On Friday 1st March some of us met at the entrance to The Charterhouse near The Barbican. The Charterhouse has some similarities to The Geffrye in that it is an almshouse but it has a longer and more complex history and a range of buildings from many periods that tell the story of the great, the good and the bad.
An ebullient gentleman, wearing a duffle coat, called Brother Brian Reeve, shepherded us close. He introduced himself and explained that his title of Brother was nothing to do with being a member of a religious order, it was a title given to each of the forty pensioners who lived in the almshouses on the site. The title is a reference to the religious beginnings of the Charterhouse. The “Brothers” now are of many different faiths and some of none.
Brian eloquently introduced us to the history of The Charterhouse, formed during the onset of the Black Death which spread across Europe and reached Britain in 1348 during the reign of Edward III. A group of Carthusian Monks, lead by William Manny, were invited to Britain to set up a monastery in London so they could help the population deal with the consequences of the Black Death. The Carthusians had proved, with their work in various European locations, to be the most caring and proficient at dealing with this devastating plague. The monks created two burial grounds in the Smithfield area close to the monastery.
These beginnings foreshadow the closeness The Charterhouse has to the main events in British History and often connect it to the most important and powerful people. The Charterhouse was set up to help the population with The Black Death. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Sir Edward North, Lord North (an important Elizabethan politician), Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, King James I and Oliver Cromwell were all closely associated with The Charterhouse. The wealthiest commoner in England in the 1600s, Thomas Sutton, bought Charterhouse and set it up a charity. After Thomas Sutton died it became a hospital (almshouse) and later a school in 1614. The present Queen Elizabeth, The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales are the Royal Governors. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a governor and so too is the present Duke of Norfolk and other illustrious people. It still remains an almshouse where forty pensioners live. We are passionate about the Geffyre almshouses too. The Geffyre Museum has not got the same illustrious connections as the Charterhouse but we can focus on the history of everyday life, cooking, sanitation, furniture, which is a very important aspect of history and which has often been ignored in the past.
Thomas Sutton, who founded the hospital, is commemorated by a large elaborate tomb in the chapel. Interestingly, Thomas Sutton was a commoner and as such did not have a coat of arms. The trustees thought that a man of such importance should have a coat of arms and purchased the arms displayed from a family called Sutton who had fallen on hard times. The medieval oak door, now displayed at the side of the entrance to the chapel, had its bottom part burnt away when an incendiary bomb, dropped during WWII, caused a terrible fire. The door prevented the fire from spreading. It was here in the chapel, the site of the original chapter house, that John Houghton had spoken to his congregation of monks and told them about Henry VIII’s request they sign the 1534 Act of Supremacy and the consequences that this entailed.
Brother Brian marched us on into the Great Hall, a magnificent Tudor hall created when Sir Edward North reconstructed the buildings in the 1540s. It is here the Brothers take their meals. The hall was set out with tables and chairs, the tables set for the evening meal. We moved on to the Old Library which until recently had been a library for the brothers and previously had been the dining room for the foundation scholars of Charterhouse School when the school was on the site. Some of the pillars have graffiti on them carved by the boys. One piece of graffiti is the first name and surname of one boy. Did he think he would be found out or not? Much of the interior of this room dated back to 1614.
The cloisters came next, reconstructed by Thomas Howard the Duke of Norfolk in 1571. Much of the Carthusian monastery had been destroyed but the original stones lay lying about. The builders used the medieval stones to reconstruct the cloisters and also used Tudor bricks to construct the parts they could not retrieve stones for. The cloisters are a mix of reused stonework, not in their original order apparently and brickwork.
From touring the inside of The Charterhouse we exited into The Masters Court. The Master of Charterhouse used to live in this courtyard. Lord North had it constructed and it is a very impressive Tudor courtyard with large arched windows looking out from The Great Hall. The next, smaller courtyard we visited was the wash house court where indeed the clothes washing was done in Tudor times.
Exiting the Wash House Court, we emerged into the pensioners gardens, interestingly now tended by a lady who worked at The Geffrye and who cared for the period gardens. Ancient mulberry trees their branches sagging to the ground fill some of this space. The Queen gets first pick of the mulberrys or if they develop late in the year a jar of mulberry jam is given to her from the produce of the trees.
In this area are the most modern and up to date buildings. In the year 2000 the Admiral Ashmore buildings were opened. Brother Brian informed us that he lived in one of them. They are modern and comfortable and have every amenity. The pensioners accommodation in Wash House court is not so warm and the rooms do not connect easily. Those living in the new buildings enjoy their modern accommodation, and also because they have a lovely view of the old buildings in front of them.
We arrived back at the entrance we had first come in through. We had a few minutes to look around the small museum and see the skeleton of one of the plague victims exhumed from the vast plague cemetery the Carthusians had constructed. In excavating these skeletons during the Cross Rail construction it was revealed with what care and sensitivity the monks had treated the dead. Skeletons of husbands and wives lay holding hands and the skeletons of young children were found lying on their mothers breasts. A very moving story.
Afterwards, some of us retired to The Sutton Arms, across Charterhouse Square for a drink and a chat. Thanks Fran for organizing a great day out.