The Charterhouse of London goes public

Opening its doors is “a place of leafy seclusion and quiet”.

This was the description of Charterhouse given in a 1959 issue of the magazine Country Life. Close to Smithfield Market and with a secluded garden backing onto a busy thoroughfare, Charterhouse stands on the site of a priory founded in 1371. When Henry VIII disbanded England’s monasteries, a mansion was built there by Sir Edward North, whose family later sold it to Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. It was here that the duke was kept under house arrest before being executed for his part in a plot to place Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne.

After confiscation, the house was eventually restored to Lord Thomas Howard, half-brother of Norfolk’s son, . In 1611, he sold it to the wealthy financier Thomas Sutton, who endowed it with an almshouse and a school, creating what the writer Daniel Defoe described as “the greatest and noblest gift that ever was given for charity, by any one man, public or private, in this nation.”

charterhouse1The buildings that have survived are surrounded by high walls and contain cobbled courtyards. They are home to some 40 men, known as Brothers, who meet Thomas Sutton’s requirement that they be unmarried, over 50 years old, who can provide “good testimonye and Certificat of theire good behaviour and soundness in religion”, or who were“maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck or other calamity, or held prisoner by the Turks.”

Today, the Brothers are more likely to be retired actors, writers, artists, musicians, teachers and clergyman, and for the first time women will now be allowed to apply for places. The institution’s first female Master (the person appointed to oversee Charterhouse) will take over in February 2017 and the Brothers are likely to introduce her gleefully to the uninitiated as their “Mistress”.

Charterhouse has a major collection of oil paintings, prints, watercolours, photographs, pencil, pen and ink drawings, and cartoons covering the past 400 years. It also has a new museum, whose visitors’ entrance traverses the foundations of the medieval monastery. Here, in 1538, the monks rejected Henry VIII as the head of the church. As a result, the Prior was hanged, disembowelled and quartered at Tyburn and ten monks were taken to nearby Newgate Prison. There is a memorial to the martyrs on the east wall of Chapel Court.

The 19th century English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was educated at Charterhouse School. Among his many novels portraying English society is The Newcomes, published in 1855 and to some extent modelled on his experiences at Charterhouse:

“Under the great archway of the hospital he could look at the old Gothic building: and a black-gowned pensioner or two crawling over the quiet square, or passing from one dark arch to another. The boarding-houses of the school were situated in the square, hard by the more ancient buildings of the hospital. A great noise of shouting, crying, clapping forms and cupboards, treble voices, bass voices, poured out of the schoolboys’ windows: their life, bustle, and gaiety contrasted strangely with the quiet of those old men creeping along in their black gowns under the ancient arches yonder, whose struggle of life was over, whose hope and noise and bustle had sunk into that grey calm.”

Charterhouse is unknowingly familiar to audiences of British period drama on television and in film. Its Great Hall and Great Chamber, its Chapel and Wash-house Court are ideal settings. But even without a camera and script, as its web site notes, “Peer closely through the half light of the Master’s Court at dusk and you might make out the ghosts of Victorian physicians or plague victims, catch a glimpse of Elizabeth I commanding one of her courtiers – or spy the fourteen-year-old John Wesley kneeling at prayer.”

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