The Charterhouse

Sutton's Hospital

Chapter 2 : History

In 1346-8 the Black Death swept through Europe, killing somewhere between one-third and one-half of the population. The epidemic was so brutal, and so swift that it was impossible to bury the victims individually. Thousands of the dead were thrown into mass graves, and one of these was under that part of London now called Charterhouse Square, near to the old Priory of St Bartholomew. The burial ground was given by Sir Walter de Mauny, who also caused a small chapel to be built.

After the plague had subsided, the traumatised survivors sought both to make sense of the tragedy, and to do their best for the souls of the many departed. At the time, the Catholic Church taught that after death, individual souls were likely to spend time in purgatory, expiating sins for which they had not atoned during their life. Eventually, they would emerge and join the company of saints in heaven. Prayers or other ‘good works’ from the living could help these souls, shortening the time they had to spend in torment.

In the late fourteenth century there was a flurry of foundations of priories, chantries and churches to pray for the plague victims, and perhaps to encourage God not to visit such a curse on humanity again.

Sir Walter de Mauny was one of those who wished to use some of the wealth that he had accumulated through his success in Edward III’s French wars, for the founding of a Carthusian monastery, near the aforementioned plague burial ground.

The Carthusians were first established at Chartreux in France, in 1084, under the guidance of St Bruno, and the communities in which they lived became known in English as Charterhouses, an adaptation of the word Chartreux. Unlike other communities, which tended to live communally, Carthusians were almost hermits, spending the vast majority of their time in individual small houses, arranged around a cloister, following their Statutes as codified by the fifth Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, Guigues.

De Mauny had some difficulty in obtaining legal title to the site he had in mind, and it was not until 1371 that he received the Papal Bull confirming the establishment of the monastery. He died in January 1372, before the building works were complete. He was buried in front of the altar in the Priory Church following a grand funeral attended by Edward III and his sons.

Work on the Priory continued, with cells for twenty-four monks being built. In 1431, two Londoners, William Symes and Anne Tatersale, paid for the construction of a piped water supply and latrine system that served the individual cells. Symes also contributed other funds and eventually joined the order himself.

Although the fifteenth century saw a decline in the numbers of men and women entering monastic life, the Charterhouse continued to flourish. It remained an example of monastic life maintained in accordance with its founding principles – unlike many other orders where standards slipped over time.

It was to this order that Thomas More was drawn in the late 1490s and he spent some time living on the edge of the community – it appears that the monastery rented space to guests, presumably to provide some income.

Prior William Tynbygh headed the London community from 1500 to 1529. In that year, there were twenty-five monks, twenty-three priests, three other brothers, thirteen lay-brothers, the Prior and the Procurator. By 1535, seven of the monks, including Prior John Houghton, had been dragged to Tyburn and hanged, drawn and quartered for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy (the oath acknowledging Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church). Another nine died in prison. The remainder swore the oath and surrendered the house to the King in June 1537.

They remained until November 1538 when the monastery was dissolved and they were granted small pensions.

The buildings were used for storage of the royal tents and pavilions, until 1545 when the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, Sir Edward North, was granted them. The Court of Augmentations had been set up to deal with the land and treasure that came into Henry’s hands from the dissolved monasteries. All of the officials did extremely well financially.

North tore down the cloisters and the church, but incorporated the remainder into his new, and rather beautiful mansion.

North fell from favour in 1553 when he supported Lady Jane Grey against Mary, and the property was confiscated. Soon after, however, he ingratiated himself with the Queen and the house was restored to him. He was still in residence in 1558 when, on the death of Mary, the new queen, Elizabeth stayed at the Charterhouse for four days whilst she determined the mood of the City of London, before entering it.

In 1565, the North family sold the house to the Queen’s cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk.  Re-named Howard House, it became Norfolk’s primary London home and he spent lavishly on it – the screen in the Great Hall, the extension of the Great Chamber and the construction of tennis courts were all part of his bid for glory.

Norfolk, however, made another bid for glory, which ended spectacularly badly. He involved himself in a plot to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, and neglected to inform Elizabeth of his ambitions. When the Queen discovered the plan, Norfolk was sentenced to house arrest, and then a swift journey to the Tower where he was parted from his head.

The house was inherited by Norfolk’s son, Philip, Earl of Arundel, who let it to the Portuguese Embassy. It became a popular haunt for Catholic plotters. Arundel, like his father, was accused of plotting with Mary, Queen of Scots, and was also sent to the Tower, where he remained in prison for the rest of his life.

The property was confiscated from Arundel and returned to Crown ownership. By the end of Elizabeth’s life, she relented towards the Howards and restored the house to Thomas Howard, Philip’s half-brother. He was created Earl of Suffolk by James VI & I. Whilst he undertook some works at Howard House, he preferred to spend his money on his great project at Audley End, Suffolk. He sold Howard House to Thomas Sutton in 1611 for the eye-watering sum of £13,000.

Sutton was reputed to be the richest man in England, who was not of noble birth. He was one of the first men to build a fortune through ownership of coal-fields in County Durham. Sutton had no legitimate children, so he planned to dedicate his fortune to charitable works.

The former Howard House was to be dedicated as a school and almshouse, to be known as King James’ Hospital in Charterhouse. It remained the largest charitable foundation in England well into the nineteenth century. Although Sutton died not long after the purchase, he left detailed instructions in his will, and appointed the first Warden, John Hutton.

Sutton’s legal heir, his nephew, Simon Baxter, contested his will, but his claims were rejected, and by 1614, the first eighty-five inmates, known as Brothers, were installed along with a school for forty boys. These pioneering scholars were called ‘gown-boys’.

The Brothers had to be over fifty, of good character and religion, and in need of financial support. Former servants of the King, retired sailors and soldiers or merchants who had lost their fortunes were favoured. The boys were similarly to be of poor backgrounds, although additional fee-paying scholars were also allowed.

The foundation flourished, and the school had many famous alumni, until the great furore that blew up in the 1850s and 1860s about charitable foundations generally. Dickens criticised them furiously, and many felt that the monies originally intended for expenditure on charity were being misappropriated. (For a wonderful fictional depiction of the issue, read Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Warden’ about just such an almshouse.)

Whilst Sutton’s foundation and the school were reported on favourably by the Charities Commission, it was decided that the school should be moved to Guildford in Surrey, where it remains – although not extensively populated by poor boys!

The Merchant Taylors’ school purchased the old school buildings and demolished part of them. They in turn sold in 1933 to the Bart’s Hospital Medical School.

As with many foundations that were supported by agricultural rents, the great depression of the 1870s significantly reduced the income available to support the Brothers. Numbers were reduced.

The buildings were devastated during the Blitz, when a bomb hit the chapel roof on the night of 10th May 1941. The buildings were more or less gutted, with the exception of the west end of the Great Hall and Great Chamber, and Washhouse Court.

Restoration took place in the 1940s and 1950s, and, as the financial status of the foundation has improved again, the number of brothers has increased. In September 2016 the first woman pensioner will be joining the community.