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Hidden Life of Charterhouse
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Sacred mysteries

By Christopher Howse
The Telegraph, 13 May 2006
 

 

Hidden life of Charterhouse

Surprise is the first emotion that strikes the fortunate visitor to the Charterhouse, on the edge of the City of London, for here, wedged between the traffic fumes of Clerkenwell Road and the bloody pavements of Smithfield meat market, stands a cluster of quadrangles like those of a medieval Oxford college, with hall and chapel, tranquil behind its walls and trees.

The ancient buildings are lovely, but there is an air of sadness about the place. The original monastery, dedicated to the "Salutation" (that is to say, the Annunciation of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary), was built in the 14th century as a monastery for the ascetic Carthusians.

These contemplative monks lived an astonishingly hard life, practically as hermits, each in his tiny house off the cloister, with a garden behind to dig. (A functioning Charterhouse continues today at Parkminster in West Sussex.)

The Carthusians, along with the Observant Franciscans of Greenwich and the Bridgettines at Syon, Middlesex, were a spiritual powerhouse for the nation's capital. Befriended by kings when things were going well, they became the first victims of Henry VIII when he fell out with church authorities.

At the Charterhouse, the quadrangle today called Wash-house Court was built of medieval stonework and completed with a range of brick. The diapering of the brickwork picks out the initials JH, those of John Houghton, the prior from 1531 to 1535. In the latter year, he refused to swear an oath recognising Henry VIII as supreme head of the church, and he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on May 4.

One of his arms was nailed to the door of the Charterhouse, but this did not dissuade 15 of his brother Carthusians from holding out. Five died on the scaffold and the other 10 were starved to death in Newgate prison.

Even after the Charterhouse was re-endowed in 1611 by the legacy of Thomas Sutton, the landowner and money-lender, to give lodging to poor old men and education to boys, the uncomfortable memory remained that the buildings had once been inhabited by better men.

When the future novelist Thackeray arrived at the school in 1821, aged 10, he found it dominated by flogging and fagging. He said he was "abused into sulkiness" and "bullied into despair", and later depicted the school under the name Slaughterhouse. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this among the public schools of the time and Charterhouse School changed completely with its move to Godalming in 1872.

The remaining foundation of Sutton's Hospital, smashed and burnt in part by the Blitz, still looks after 40 old men and does it very well, what with the expense of compliance with health and safety rules and the modern expectations of extended medical care for old people. But, in the middle of the 20th century, something happened that addressed the discomfort of its historical inheritance.

Geoffrey Curtis (1902-81) was a member of the Anglican religious Community of the Resurrection, at Mirfield in West Yorkshire. In 1938, he edited a contemporary account of the martyrdom of the Carthusians and began to campaign for a memorial plaque to them at the London Charterhouse.

He hoped to transform an atmosphere that "chills so mortally the relations between the established church and the church of Rome in England". Deaths, war and finances delayed his ambition, but he persevered until, in 1958, in the open air at the site of the high altar of the former priory church, a plaque was set up.

"Remember before God," it says, "the monks and lay-brothers of the Carthusian house of the Salutation who worshipped at this altar and for conscience sake endured torment and death."

And now, the 25th anniversary of Geoffrey Curtis's death, a neat plaque to his memory has been fixed on the wall of the ante-chapel of the Charterhouse. A requiem Eucharist was sung and the Archbishop of Canterbury, himself once a lecturer at Mirfield, sent a message calling Curtis "a servant of the unity of God's Church and a man whose prayerful quiet gave him a true insight into the Carthusian martyrs, whose witness he chronicled".

Charterhouse is a microcosm of England: historic, battered, torn by ideologies, modest and beautiful. The scandal of Christian disunity cannot be addressed without awareness of its historical roots. The initiative at the Charterhouse to honour the work begun by Geoffrey Curtis is a generous and brave one.

Reprinted with permission of Telegraph Media Group Limited
Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2007.

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