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Charterhouse

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Introduction and Fourteenth-Century Origins

The London Charterhouse refers to a series of buildings located at the north-east end of Charterhouse Lane to the west of Aldersgate Street near Smithfield, which served a variety of functions during the early modern period. Sir Walter Manny, a knight, purchased the grounds in 1348 as a burial ground and pit for plague victims (Thornbury).1 He also built a small chapel for ceremonial use. During the plague, the dead were so plentiful that Manny was regarded as somewhat of a hero for providing burial pits (Thornbury). In his Summary of the Chronicles of England (1598), John Stow describes the chaotic scene in London during the plague:
The peſtilence began in England about Lammas,2 ſo that very many that were whole in the morning, died before noone. In one day there was twenty, forty, threeſcore, and many times more dead bodies buried in one pit. About the feaſt of all Saints3 it came to London, and increaſed ſo much, that from Candlemas4 untill Eaſter5, in the Chaterhouſe Churchyard neare unto Smithfield, more than 200. dead corpſes (besides the bodies that were buryed in other Churchyards) were there euery day buried.
(Stow, Summary of the Chronicles sig. I4v)
According to Stow, the Charterhouse was founded upon grounds that absorbed, at times, nearly two-hundred corpses a day during the plague.

Carthusian Monastery, 1371–c. 1541

The Breaking of the Storm, depicting Houghton and two other English Carthusians in the moments leading up to their execution. Houghton is the first person in line. Image courtesy of the The Beauvale Society.
The Breaking of the Storm, depicting Houghton and two other English Carthusians in the moments leading up to their execution. Houghton is the first person in line. Image courtesy of the The Beauvale Society.
In 1371, the chapel and the land were purchased by the Order of Carthusian Monks, and turned into a charterhouse, a term used to describe a Carthusian monestary (Stow, A Survey of London).6 Carthusian Monks are known for disciplined commitment to solemnity and prayer. They live inside the walls of a monastery as hermits, limiting their food intake and isolating themselves in private rooms for prayer and study for much of the day (A Monk of the Grand Chartreuse and Dijk 195). The Order of the Carthusians kept legal control over the Charterhouse from 1371 until 1537. During this relatively peaceful time, Sir Thomas More was a frequent visitor at the Charterhouse. More was the lord chancellor of Henry VIII from 1529 until 1532 and a well known Catholic lawyer, philosopher, and author. Before serving as lord chancellor to the King, More lived near the Charterhouse from 1503 until 1504 (Thornbury). He joined the Carthusians in their practice and worship without taking vows and considered becoming a monk himself; he eventually turned to a career in politics and law instead. More antagonized Henry VIII late in his career for opposing the Act of Supremacy, which broke the separation between church and state and placed the laws of the King over the laws of the church (Livingstone and Cross 1571). After refusing to acknowledge the superiority of the King over the Catholic Church, More was executed in 1535 (Shoeck 888).
The Carthusian monks were also displeased with the Act of Supremacy. Like More, Carthusian prior John Houghton was arrested and sentenced to death in May 1535 for opposing the legislation. Houghton was not only the first Carthusian martyr, but also the first English religious figure to be executed for denying the King’s supremacy. In an attempt to dissuade others from dissenting, Houghton’s execution was particularly brutal. Along with two other Carthusians, Prior Houghton was hanged, drawn, and quartered. As with tradition, his head was then spiked and displayed on the London Bridge gatehouse. His remaining body parts were impaled on the gate of his beloved Charterhouse (Thornbury). Following Prior Houghton’s death, three more Charterhouse monks were executed for denying the supremacy of the king (Thornbury). These deaths shocked most monks into submission for a short while; however, in 1537 they reasserted their original stance against the crown. Ten monks were consequently arrested and imprisoned with no food; nine of these monks starved to death and the remaining one was executed in 1541 (Thornbury). The monastery was dissolved shortly thereafter.

Private Residence, c. 1541–1609

Following the departure of the Carthusians, the Charterhouse remained relatively empty for some time. It was primarily used to store the King’s hunting materials and lumber (Thornbury). The King seems to have cared little for the future of the Charterhouse. The house was purportedly tossed (as Henry threw sops to his dogs) to John Brydges, yeoman, and Thomas Hale, groom of the king’s hales and tents, as a reward for their care of Henry’s nets and pavilions deposited in the old monastery (Thornbury). After Brydges and Hale, the Charterhouse was passed on to Sir Thomas Audley, the speaker of House of Commons, who maintained it until 1545.
Sir Edward North purchased the land in 1545 and began the first major renovations of the property since the fifteenth century. Where a large field used to stand between dormitories, offices, and a church, North built an enormous mansion with a prominent great hall. He destroyed the church altogether (Thornbury). In November of 1558, North hosted Elizabeth I at the new Charterhouse prior to her coronation. Stow writes, [t]he xxiij. of November, Quéene Elizabeth came from Biſhops Hatfield in Hertfordſhire, unto the Lorde Northes houſe in the late Charterhouſe of London, the Sheriffes of London méeting hir Grace at the farther ende of Barnet Towne within the Shere of Middleſex, and ſo rode before hir, till ſhe came to the Charterhouſe Gate next Alderſgate, where hir Grace remayned (Stow, Chronicles sig. 3Z7v-3Z8r). North died in 1564 and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk inherited the property (Thornbury).
The Charterhouse Great Hall, designed in the sixteenth century by Sir Edward North. Image courtesy of the The Charterhouse.
The Charterhouse Great Hall, designed in the sixteenth century by Sir Edward North. Image courtesy of the The Charterhouse.
In 1570, while under house arrest for attempting to wed Mary, Queen of Scots, Norfolk used his idle time to make further renovations to the Charterhouse. He added a tennis court and a long garden terrace (Thornbury). In 1571, he was arrested again, this time for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I and place Mary on the throne. Norfolk was subsequently executed in 1572 and the crown assumed ownership of the Charterhouse (Davies 186).
The Charterhouse was returned to the Howard family in 1586, under the ownership of Norfolk’s second son, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk (Thornbury). Suffolk maintained the property for over two decades, making the Charterhouse one of the most lush and ornate properties on the outskirts of London. After 1603, Suffolk built a good rapport with James I, who was another famous frequenter of the Charterhouse and knighted over eighty men on its grounds (Thornbury).

