The Charterhouse

The Charterhouse occupies several acres of land just outside the City and on the edge of Smithfield market. It is the only secular building in London, apart from the Tower that Queen Elizabeth would recognise if she appeared today. Indeed her memories of it would be vivid, as it was there that she held her first court on her accession, spending a week there before progressing into the City and on to her palace in Whitehall. It has the feel and look of an Oxford College – but is virtually unknown.

It started life – or death – as a plague pit for the Black Death in the mid 14th Century. Being just outside the walls of the City it acted as an emergency overflow for the City graveyards. Though buried in communal graves, excavations have found bodies buried hand-in-hand. They are there in the thousands  - 60,000 in the official records - and any excavations in the vicinity unearth multiple skeletons to this day. On this inauspicious site the Carthusian monks founded a monastery in 1391. The Carthusians are a silent order operating not under the rule of St Benedict but under the statutes of St Bruno who founded the order in the 11th Century. They were allowed to speak once a week while they were taking exercise in the garden but otherwise lived, ate, studied, slept and prayed in their cells.

At the Reformation it all came to a horrible end when the monks refused to accept Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy with the resulting deaths by hanging, drawing and quartering of all the monks and the dissolution of their monastery. The Charterhouse itself eventually fell into the hands of Thomas Sutton, the banking plutocrat of his Jacobean day. who endowed it with a sum that is worth £60 million today and it became a school that educated, amongst many others, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists. In the cloister, where the boys played football, the offside rule was developed to stop sneaky shots from the doorways nearest the goalmouth.
In the mid nineteenth century the school moved to near Godalming, where it is today, to get away from the noise of Holborn, which was then full of factories, and the stink of Smithfield meat market next door. The Charterhouse became an almshouse, which it is today, where poor elderly men could live comfortably all their lives. They are still today called brothers and there is an infirmary on site where they can die with dignity.

It is an extraordinary oasis of cloistered quiet just a minute’s walk from Barbican tube station. It is used for film locations – with its courtyards and wooden guttering – but mercifully free from tourist tours as the welfare of the brothers is always given priority. From some of the quadrangles you can see the brutalist concrete towers of the Barbican, but other than that, there is little to tell you that you are in the 21st Century. In a part of London that is still packed with history by the yard, The Charterhouse stands out – or rather it hides its beauty and serenity with the modesty of its remarkable history.   


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