Plague, monks and royalty: the life and times of one of London’s oldest residences

Charterhouse

What an illustrious history the Charterhouse has. 650 years old, this venerable old building has borne witness to some of the most turbulent times in British history, beginning with the acquisition of its land, during the fourteenth century, as a burial ground for victims of the Black Death. In 1371, a Carthusian monastery was built, which stayed in place until Henry VIII passed the Dissolution Act and it was turned into a mansion for wealthy noblemen. With its attractive facade and prime London location, the Charterhouse was never short of admirers and it swiftly became a Tudor court house for a succession of court members.

In 1611, Thomas Sutton, ardent philanthropist and the richest man in England, acquired the house and began using it as a place of hospitality but also as a school and almshouse. This is where famous Charterhouse School was founded, alma mater to Robert Baden Powell, John Wesley and William Makepeace Thackeray – the schools in the latter’s novels were inspired by his own experience of boarding school.

The school moved to a different location in the 19th century and the Charterhouse now functions as an almshouse for retired gentlemen, having converted one of its buildings into flats. To qualify as a ‘Brother’, as the residents are called, one must be male, over 60, single, from a respectable background – and impoverished. Change is afoot, however, as the Charterhouse has just accepted its first female Brother – and recently appointed its first Woman Master.

With my love of all things Tudor I couldn’t wait to see inside the Charterhouse and we began our tour in the Old Library, which dates back to that very era and functioned as a Library for the Brothers up until World War II, having been used as a school dining room in the days of Thackeray et al. These days, it is hired out for events and with its magnificent, huge open fireplace and original timber beams must provide an amazing setting.

From there, we moved into the Norfolk Cloister, where the inhabitants of the former monastery once resided – indeed, some of the monks’ cells remain here, intact. What a Spartan existence it was – the monks spent most of their time in enforced silence, clad in hair shirts. Just as well they did not know of the Cloister’s grim past – it wasn’t until Crossrail began excavating the area, in 2013, that bodies of plague victims were dug up, one of whom is on display in the Charterhouse Museum.

On a lighter note, the Cloister, long & narrow in shape, once served as the Duke of Norfolk’s access route to his tennis courts – and was used as a football court by the Charterhouse schoolboys. Legend has it that this is where the offside rule was created!

Cloister

En route to the Great Hall, we wandered through the Wash Court, which looked ever so familiar – and no wonder. It turns out that this tranquil courtyard, once the abode of servants and lay people, has been used in various film and TV productions, including Downton Abbey. “It’s a useful source of income”, our guide commented, dryly.

The Great Hall was laid out for afternoon tea when we arrived – a perk of being a Brother. Once a Tudor ‘reception room’, it oozes character & history, despite lacking most of its original features – heavily bombed in World War II, the room has been restored incredibly sympathetically.

Perhaps my favourite room of all, though, was the Great Chamber. Home to the most beautiful fireplace I’ve ever seen, and the site of many historic events, it was once Elizabeth I’s throne room, in which she stayed for a number of days at the beginning of her reign, before entering London as monarch for the very first time. Her successor, James I, did the same – and used the Great Chamber to create 300 knights of the realm.

This room holds many secrets – not least the keys to the codes of the Ridolphi plot, which were stored ingeniously (but ultimately unsuccessfully) under its roof tiles. Thwarted in love (he’d been convinced he would marry Mary, Queen of Scots), the hapless Duke of Norfolk ended up losing his head for this particular plot, his latest piece of treachery proving a step too far for Elizabeth.

There is so much more to learn about the Charterhouse that one tour cannot possibly cover it all. I’m already planning a return visit, this time for a Brother’s Tour – a behind-the-scenes exploration of the building led by one of the resident Brothers. I cannot wait…

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