Above and below, behind the Charterhouse walls
Published: 6 February, 2017
by JOE COOPER
TUCKED away near the Barbican, Smithfield Market and the trendy shops of Clerkenwell is a living piece of history, little known to Londoners, let alone tourists.
For hundreds of years life inside the Charterhouse, a historic complex of buildings dating back to the 14th century, has remained largely secret to everyone except 40 Brothers who live behind its walls.
But on Friday, the Charterhouse opened its doors to the public permanently for the first time in 400 years. A new museum and the chapel now welcome visitors six days a week.
In many ways, the history of the Charterhouse is that of the nation in microcosm.
James Spellane, who works there, said: “This really is one of the most important sites in medieval London. There are layers and layers of history under your feet.”
The site was first used as an enormous burial ground for victims of the black death in 1348 – up to 55,000 Londoners are said to be buried there.
James Spellane: ‘layers and layers of history’
In 1371, a Carthusian monastery was built to pray for the souls of the dead. It closed in 1537 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The prior, John Houghton, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn for refusing to recognise Henry as head of the Church of England, and his arm was nailed to the church door.
For several years afterwards it was used as a Tudor mansion. Elizabeth I met the Privy Council there in the days before her coronation in 1559 and James I used the Great Chamber to create 130 new barons before he was crowned.
It was in 1611 that Thomas Sutton bought the Charterhouse and established the foundation that bears its name today.
The almshouses provided for 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 or other calamity”. Its school is now based in Surrey. Author William Makepeace Thackeray, founder of Methodism John Wesley and the man behind the Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell, were pupils.
Today, the almshouses, surrounded by gardens and cobbled courtyards, are home to 40 Brothers; women have recently been allowed to apply for places.
The current master of the Brothers, Charlie Hobson, is soon to be replaced by a woman. Anyone applying must be over 60, single, and in genuine need of housing.
The principal historic buildings of the Charterhouse were severely damaged during the Blitz. They were restored in the 1950s to expose more of the medieval architecture that had been obscured by newer buildings.
The new museum, created in partnership with the Museum of London, is free to enter and takes the visitor backwards through time, starting with the lives of the Brothers today.
The Brothers also do their own tours three times a week, taking in the Great Hall, the Great Chamber and the outdoor courtyards with their mulberry trees and lawns. A café is due to open later this month.
Alastair Davidson: ‘It is a marvellous place’
WHILE the ascetic Brothers of 600 years ago would rise at 3am to pray, the modern-day Brother leads a life no different from an elderly member of your family.
Alastair Davidson, 88, has been at the Charterhouse for more than 10 years after living a full life in the theatre.
Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, he came to study at Rada in the 1950s. He later became a stage manager and toured with Orson Welles. He was deputy stage manager for the original production of Oliver!, and later worked at the theatre department of the British Council.
An actor friend had lived in Charterhouse, and once Mr Davidson’s partner passed away, he applied to join and was accepted in 2006.
“It is a marvellous place,” he said. He has his own apartment and is served four meals a day. “We are so well looked after here. The food is a little too good!” he said.
Living in a community is a key tenet of life at the Charterhouse, but the Brothers very much have their own lives. Attendance at daily church services used to be compulsory, but now religious observance is not a necessity. At 88, he isn’t able to lead any guided tours, but still sorts the post daily.
“We have talks on concerts put on here, but I am out once or twice a week at the theatre, a concert or the cinema.”
As for letting visitors in, Mr Davidson said: “There’s been a big rush as it’s only been a few days since it started. I’m sure it will settle down soon. I don’t think it will make much difference. We will get used to it.
“The charity needs to have some more income.”