Band of brothers
A new London museum has an intriguing past
When I arrive at the Charterhouse, I have English novelist Anthony Powell’s description of it buzzing in my head: “I went under an arch … it was like moving into the fourth dimension, several centuries back in time, everything round about completely still, like a dream.”
So here I am in a leafy square on the edge of the City of London, expecting an experience that’s a bit Doctor Who, a bit Wolf Hall. What I’m looking at is a mix of medieval and Tudor buildings, courtyards and lush gardens, continuously lived in by a charitable foundation since the 17th century. In its 650 years, it’s also been a nobleman’s mansion and played host to royal intrigue and plotting.
The “brothers” who live here walk across cobbles that cover a 14th-century plague pit; these stones were once part of a Carthusian monastery founded in 1371 and destroyed by Henry VIII and his henchman Thomas Cromwell. Heady stuff. It’s been a very private place, but this changed in January when it swept open its gates after a £4.2 million ($7.1 million) injection of lottery funding.
The “Revealing the Charterhouse” project includes a museum, a study area and daily guided tours. So here we are, a group of about 20 history enthusiasts, clustered around Brothers Phillip and Brian. They dispel one misconception immediately; “brother” is a courtesy title; they’re not in holy orders and while some choose to worship in the fine Jacobean chapel, there’s no compulsion today to do so. The qualifications for residency are oldfashioned and straightforward — you have to be more than 60, single and with no major assets.
Back in the 17th century the charity’s wealthy founder, Thomas Sutton, who also set up a school here, envisaged providing charity for old soldiers, broken-down sea captains and down-on-their-luck merchants. These days the students have moved elsewhere and many of the residents are writers, artists and musicians. And while all of the 43 brothers are men, they are just about to admit women and recently appointed the first female master.
The Brothers start the tour in the chapel. There’s the effigy of Sutton, once the richest man in England, lying on his ornate monument, said to be the finest of its kind in the realm; he made his money from coal, army ordnance and property, and when he founded Sutton’s Hospital in 1614, cannily persuaded both the reigning monarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury to be among its first governors. Every sovereign since has been on the board.
The tour takes us to the Great Hall, a Tudor chamber with an intricately carved wooden screen put in by the Duke of Norfolk in 1571. He indulged in improvements while under house arrest for plotting to marry Mary Queen of Scots but was executed the same year. It’s now a dining room. “This is our cafeteria,” explains Brother Brian, with mock insouciance, sweeping an arm across the lofty hammerbeam ceiling and elaborate fireplace bearing Sutton’s coat of arms.
London’s Charterhouse, left; portrait of founder Thomas Sutton, above; ceiling detail, below