On The House | Charterhouse

In a hidden corner of Clerkenwell stands one of its historical gems: the ancient Charterhouse. Stephen Porter recounts its storied past…

Plague pit, monastery, Tudor mansion and school: The Charterhouse has had many incarnations over its long life. So where did it all begin? The Black Death swept across Europe in the late 1340s, leaving devastation in its wake. When it reached London in 1348, the death toll was so great that the churchyards were rapidly filled. More space for burials was urgently needed. Enter Sir Walter de Manny, one of Edward III’s military commanders, who acquired land in Clerkenwell as a graveyard and plague pit. In 1349 he built a chapel on the site. After some delays, he founded the Charterhouse, a Carthusian priory, here in 1371 and the chapel became the priory church. The Charterhouse was home to a prior, 24 Carthusian monks and a number of lay brothers. De Manny died just a year after the Charterhouse opened and was buried in the chapel. When his grave was discovered and opened in 1947, his coffin contained a skeleton and a bulla of Pope Clement VI, confirming that these were indeed his remains. The reformation brought harsh times upon the Charterhouse. The Carthusians opposed Henry VIII’s measures to make himself supreme head of the English church. So in 1535 the prior, John Houghton, was convicted of treason and executed. His body was dismembered and one of his arms fixed above the gateway to the Charterhouse. Six more members of the house were executed, and nine others died in Newgate gaol.

After the priory was closed in 1538, a family of musicians from Venice, the Bassanos, were briefly housed in some of the former monks’ cells. In 1545 Sir Edward North bought the Charterhouse and built a Tudor mansion there. He demolished many of the priory buildings, including the church, but retained the chapter-house as his chapel, the gateway and the service buildings, which survive in the prosaically named Wash-house Court. Queen Elizabeth I came directly to the Charterhouse when she arrived in London after succeeding her sister Mary in 1558, and held court in its great chamber before her Coronation. Her cousin Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, acquired the buildings from North’s son, but the Catholic Howard was held there under house arrest on suspicion of plotting with Mary Queen of Scots to depose Elizabeth. Howard would later be executed for treason. The buildings passed to his eldest son, Philip, but reverted to the crown when he was sent to the Tower of London. The Howard family regained possession in 1601, when the Queen granted the property to Philip’s brother, Lord Thomas Howard. When James succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 he followed her example and held court in the Charterhouse on his arrival from Scotland.

James conferred the earldom of Suffolk on Thomas in 1603, as well as confirming his ownership of the Charterhouse. The Earl and his wife Catherine were busy constructing an expensive mansion at Audley End, Essex and carrying out extensive work at Charlton Park in Wiltshire. This brought financial problems, so in 1611 the Charterhouse was sold to Thomas Sutton, reputedly the wealthiest commoner of his generation. Already an elderly man, Sutton died before his plans to establish an almshouse and school within the buildings were completed. Cannily named after the King in order to secure his support, the ‘Hospital of King James founded in Charterhouse’ was by far the largest philanthropic endowment made between the Reformation in the 1530s and the establishment of Guy’s Hospital in the 1720s. The almshouse was for 80 elderly men, known as Brothers, and the school developed into one of the country’s leading educational establishments. Among the distinguished Brothers were the musician Tobias Hume, the book collector John Bagford, the author Elkanah Settle, and Stephen Gray, whose pioneering experiments with electricity here led to him being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The school’s alumni included Roger Williams, founder of the US state Rhode Island, the literary partnership of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, John Wesley and William Makepeace Thackeray.

In 1872 the school moved to Godalming, Surrey. Its part of the site was sold to the Merchant Taylors’ Company and then in 1932 to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which adapted the complex for its medical college. The almshouse remained, as a ‘place of leafy seclusion’, and its buildings were sensitively restored after a fire during an air raid in 1941. They are now home to 45 Brothers and consist of the remains of the priory, the Tudor mansion and the almshouse buildings dating from between 1614 and 2000. The discovery earlier this year of skeletons in the Black Death burial ground is a reminder of the medieval origins, and the many subsequent lives, of this fascinating corner of Clerkenwell. Stephen Porter is Hon. Archivist, Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse. His book, Charterhouse – The Official Guide (£5; Amberley Books) is available for sale at the Charterhouse.