Smithfield is an area of London that is full of history. There’s the fabulous church at St Bartholomew the Great, the plaque dedicated to the execution of William Wallace, pubs tucked away in back streets, and now The Charterhouse has opened its doors to the public.
I love walking round this area, partly because I used to live there. But I never really knew that the Charterhouse was there. So, when this historic almshouse opened, I had to see it- and was captivated by what lay within its walls. The Charterhouse is between the old medical school and the new Malmaison Hotel in Smithfield. Even today it is a living community and almshouse. Walking through an old gatehouse, visitors are soon transported into the tranquil surroundings of Masters Court. But the Charterhouse was not always this peaceful as the tour reveals. And why are all these greyhound statues positioned throughout the building and chapel? I begin to realise that there are many stories about the Charterhouse that are about to be revealed.
From Plague Pit to Monastery
Charterhouse began life as a burial pit for plague victims in 1348. It is believed that up to 50,000 people could have been buried here during the Black Death. I reflected back that I must have danced on this grave during parties and balls at the medical school back in the 1980’s. And there these graves would have stayed undisturbed, but the new Crossrail development in London revealed some of the burial site. Today, one of the skeletons is displayed in the new museum which is free to visit.
In 1371 Sir Walter Manny bought the area from the Bartholomew Monastery nearby and build a Carthusian monastery. This became an area of silence and contemplation, as befits the Carthusian order. I take a tour of the Charterhouse to see even more of this intriguing building. Some of the brick walls beyond Wash House Court date from the 14th century. The area appears in movies as it is so original. And in the museum there is an original map of the medieval water system used in the 15th century detailing wells and pipes used to ensure the monastery had running water.
Henry VIII got rid of the monasteries during the Reformation in the 16th century. Places like the Charterhouse were ransacked, and sold to noblemen. During the Reformation, a Charterhouse monk, John Houghton, asked for his brothers to be exempt from the oaths in the new Act of Succession. This was an act of treason and John Houghton was hung, drawn and quartered. His arm was sent to Charterhouse and hung on the gate.
Lord North, 4th Duke of Norfolk, bought the Charterhouse following the Dissolution of the Monasteries . He was close to Henry VIII and helped draw up his will. But he also landed in trouble and was placed under house arrest for trying to help Mary Queen of Scots. This is the building where the famous Rodolfi Plot took place which was an attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. Lord North was finally executed at Tower Hill. In the Great Chamber there are still thistles painted in the ceiling. Were they a symbol of Lord North’s sympathies for Mary Queen of Scots?
Thomas Sutton bought Charterhouse around 1610 and turned it into a school for boys.He was a wealthy businessman who accumulated his wealth from mining and invested in buildings. In the Old Libary the fireplace has his coat of arms on the chimney and the mystery of the greyhounds is revealed. This was Thomas Sutton’s symbol. I’m more intrigued by the graffiti on a pillar, that has stayed carved into the wood for centuries. What kind of school was it? The writer William Makepeace Thackery was a pupil here and famously described Charterhouse as a slaughterhouse.
A door leads off to the Big Cloister and it is suddenly very cold. At one time the monks lived in silence here and there are entries to old cells. But the cloister was also used for football during the Charterhouse School time. This is where the offside rule was first created.
Today the school has moved and the building is an almshouse. There is a community of 40 men who live here. You have to be of good character, single and in financial and social need. You also have to be able to live in a community. Some of the brothers conduct tours of the Charterhouse, giving an insight into their lives. The dining room smells of food and is where the brothers eat together. Above it is a 17th century walkway. There’s a painting on the wall of a lady, believed to have been one of the wives of a master. This was painted by Hogarth who lived nearby.
In the chapel there is background choral singing and pews decorated with greyhounds. The elaborate tomb of Thomas Sutton is filled with symbols of his life. I sit in the back of the chapel on narrow benches full of graffiti from bored schoolboys.There are plaques to old boys and people associated with the school. n the cloister a memorial to Henry Havelock dominates one wall whilst another to Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Scout movement lies on the other side.
The Charterhouse is still revealing its secrets. Just outside the cloister, Arna the guide indicates the ground where the original chapel and altar have recently been discovered. I’m overwhelmed with the rich history within this area and can’t remember the last time a museum captivated me so much. The Charterhouse is one of London’s newest attractions but it goes back a long way in time.
The Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN
Nearest Tube: Barbican and Farringdon
The museum and chapel are free to visit. Tours with a guide cost £10 and last 55 minutes. They are well worth it. Tours with a brother are £15.