‘Who can tell me about Britain’s bloody religious history?’
The Times, 7 January 2017
A former medieval monastery in London where Thomas More studied for four years is opening to the public for the first time. Simon Tait writes
Clerkenwell was the bustling heart of medieval London. Outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers, it was a place of entertainment known for its brothels, taverns and “houses of unlawful and disorderly resort”. It had three prisons as well as plague pits, and a well around which parish clerks performed mystery plays, near where farmers came to sell their livestock at Smithfield.
In its midst stood the convent of one of the strictest orders in an age of monasticism, the Carthusians of Charterhouse, whose reclusive occupants were respectfully left to their devotions in peace. “All around was bustle and trade and power positives,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, “while inside the Charterhouse you were standing challenge to that way of being human”.
This tranquil spot is the point at which the Middle Ages ended, over which two of the most powerful intellects of the age, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, battled for – as they saw it – the souls of the English, a battle that ended with the moral authority being wrested from the church of Rome by the state of Henry VIII.
The Charterhouse monastery was built in Edward III’s reign and was later a school and almshouse. On January 27 it will open to the public for the first time with tours and a museum created by the Museum of London telling how, after Cromwell’s victory over More graphically detailed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the expulsion of the Carthusians, it was a stately home and a court for two monarchs.
“The opening of the Charterhouse will be a great opportunity to reconsider particular themes, such as the Suppression story, and the huge sweeping change that occurred to London from 1536,” said Roy Stephenson, head of archaeological collections at the museum, which plans to move to Smithfield in 2021. “Approximately a third of the land in the City, and that immediately surrounding, changed hands and vital social support was terminated swiftly for the urban disposed. When the Museum of London becomes part of West Smithfield in the middle of a monastic landscape, with the Charterhouse to the East, St Johns and St Marys Clerkenwell to the North, and Barts to the South, we hope to be better placed to tell that story.”
The Charterhouse was first home to a handful of hermits known for their poverty, austerity and scholarship. In 1084 a German monk, St Bruno, established a closed silent order on a desolate rocky plateau called Chartreuse, above Grenoble. In Latin it became Cartusia, in English Charterhouse, and though the monks devoted themselves to a life of isolation, a chain of charterhouses grew across Europe until by 1200 there were 37.
The London Charterhouse was built on the Smithfield plague pit, consecrated in March 1371 with a prior and six monks. It was established against widespread objections, not least from London’s many other monastic houses that were competing for patronage, and from the meat sellers of Smithfield who were being deprived of 13 acres of valuable grazing land.
The monks’ guiding precept was isolated ascetism. They spent most of their time alone in “hermitages” consisting of a bedroom, an oratory and a study. There were 24 such cells by the start of the 16th century, partly paid for by wealthy patrons, set around a large cloister garden, a place for silent communion with nature. Eating was a necessary evil, a potential source of corruption; their one meal of the day, at about 10am, was bread and water, occasionally vegetables and perhaps cheese on Thursdays, and fish on Sundays. Lay brothers passed the monks’ food through a grill, one of which survives.
The brothers went to bed at 7pm and were woken for prayer at 11. At midnight they met in the chapel for up to three hours of matins, lauds and the offices of the dead, returning to bed until rising again at 5am for high mass and then retiring once more for study before vespers at 2.45pm. They wore undyed woollen habits with large cowls hiding their faces; on Sunday afternoons they processed together outside the precincts, when they were permitted to talk to each other.
“They kept their standards which was really difficult to do in a religious community,” says Professor McCulloch. “The tendency is always to make life a bit easier, to rub along more comfortably. The Carthusians, by a simple structural device of making their community a collection of hermits, avoided that. They lived most of their lives in solitary fashion, to grow their own food or have it delivered in a totally impersonal way through those grills, and otherwise they met or worshipped for formal business in the chapter house (which survives as part of the present chapel) or the vanished medieval chapel”.
The powerful were wistful for the hermits’ holiness, lavishing endowments on them and often seeking their advice. “There is a powerful Carthusian literature addressed to the powerful,” says Professor McCulloch, “a sort of medieval safety device giving them a sense of perspective”.
And so it was for Thomas More who lived among the Carthusians for four years as a student, and contemplated becoming a brother before an aversion to celibacy – he feared he would have been “an impure priest” says his biographer Peter Ackroyd – led him to the law instead. In the library More could read, as well as the classics, Thomas à Kempis on simplicity and purity.
“More was a man who was stoically torn between two worlds, whether to go forward and be the glittering statesman he was or disappear into this world of self-denial,” says Prof McCulloch. “He couldn’t hack it and yet it always drew him back, and in the end that denying of worldly power was what brought him to the scaffold”.
The Charterhouse prior, John Houghton, refused to sign Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, bringing down on his community the full wrath of More’s immediate successor as Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. In May, 1535, Houghton was taken out to Tyburn and hanged, drawn and quartered. Sixteen of the monks were either executed or starved to death in prison. From his own cell in the Tower More was able to see Houghton and two other Carthusian priors being dragged to Tyburn on hurdles. “Look, Meg,” he said to his daughter. “These blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage”. More was beheaded two months later.
At the 1538 Dissolution the building’s stones were used to create a Tudor mansion with a great chamber in which Queen Elizabeth held her first court in 1558, as did James I in 1603. In 1611 it was bought by a merchant, Thomas Sutton. As well as founding a school for impecunious scholars there, who in the cloister created the rudiments of the rules of football (the school moved to Surrey in 1872), he turned Charterhouse into an almshouse or, as John Aubrey described it in 1657, “an old neate, fresh solitarie Colledge for decaied Gent.”
And so it remains, with about 40 secular brothers – there is no religious requirement now – subsisting on Sutton’s generous endowment. It was not, however, designed to cope with the expensive 21st century upkeep of a group of Grade I listed buildings, and Charterhouse needs to establish a new fund.
There has always been a chaplain, known as the Preacher, who today is the Rev Robin Isherwood. The Act of Supremacy, he says, was cataclysmic for a world where the church was the final arbiter, where what happened after death was more important than what occurred in life. “In their eyes the church was the divinely ordained authority pushed aside in favour of someone who eventually believed in the divine right of kings,” he says.
Charterhouse and the Museum of London hope the extraordinary story will bring 35,000 visitors a year. Combined with the museum, admission to which will be free, the paid-for tours will fill in gaps left by the lost medieval fabric. “Combining notions of what More and the Carthusians did,” says Mr Isherwood, “will bring it alive for them”.