Charterhouse is the English term for a Carthusian monastery; along with the name of the Carthusian order, the term originates from the Chartreuse Mountains in southeastern France, where Saint Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians, set up his first hermitage in 1084. An austere life of spiritual contemplation secluded from the influence of the outside world has been the ethos of the order ever since. The London Charterhouse stood as a beacon for this rigid ideal to the people of London throughout its turbulent 170 year history and beyond.
The Bishop of London, Michael Northburgh, had stayed in the Paris Charterhouse on a journey to Rome in the mid-fourteenth century. While there, he came to admire the contemplative peace and utter seclusion within its walls. Northburgh’s desire for a Charterhouse near London followed a broader trend in the distribution of Charterhouses in Europe during the fourteenth century. As wealth, political influence, and population became concentrated in major cities and towns during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Carthusians saw the need to be closer to these centers of political and financial support and, therefore, established Charterhouses in suburban areas. Also driving this change was the perceived need to offer urban residents a stark contrast between the hectic materially-focused urban lifestyle and the secluded life spent contemplating God and the soul.
The piecemeal development of Charterhouse made it unique from other monasteries. It was formally established in 1371 from a grant made by Sir Walter Manny of 5 ½ acres of boggy moor fields north and west of Cripplegate between the priories of St. Bartholomew and St. John, respectively to its south and north. Prior to Manny’s grant, the land was used by Londoners as a plague cemetery since 1348, as well as a recreational area. The grant initially caused controversy between Charterhouse and Londoners as the monastery restricted lay access to the property. Construction of the first six cells, used to house the first community of five monks and one prior, along the eastern side of the Great Cloister, was undertaken by Henry Yevele, the most successful master mason of the era, in May of 1371 and was completed about a year or two later. The thirteen cells of the first half of the Great Cloister were completed by 1400, while the other half, the water conduit, and the chapterhouse, were completed by 1450. Although they crafted a unique identity through their Perpendicular-styled buildings, the Carthusians also absorbed parts of the original burial ground into the monastery, the most important being the burial ground’s church. It served as the monastery’s main church: the site of daily masses, chantry masses, and burials for laymen and monks alike.
By the sixteenth century, Charterhouse controlled about fifteen acres of property and housed 30 monks, a prior, and 18 lay brothers. Its expansion was supported by generous donations of land and money from wealthy lay and ecclesiastical benefactors such as the former mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, various merchants, the Crown, members of parliament, and several Bishops of London. In line with the religious practice of the time, Charterhouse’s inhabitants provided chantry services within the church and individual intercessions in return for patronage. To maintain this vital connection with Londoners, the order was willing to break some of its own rules regarding interaction with the outside world by allowing burials within the Great Cloister, the church, and allowing the presence of lay people on the grounds, albeit to a limited extant.
Charterhouse developed a renowned reputation as a place of holy solemnity and contemplation that attracted visitors from London and across England. Some simply attended mass there, but others spent longer periods on the grounds, sampling the monastic life. Subsequently, it became a major center of ecclesiastical teaching in the Greater London area by the early sixteenth century. A strong connection was forged between the Charterhouse and people who admired traditional religious values and practices. Perhaps the most famous of them was Sir Thomas More who spent much of his youth at Charterhouse as a visitor and hoped to retire there once finished with public life. However, the turmoil of the Reformation ensured that a peaceful future for More and the Charterhouse did not come to pass. The resistance of the resident monks to the 1534 Act of Supremacy led to the persecution of the order and the death of 18 monks and lay brother through execution and starvation over four years until the remaining monks acquiesced. The monastery was dissolved in 1538 and later converted into a private mansion, almshouse, and school. Despite the disbandment of the order in England, the many lay people associated with the Charterhouse kept its spirit alive as they played a role in the aristocratic Recusancy that would later resist the Church of England.
- Joe O'Brien