Band of brothers

A new Lon­don mu­seum has an in­trigu­ing past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - FIONA GRUBER

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

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