The Charterhouse, set deep within stone walls in the heart of Clerkenwell, is a remarkable assembly of historic buildings dating from the 14th century.  Over the years it has been a religious site, a grand Tudor mansion, a school and, as it has remained for over 400 years, an almshouse. In November this year parts of the Charterhouse will be open to the public for the first time in its 660 year history, revealing to the public the great story of this sprawling urban oasis at the heart of London.

The Masters Court

The Masters Court

With its partner the Museum of London, the Charterhouse is creating a new museum within the Tudor mansion, as well as a Learning Centre and an exhibition space, which will tell the story of the Charterhouse and its role in key moments in English history, using artefacts from its own collection, together with others from the Museum of London and other collections. This new facility will bring to life the history of the building, highlighting its place in national affairs and securing its future.

Some 12 years ago, the Editor of Barbican Life was privileged to be taken on a tour of the Charterhouse by the Master and found his visit to this hidden gem absolutely fascinating and welcomes the news that parts of the complex, and the associated museum, will be opened to the public.  The annals of the site, and its association with so many famous people one learned about in one’s history lessons at school are brought to life.

The story of the Charterhouse is the story of our nation. It begins in 1348 during the Black Death when the land was used as a burial ground for victims of the plague. In 1371 the Charterhouse was built and a Carthusian monastery flourished on the site. Elizabeth 1 convened the Privy Council here in the days before her coronation in 1558, and James 1 followed her lead by staying at the Charterhouse prior to his coronation. In 1611 Thomas Sutton, a wealthy businessman, bought the Charterhouse and established the foundation that now bears his name providing a home for up to 80 Brothers: ‘either decrepit or old captaynes either at sea or at land, maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck of other calamity’ and for 40 poor scholars (which became Charterhouse School, long since moved to the Surrey countryside and now one of England’s most prestigious public schools).

The story lives on. Large parts of the buildings were damaged in the Blitz of May 1941. Yet it was faithfully restored and is now home to over 40 Brothers

Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London said:

I am thrilled that the partnership between the museum and the Charterhouse is proving so successful and that the Revealing the Charterhouse project is now a reality. We will be working even more closely with this remarkable site that has played such a key role in London’s history to ensure that it becomes an irresistible destination for visitors when it opens its doors to the public in the autumn. We are particularly looking forward to supporting the Charterhouse in creating an inspiring learning programme for thousands of school pupils from London and beyond.”

The museum, cafe and Learning Centre will be accessed through Charterhouse Square, the site of a medieval plague pit. The square has been re-designed, inspired by its 18th century layout, by Todd Longstaffe-Cowan (author of The London Square (Yale 2012) and Gardens Adviser to Historic Royal Palaces. The reconfigured Square will lead visitors to the new public entrance to the Charterhouse designed by Eric Parry Architects(EPA), who were responsible for the renewal of St Martin in the Fields and the Holburne Museum in Bath.   EPA are also designing the City’s newest skyscraper, 1 Undershaft.

Sir Michael Graydon, Chairman of the Charterhouse, said:

I am very proud to be the Chairman of the Charterhouse at this important moment for the charity.  My fellow Governors and I are custodians of one of the nation’s longest standing and most noble charities and we look forward to opening our doors and revealing some of the remarkable history to visitors from all corners of our nation and from the world.”

Eric Parry, EPA said:

The invaluable lesson of the Charterhouse is the continuity, relevance and adaptability of its architecture, in a city context that would be astoundingly incomprehensible to its founders.”

This is a project funded by the HERITAGE Lottery Fund and a range of other generous supporters including Helical Bar, Charles Hayward Foundation, The Wolfson Foundation, Christian Levett, The Schroder Foundation, The Lyon Family Trust and The City Bridge Trust amongst many others.

Charterhouse Square In 2013 Archaeologists working on Crossrail uncovered thirteen skeletons lying in two carefully laid out rows on the edge of Charterhouse Square at Farringdon. These finds are believed to be up to 660 years old.

Historical records reference a burial ground in the Farringdon area that opened during the Black Death Plague in 1348. The limited written records suggest up to 50,000 people may have been buried in less than three years in the hastily established cemetery, with the burial ground used up until the 1500s.    History of the Charterhouse The site upon which Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse (its official title) stands was acquired in the middle of the fourteenth century as a burial ground for the victims of the Black Death. Later a Carthusian Monastery was established here in 1371 by Sir Walter de Manny, one of Edward III’s senior advisers. In 1535, the monks refused to conform to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy and some became proto-martyrs of the Reformation. The monastery was suppressed and passed to the Crown. Subsequently it was granted to Lord North, who constructed a fine Tudor mansion which was later sold to the fourth Duke of Norfolk. On 23 November 1558 (the day of her accession to the throne, Elizabeth I arrived at Charterhouse from Hatfield House).

In 1611 Norfolk’s son, Thomas Howard, first Earl of Suffolk, sold the mansion to Thomas Sutton, building Audley End in Essex with the proceeds. Sutton used much of his wealth to endow a charitable foundation to educate boys and care for elderly men, known as ‘Brothers’.  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, was a pupil at the school in Charterhouse as was William Makepeace Thackeray, in the early nineteenth century. The school was moved to Godalming, Surrey, in 1872, when Robert Baden-Powell was a pupil.

Brothers  have included soldier of fortune, musician and composer Captain Tobias Hume, literary figures from William Thomas Moncrieff to prolific dramatist John Morton Maddison, best remembered for ‘Box and Cox’ and more recently writer Simon Raven.

Between 1872 and 1933, Merchant Taylors’ School occupied the site to the east. This area later became The Medical College of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and is now occupied by Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London.

Since James I became one of the first Governors of the Charity, the Charterhouse has always enjoyed Royal Governors, except during the Interregnum when Governors who were unwilling to support the parliamentary cause were replaced (and Cromwell himself was appointed to the governing body).  Today Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales are all Royal Governors.  Other prominent governors have included: John Donne, Thomas Lord Fairfax, Lord Cromwell, Robert Walpole, William Pitt, Robert Peel, the Duke of Wellington, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, Stanley Baldwin, the Marquess of Salisbury and Sir William Rees-Mogg.