The Charterhouse is a former monastery in central London with a long history which dates back to the 14th century. It has only been open to the public since 2017 and Slow Travel can thoroughly recommend it as one of the most fascinating tours currently available in the capital. A tour of this beautiful and unique site includes a visit to the only surviving Tudor Great Chamber in London, the 16th century passageway where the Offside Rule was invented and the elaborate grave of the 'richest commoner in England'.
N.B. - Visitors can show up to see the on site museum for free, or pay for a tour. Tours run twice a day and I would recommend booking in advance if you want to guarantee a place on the tour. The tour takes you through various rooms which you will not be able to see any other way.
Plague Pit and Sir Walter Manny 1348 - 1371
Located just off Charterhouse Square in Islington is the Charterhouse.
The land was bought by Sir Walter Manny in 1348, a knight in the service of Edward III who played a significant part in the Hundred Years War. His compassionate nature is revealed in his pleas to the King in 1346 to spare the six burghers of Calais who surrendered themselves to save the people of the city from destruction.
Back in England in 1348, aware of the tens of thousands of people dying from the Black Death, he leased the plot of land just outside the City of London for a graveyard, plague pit and chapel, so that these citizens could be safely buried. In 1371, he bought an adjoining portion of land and founded a Carthusian monastery, an order established by Bruno of Cologne in 1080. It was his final act of piety, for he died a year later.
Sir Walter left instruction that “my body is to be buried in the Charterhouse……which house I founded”. In 1947 this tomb was rediscovered in front of the high altar of the 14th century chapel, its authenticity proved by a Papal document lying with him in the lead coffin, and a memorial now stands by the entrance to the museum.
His memorial is the first thing you see as you enter the entrance courtyard of the Charterhouse, a brilliant white marble grave surrounded by small yew bushes with the outline of the original church marked on the ground, overlooked by a complete mishmash of buildings from the many different eras.
The Carthusian Monastery 1371 - 1537
For the next 160 years the building housed Carthusian monks – a largely silent order. Little of the original monastery remains although it is known that there were at least 29 cells in use. On the tour you are shown the door to one cell which survives, along with a guichet – a shelf and aperture for the lay brothers to leave food for the religious brothers - who spent most of their days in prayer and contemplation. They had relative comfort - each cell had two storeys, a garden space for herbs and vegetables and fresh running water.
The monks of Charterhouse were always respected, known for their piety, learning and charity. Thomas Moore was a regular visitor here.
However, their virtues did not prevent their dissolution by Henry VIII. The prior, John Houghton, refused to sign the Act of Supremacy so was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, and his arm then nailed to the entrance of the monastery as a warning to others.
Other monks were imprisoned, left to starve to death or executed on Tower Hill. All these years later you can still get a sense of the discussions and subsequent martyrdom that happened from within these walls.
The Tudor Manor House 1545 - 1611
The monastery was dissolved in 1537, and in 1545 Sir Edward North bought the buildings, which he transformed into a Tudor manor house, demolishing the church and building the Great Hall.
The tour includes this Great Hall; a magnificent room with high ceilings and windows, which was used used for dining and feasting. This room still functions as a dining room – the original occupants would be a bit astonished to see the tables laid out with cutlery, tomato sauce and hand sanitiser for the modern residents – but you still can get a sense of the merriment that must have gone on here with galleries above for musicians and the grandeur of features like the wooden screen which was added in 1571.
There have been several alterations and additions to the hall, largely by North’s successor, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, although the vast stone fireplace was added to celebrate the achievements of the purchaser in 1611, Thomas Sutton. It is carved with details referring to his time as a military man and Master of Ordnance in the North when he was responsible for artillery and gunpowder – as well as a coat of arms especially designed for him, and models of his favourite hunting dogs, the now extinct Talbot hounds.
A further Tudor addition was the Great Chamber, the only remaining Tudor Great Chamber to survive in London. Elizabeth I spent some time here as a guest of Lord North and held her Privy Council in the room before her coronation.
The chamber was later redesigned by the Duke of Norfolk, who added the grand fireplace and decorative ceiling, while under house arrest for his involvement with Mary, Queen of Scots during Elizabeth’s reign. This involvement finally led to his undoing – letters written from here revealed his part in the Ridolfi Plot in 1571 which led to his execution.
Interestingly, the guide pointed to the presence of Scottish thistles on his original ceiling – perhaps not a wise move for someone trying to conceal his part in a pro-Scottish conspiracy to unseat the reigning monarch!
Charterhouse School 1611 - 1872
Thomas Sutton had made his money through coal mines and money lending, amassing a huge fortune. He has been described as 'the richest commoner in Elizabeth England'.
