutton. To apply to live here, you need to be over 60, in financial and housing need and willing to play an active part in the community of the Charterhouse.
When you visit the Charterhouse you are stepping into a piece of living history, not a museum. Nowhere else in London will you see what a grand Tudor mansion looked like. Nor will you gain access elsewhere to a community that has been in existence since James I was on the throne. Lovers of artefacts will be pleased to know that there is small museum devoted to the past. Here you can see one of the skeletons discovered during the Crossrail construction. Most remarkable of all for me, was a three yard long map of the water system dating from 1341. Water was piped down from Islington and provided the monks with flushing loos and running water. Street names fascinate me, when I lived in Islington I often wondered how White Conduit Street got its name. This map answers that question. The conduit that ran along the street supplied that water for the monks at Charterhouse who wore distinctive white robes.
Right at the beginning there was a plague pit and a chapel. Today’s chapel is not on the same site but is still very old. Here the schoolboys and brothers would have attended church. There is a magnificent memorial to Thomas Sutton. There are services in the Chapel at 5.30pm on days that The Charterhouse is open and at 9.45am on Sunday mornings.
What to read at the Charterhouse
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I have C J Sansom’s Shardlake novels on my summer reading list. When we visited I had just started the fourth book and the whole site put me in mind of the series. Imagine my delight when a few pages further on the Charterhouse became one of the main locations for Revelation. If you have ever read, or want to read, the Shardlake novels a visit to the Charterhouse is a must.
How to get to the Charterhouse
Both Farringdon and Barbican stations are within easy walking distance. Circle, District and Hammersmith and City tube lines will get you to both. Crossrail trains will stop at Farringdon and Thameslink trains connect Farrington to Brighton in the south and St Albans in the north.
Visiting the Charterhouse London
- Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN
- Open: 11am – 5.20pm Tuesday – Sunday
- Visiting the Museum and Chapel is free but I strongly urge you to take a take a tour and book in advance
- Daily Tours of the main buildings take an hour and cost £15
- Tours with one of the Brothers take two hours and cost £20
- Evening Garden Tours cost £20
- Monthly Crossrail and Charterhouse walking tours £20
The Charterhouse can be hired for weddings, check out my post about Cultural Wedding Venues for more ideas. Charterhouse wasn’t the only monastery in this part of London, why not venture up St John’s Street to discover the Museum of the Order of St John. If your appetite is whetted for London history check out my post on historic houses in London.
DISCLOSURE: London Charterhouse invited the Cultural Wednesday family to visit, all opinions are our own.