Hospital, School, and Pensioners’ Home, 1609–Present

In 1609, Thomas Sutton, one of the wealthiest commoners in London, purchased the land from Suffolk for £13,000 (Thornbury). Sutton was a renowned philanthropist, a worthy and well diſpoſed Gentleman, who was universally adored (Howell sig. 2F2r). He planned to transform the grounds of the Charterhouse into a hospital, school, and pensioners’ home. James Howell explains that Sutton was attracted to the Charterhouse because the place [was] ſweetly ſcituated, with accommodations of ſpacious Walks, Orchards, and Gardens, with ſundry dependencies of Tenements, and Lands thereunto belonging (sig. 2F2r). Furthermore, the area around the Charterhouse had become notorious for poverty and crime. The school was to educate and house such impoverished men and boys as lived in the nearby area.
Eighteenth-century engraving, showing that the new Charterhouse maintained much of its original architecture and enormous grounds.  Image courtesy of the Humanities Research Institute (HRI).
Eighteenth-century engraving, showing that the new Charterhouse maintained much of its original architecture and enormous grounds. Image courtesy of the Humanities Research Institute (HRI).
The transformation of the Charterhouse was supposed to cement Sutton’s permanent legacy, but, just as plans for the hospital and school began to take off, he died in 1611 (Trevor-Roper). What followed was a battle over Sutton’s will that threatened to destroy the charity. Sutton’s cousin, Thomas Baxter, attempted to assert legal ownership over the property. The case went to court, with the defense going up against Sir Francis Bacon and others on side of the plaintiff (Davies 230). Bacon was apparently upset that he had been left out of the will as a potential governor for the new school (Thornbury). The defense eventually emerged victorious, and plans for the hospital and school began immediately. John Hutton was the school’s first master. In 1614, the new Charterhouse opened its doors to eighty elderly men and forty boys, who were fed, clothed, educated, and housed at the estate. Ironically, after fighting to destroy the charity, Bacon became its governor in 1619 (Davies 240).
There were further disputes and difficulties in the early history of the foundation. Governors often disagreed on how to manage the area, and rules for the pensioners and students were a subject of controversy (Davies 225-255). For the most part, pensioners were strictly controlled in terms of diet, attire, and behavior: they would often water down their beer so as to not appear drunk and receive expulsion (Davies 228). In 1627, when James I demanded revenues from the Charterhouse to fund an army, his motion was challenged and defeated (Thornbury). Despite these challenges, the original Charterhouse school remained active until it was relocated in 1872. The buildings are currently used as a home for elderly pensioners, hosting about forty men (Charterhouse History).

Notes

  1. All citations from Thornbury refer to pages 380-404 in volume two. (TLG)
  2. In medieval England, Lammas was a harvest festival celebrated on August 1st each year. (TLG)
  3. In the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints’ Day is a feast day celebrated on November 1st each year. (TLG)
  4. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (also known as Candlemas) is a feast day celebrated on February 2nd each year. (TLG)
  5. Easter Sunday fell on April 1st in 1347 (Cheney 176). (TLG)
  6. All citations from John Stow’s A Survey of London refer to pages 69-91. (TLG)

References

Last modification: 2016-05-27 14:37:29 -0700 (Fri, 27 May 2016) (tlandels)
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MLA citation:

Kernochan, Jack. “Charterhouse.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 30 April 2017. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CHAR2.htm>.

Chicago citation:

Kernochan, Jack. n.d. “Charterhouse.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CHAR2.htm.

APA citation:

Kernochan J. (n.d.). Charterhouse. In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CHAR2.htm

TEI citation:

<bibl> <author><persName><surname>Kernochan</surname>, <forename>Jack</forename></persName></author> (<date>n.d.</date>). <title level="a">Charterhouse</title>. In <editor><persName><forename>J.</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></persName></editor> (Ed.), <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Retrieved <date when="2017-04-30">April 30, 2017</date>, from <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CHAR2.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/CHAR2.htm</ref> </bibl>