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Charterhouse Museum in Barbican

Home > London > Exhibitions | Free | Historic Houses
by Nicole J (subscribe)
Small tummy, big appetite.
Published November 5th 2017
A museum built on the site of an old plague burial ground
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The main courtyard at Charterhouse. View of the outside of the Great Hall. Photo: Nicole James

I am rediscovering old haunts having returned recently to London. After yet another enjoyable lunch at the St John Bar and Restaurant, I wandered towards Charterhouse Square as I remember an old plague burial ground in that direction. I chanced upon the newly opened Charterhouse Museum.

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Charterhouse Museum entrance. If you look carefully at the right-hand side of the photo, a squint can be seen above the three-arched window. Historians know from studying old churches that a squint was a window where the monk assigned to live and keep an eye on the monastery's valuables in the treasure room, could 'squint' out over the church's altar during Mass. Photo: Nicole James

The museum itself is free and gives a summarised history of the building and lives of various inhabitants. One exhibit showed a fascinating account of a day in the life of a fag in Victorian England.

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Typical day of a schoolboy in Victorian London. Photo: Nicole James

To gain access to the full collection of impressive buildings and get a thorough explanation of the importance of the house through various periods in England's history, I joined one of the guided tours.

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Charterhouse Gardens and the Brothers' residence in the background. I went on the regular history tour. There is a separate tour to view the gardens, which from the photos on the website look very pretty. Photo: Nicole James

Charterhouse started life as an emergency burial pit for victims of the 1348 Black Plague, which killed one in every two Londoners. Walter Manny, a soldier in the army of King Edward III, built a church on the site of the mass grave, where people could pray for the souls of the over 50,000 bodies buried beneath.

Who would have thought emergency burial pits for bubonic plague victims, opened up on land immediately west of The City, would become zone 1 Central London and exorbitantly expensive.

In 1371, the site became a Carthusian monastery. The guide pointed out the medieval architecture and thick Romanesque stonework as we walked down the long corridor past the monk's cloisters.

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The Carthusian monks were hermits who spent many hours in their cloisters at prayer. Top left photo: To the left of the door is a hatch used to pass food through to the monk's private room. Top right photo: There is a hatch near the bottom right of the door that historians have not yet figured out the use for. Our guide speculated it might be for dirty plates or chamber pots. The set up was to ensure minimal disturbance to the monk. Photo: Nicole James

During the Tudor era, Thomas More spent some time at the monastery before becoming Lord High Chancellor of England. Our guide told us about the dissolution of the Carthusian monastery during the reformation and the 18 monks who became martyrs because they refused to accept the Act of Supremacy, recognising King Henry VIII as head of the church in England.

After disbanding the monastery, Henry VIII seized it and housed musicians from Venice in the various rooms. He later sold the land to Sir Edward North in 1545, who turned the decaying buildings into a grand mansion. North built the Great Hall and Great Chamber. The monks' chapter house was kept and became the chapel.

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The Great Hall of Charterhouse, built by Sir Edward North. It has a massive fireplace in it and is now used as a dining room for Brother residents. Famous people to have visited Charterhouse and likely sat in front of the huge fire include Elizabeth I, James I and Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was executed for plotting with Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I. Photo: Nicole James

After viewing the chapel, we passed through several courtyards to the back of the buildings where the gardens and infirmary are. The buildings are striking examples of architecture through the centuries.

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Different styles of architecture at Charterhouse. On each photo there is red Tudor brickwork on the left and medieval stones on the right. Photo: Nicole James

In 1564 Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk purchased the house with the aim of converting it into London's grandest house. He added a formal garden, a bowling alley and a real tennis court.

The Howard family sold the house to Thomas Sutton in 1611. He was the wealthiest commoner in England having made his money from a successful property portfolio and entering the business of usury, which became legal in England in the 1570s. He had no legitimate children and left his fortune to charity. His money was used to turn Charterhouse into a hospital for the poor, provide 40 places for poor boys to be schooled and to provide a retirement home for single or widowed men over 50-years of age who had fallen on hard times.

The school grew larger until it had 260 boys, before relocating to another part of England. However, the almshouse for 'Brothers' (from 2017, single women are also allowed to apply for placement) remains on site, as does the infirmary which provides care until the end of the residents' days.

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I spy with my little eye... Close inspection of the brickwork reveals the letters 'IH' and possibly a J at the end. There are several theories as to the meaning of these 'hidden' letters that are discussed during the tour. Photo: Nicole James

Sutton's fortune has sustained the charity since 1611. The charity faced challenges in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and while there is enough money to house and care for the 60 Brothers and some scholarships issued by the school, there is not enough money to fund the upkeep of the buildings themselves. Hence we all have the opportunity to go on an informative tour of this living part of English history.

The Charterhouse is a 3-minute walk from Barbican tube station. Click here for directions. If you are feeling peckish after the tour, Le Cafe du Marche is just around the corner at 22 Charterhouse Square.

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Washhouse Court, so called because the washing area was located here. It is still used as a laundry today. Photo: Nicole James

To book a tour led by a historian or one of the Brothers themselves, click here. Allow 1.5-2 hours for the one-hour guided walk through the various buildings, as well as extra time at the end to explore the free museum.

The recent Crossrail construction unearthed some Black Death victims, and one of the skeletons is on display in the museum. Examination of the bones concluded this was an 18-25-year-old man who perished from bubonic plague, had terrible teeth and moved from the East of the UK to London around age five. I didn't take a photo of the skeleton as it seemed disrespectful, plus it is intriguing to see it in the flesh so to speak.
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Why? See the remains of a plague victim and learn how Charterhouse evolved from a monastery in medieval times, to a private house during the Reformation, a school and almshouse in the Victorian era.
When: Tuesday to Sunday 11am - 5pm, with last admission at 4.45pm. Tour time vary. Please see the website for full details.
Phone: 020 3818 8873
Where: EC1M 6AN
Cost: Museum (free), Standard Tour (10), Brother-led Tour (15)
Your Comment
Not often you get to visit places like this for gree. It looks like an interesting place.
by Bastion Harrison (score: 4|12626) 1696 days ago
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