Thomas Sutton died not long after he had bought the house in 1611, and his will stated that the land he had purchased in Charterhouse Square was to be used as an almshouse for 80 gentlemen and a school for 40 boys:
gentlemen by descent and in poverty, soldiers that have borne arms by sea or land, merchants decayed by piracy or shipwreck, or servants in household to the King or Queens Majesty
Charterhouse School was housed in the building until 1872, when it moved out of London to Godalming in Surrey, where it now flourishes as an independent school. There is still much evidence of their time here though.
In the chapel lobby you see memorials to many famous scholars including John Wesley, leader of the Methodist Church, William Makepeace Thackeray, satirical novelist, and Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts movement. Thackeray apparently hated his time here – referring to it as Slaughterhouse.
The tour also takes you to a long stone passageway which is known as the Norfolk Cloister, built on top of the plague pit. Some of the stone here dates back to the 14th century, and the vaulted ceiling was added by Norfolk in the 1540s who added it so he didn't get wet on his way to his tennis court. When Charterhouse School occupied these buildings, the boys would play football here. The tour guide explained that it was from here that the Charterhouse boys developed the offside rule and the throw-in – ideas which were subsequently formalised by the FA in 1863.
Almshouse 1611 - current
The Almshouse was established at the same time as the school, and the two occupied the buildings concurrently for over 250 years. Since the school departed the site there have been other short term occupiers, but today it is purely an almshouse.
Nowadays the criteria to enter the almshouse are that men or women must be over 60, single, and in need of financial and social support. The Assembly of 16 Governors of The Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse, first formulated by Thomas Sutton in 1611, are the Charity trustees and include the sovereign, the heir and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Great Chamber has portraits of many of those who were Governors of the charity of the almshouse and who met in the room to discuss its organisation and policy. They were a diverse bunch – for example the pious George Morley, Bishop of Winchester and the dissolute George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham – men with different allegiances and politics – but who were able to work together for the benefit of the Brothers. Somehow this diversity of character fitted well with the diversity of the architecture and the varied historical use of this building – a mishmash that has worked brilliantly over the ages.
The tour takes you to two beautiful courts where the Brothers live, rich in their early architecture. The Washhouse Court was used as a laundry in monastic times – and the contemporary clothes washing facilities are here still. It’s a very peaceful place, surrounded by the Brothers’ apartments – through the latticed windows are tiny glimpses of their books, ornaments and modern possessions. The Masters’ Court is a wide open space displaying the height and grandeur of the buildings that surround it.
At the end of the guided tour, visitors are then free to explore the Chapel and Museum at their leisure.
The entrance to the Chapel is through a rather dramatic door – the bottom half of which is completely burnt away, and the rest charred from incendiary bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. A heroic Brother that night shut the door, ignoring the flames, and so protected the Chapel and prevented any casualties.
The Chapel houses the tomb of Thomas Sutton – a grandiose affair of marble and stone but indicative of the enormous respect for the generosity of this self-made 17th century benefactor. Investments over the years have proved to be so sound that his money is still being used today to pay for the current residents, with the tours and merchandise just funding repairs to the building and other necessities.
The Charterhouse Museum
The museum is small but packed with artefacts from its rich varied history and the displays are well worth viewing.
They include various treasures and objects owned by Charterhouse over the years, or objects dug up during archaeological excavations. On display are items such as a 'swisher' with which the boys were flogged, a 19th century toasting fork, a silver communion cup from 1630 and an incredible map of the sites water system, meticulously hand drawn in 1625.
There is a skeleton from the original plague pit, sensitively presented with candles, as a memorial to the tens of thousands of Londoners who died in the Black Death. It is believed that at least a 1000 of these are still buried under or near the Charterhouse buildings.
Today’s Brothers are fully involved in choosing which items to display in the museum. They have included many articles that demonstrate their own lives including their leisure activities such as cinema and opera tickets. Some of them act as guides, happy to tell visitors about the history of their home.
Outside the buildings is Charterhouse Square – a green and leafy pentagonal area dominated by tall plane trees with plenty of benches. It is an excellent place to relax and reflect upon an absorbing and thought-provoking visit.
How to get to Charterhouse
The nearest tube stations are Barbican and Farringdon.
When is Charterhouse open?
Charterhouse is open from 10.am30 – 4.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday
Charterhouse Tours of 60 minutes take place at 11.00 and 2.15 Tuesdays to Saturdays. Brothers’ Tours, Garden Tours and Family Tours are also available.
How much does it cost to visit Charterhouse?
The museum and Chapel are free to visit.
Charterhouse Tour - £15
Brothers’ Tour - £20
Family Tour – Adult - £10, Children – free
House and Garden Tour – Adult – up to £30