Admission to the Charterhouse is free; open from 11am daily except Mondays, with last admissions at 4.45pm. Closest rail stations are Barbican and Farringdon. More: thecharterhouse.org.
He points to a walkway above the screen. “That’s the Minstrels’ Gallery and the school choir sings Latin masses up there during Founders’ dinners,” he explains. Those singing schoolboys, whom Sutton also provided for, are part of Charterhouse School, which outgrew its poor-scholar status to become one of England’s major public schools. It relocated to larger premises in 1872.
A list of old boys includes Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell and the author of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, who hated the school and immortalised it in fiction as “Slaughterhouse”. The tour continues to the magnificent Great Chamber, where Queen Elizabeth I spent four days before her coronation plotting and where her heir, King James I, held his first court.
Then it’s time for a walk along the musty vaulted cloisters, where it feels closest to the doomed monks. A few of their cells still remain and as the Carthusian Order was a silent and often solitary one, food was passed through a hole next to the cell door. The monks could talk to each other if it was really important; in 1534 they started to discuss the dangerous question of whether King Henry VIII could declare himself head of the Church, rather than the Pope. Half decided he couldn’t, including the Prior, who was hanged, drawn and quartered.
This is very much the stuff of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; Charterhouse was one of hundreds of religious houses that fell victim to the Dissolution of the monasteries and Cromwell, a quiet hero in Mantel’s novel, was a total villain to those in holy orders.
It’s the end of the tour and we’re urged to visit the museum, to discover more about the daily lives of monks, schoolboys, noblemen, governors and brothers. I spy a large glass case containing a skeleton, one of thousands excavated from the plague pit. It’s a sombre reminder of the uncertainty of life and that you can’t take anything with you when your time comes. That timeless peace described by Powell seems even more appealing; maybe it’s time to join the brotherhood.