Charterhouse & Great St Bart’s: City sanctuaries

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Carthusian cloister at the Charterhouse, partly 1371 by Henry Yevele

In November the Courtauld group informally known as the “Tomb Raiders” visited the Charterhouse (http://www.thecharterhouse.org/) and St Bartholomew the Great (http://greatstbarts.com/), two Smithfield priory foundations with ancient and architecturally-complicated histories.

Established in Smithfield in 1371 as a Carthusian priory, the Charterhouse today is an almshouse for around 40 single men over the age of sixty, and our visit was kindly guided by one of the newest brothers (an American from Chicago) who genially warned us that as he was still on probation, we had to behave.
We assembled on the grass where the priory church once stood, giving us time to inspect the still-visible remnants of the altar, a modern memorial to the members of the community martyred following the Dissolution, and a squint in the exterior wall absorbed into the Jacobean chapel, where we began the tour.  Carved wooden greyhounds, the motto ‘Deo Dante Dedi’ (‘because God has given, I give’) and an elaborate polychromed monument (featuring chubby infant Vanitas blowing golden pipe bubbles, and a relief of the Brothers in chapel) commemorate Thomas Sutton who founded the almshouse and school (thriving today in Surrey) in 1611.

Jacobean Great Hall at Charterhouse

Jacobean Great Hall at Charterhouse

The priory’s cloister, with simple arches of austere stripped brick, preserves a narrow 14th c. cell door and serving hatches through which the monks’ meals were handed.  The Brothers today dine in the Great Hall, an airy space with a gallery running around two sides  beneath the hammerbeams.  An ornate 17th c. chimneypiece decorated with (more greyhounds and) carved cannons and powder kegs alludes to Sutton’s post as Master of Ordance in the north, and a 16th c. wooden screen at one end is a remnant from the Duke of Norfolk’s short-lived use of the property as his London residence.

Ascending a wooden staircase (which replaced the 17th c. original destroyed in the Blitz) we admired the plastered ceiling and Flemish tapestries depicting Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and tried to work out where in the Great Chamber Queen Elizabeth I and James I and VI would have sat.  Next we crowded three at a time into the tiny muniments room where archivist Stephen Porter showed us, among other treasures, a crumbling but beautifully-carved late 15th c. stone figure of St Catherine with much original polychromy and gilding still intact, removed from the innards of their central courtyard wall.

Having survived everything between Henry VIII and the Blitz, Charterhouse is one of London’s best-preserved buildings – and secrets.  We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it was wonderful to be in the centre of London and yet enjoy such silent stillness.

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View from the triforium gallery of St. Bartholomew the Great towards the tomb of Prior Rahere

Just around the corner and down Cloth Fair, we visited Great St Bart’s, always a treat but particularly so as James had obtained special permission to go upstairs into the clerestory.  After signing the obligatory health & safety disclaimers, we squeezed up a tight and twisty stair into the open clerestory.  It was exciting, after sitting through many church services staring up at Prior Bolton’s oriel window wondering what was behind it, to finally inhabit the space.  We had a wonderful aerial view of the darkening church and the chance to scrutinize fragments of stone ornament littering the floor.

A thorough and illuminating explanation by James Alexander Cameron (armed with Pevsner) of the innumerable architectural campaigns rounded out the church visit, ended by the arrival of a rehearsal wedding party, plus florists.

By Emily Pegues

Architectural fragments in triforium gallery

Architectural fragments in triforium gallery

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