Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Charterhouse: 4 Chapters of English History

  The Charterhouse, in the centre of London near St. Paul's, has a history dating back 650 years but is still alive today with 40 residents or Brothers, for whom it is home. These are elderly men in financial and social need but women will soon be allowed to apply: because it is partly domestic casual visitors are welcome to certain parts of the ancient building but those on the guided tour can see much more. We went on this hour-long pre-booked walk, accompanied by a charismatic and knowledgeable speaker and found the experience uplifting and memorable. Touchingly, the dining table was neatly laid ready for the Brothers' afternoon tea.
   She explained how there were 4 previous main chapters in the history of the site: a Black Death burial ground with a chapel; a Carthusian monastery; a Tudor courtyard house and then a school, hospital and almshouse

   The Black Death in London in the mid-fourteenth century killed around 40% of its population of about 70,000 people, leaving one third of the land within the walls uninhabited for a decade. It was in 2014 that evidence of a large emergency burial pit here, outside the city walls, was discovered by workers on the Crossrail project: DNA and isotopes revealed that they were 25 victims of plague outbreaks in 1348-9: some sources add 1361 and the early 15th century. It had been believed that prayer would help the souls of these dead to enter heaven and the wealthy courtier and soldier, Sir Walter Manny, built a small chapel for this purpose - he was fittingly buried before the high altar in 1372 as requested in his Will.

  The monastery was the largest Carthusian establishment in England and one of the best endowed: its 26 monks were greatly revered as this order was severe in its way of life, requiring poverty and solitude - although the range of cells testifies to personal space. They attracted large amounts in gifts. With its additional 40 priests and lay brothers, it was a significant presence in London for more than 160 years after 1371. Thomas More, later Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, came here around 1500 to find his vocation, eventually deciding to become a lawyer. In 1537 the monastery was seized by the crown and dissolved. The Prior who led the resistance, John Houghton, was executed in 1535 for treason and his body was chopped into pieces. In all, 16 men from here died for their faith.

 The site for the Tudor Mansion was bought in 1545 by Sir Edward North who remodelled the ruined buildings as a courtyard house typical of that era in the metropolis. Queen Elizabeth stayed here for 4 days in 1558 prior to her formal entry into the city of London for coronation. In 1565, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, bought the house, renaming it Howard House and making it his principal urban residence, grand enough with tapestries, paintings and upholstered furniture. to accommodate royal ceremonies in the Great Chamber.
The most splendid chamber is The Great Hall, built by North but much embellished by Norfolk. The ceiling was largely damaged in the bombing and resultant fire of 1941. It has been beautifully restored as can be seen by comparing the modern with a small portion at the side. Here, intriguingly, Norfolk had placed a decorative thistle, emblem of Scotland and evidence of his treasonable support for Mary, Queen of Scots (and intention of marriage to her) for which he was executed in 1572: this was therefore a notably reckless piece of interior design, as our guide pointed out. It suggests a certain political naiveté on his part.

  In the early 17th century, Thomas Sutton, a self-made man of huge fortune and a philanthropist, set up his charitable foundation here:  an almshouse/hospital and a school. (The speculation as to who would inherit his wealth probably inspired Ben Jonson's play, Volpone). Football was important in the school and the fact that it was played in the cloisters may have led to the off-side rule and throwing in from the touchlines. In 1872 the school moved to Godalming: W. M. Thackeray was a pupil here so disliking it that he satirised his experience at "Slaughter House" in his fiction - a somewhat crude mocking name which might reflect real misery and the smashing of his nose by another pupil which left him permanently disfigured. He later softened his attitude.

  The complex building is beautiful, calm and inspiring, having been sensitively restored (after the destruction in 1941 by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz) in the 50's under the direction of John Seely and Paul Paget. The tour is one of those valuable experiences that lives with you long afterwards. Access for the public is recent and demand for the tour is high - book ahead and enjoy it and the CAKE in the cafe!
   The loyal followers of my blog will perceive with their sharp intellects that this trip cannot be taken entirely on Monmouthshire buses but the excellent National Express service from Cardiff or Newport will take you cheaply and efficiently to Victoria - I did warn you we would be going abroad in 2017! I intend to post more in the future about the plague and the historic characters connected with this fascinating building.
For opening times and details click here.

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