By Oliver Bennett
A tour around the Charterhouse is not a raucous affair. As a building where retired monastic ‘brothers’ live in serenity, questions are kept to the end and guests are invited not to take photos of the residents. “You have to remember that it is a living institution,” says Charterhouse tour guide, Jiff. In a way this adds to the special atmosphere at Charterhouse, which in 2017 opened to the public for the first time, with a new museum and access to the splendid series of old quadrangles and historic rooms of the old monastery and Tudor mansion. Over 40 brothers live here now – and for a few years they have included women – and their peace in later life should not be disrupted.
Opening up the Charterhouse was a sound commercial idea as its tours are very popular. Some of the visitors are keen historians, others are lured by the fact it starred in the Downton Abbey TV series – now a blockbuster film – and as a location for other films and programmes including Taboo with Tom Hardy, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society, the series Pennyworth and the forthcoming film Misbehaviour.
The advent of Crossrail, which is to have an entrance at the eastern end of Smithfield Market, is likely to increase the traffic further. Thereby hangs a tale, as many skeletons were found during Crossrail’s excavations – including one that can be seen here, killed by the Black Death. Like everything at the Charterhouse, it’s part of a three-dimensional history lesson. It became a Carthusian monastery after the Black Death, then became a perk bequeathed by Henry VIII to his nobles after the brutal Dissolution of the Monasteries. Later, in 1611, Thomas Sutton established it as an almshouse and school to house 80 brothers and 40 students – their early graffiti can still be seen. Marks of its importance are everywhere in EC1 from the nearby Sutton Arms to White Conduit Street near Angel, named after the white-robed monks. Charterhouse School survived here until 1872. It’s now in Surrey.
While there is no evidence of them making Chartreuse, the sickly green liquor for which the Carthusians were famous, the Charterhouse has other important things to be proud of – it claims to be where the ‘throw in’ and the offside rule was invented – a result of the hazards of playing footie in a cloister. “In 1881 the Old Carthusians were the first club to win the FA cup,” said Jiff. “And they’re responsible for one of the more controversial rules of the game”.
As part of its opening up, the Charterhouse has a Community and Partnerships Programme, extending the philanthropic work of Thomas Sutton, whose motto ‘Deo Dante Dedi’ means ‘God having given, I gave’. With local schools and community action, the institution is keen to reach out and share its history, its glorious spaces, and especially its tranquillity with audiences across the borough.
The Charterhouse Christmas Fair is 11am–8pm on Tuesday 12 November, and is going to be formally opened by the Mayor of Islington
Guided tours £15 per person,
Brothers’ Tours £20 per person