The word Charterhouse, meaning a Carthusian monastery, is derived from La Grande Chartreuse, the first hermitage of the Carthusian Order founded by Saint Bruno. There were ten Charterhouses in the Britain before the Reformation. The pious monks who lived in them worked, meditated and said daily offices in the solitude of their cells, encountering each other in church only for daily Matins and Vespers, and less often at the convent mass.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries brought an end to the Carthusian Order in Britain. Between 1536 and 1541, Henry VIII disbanded Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and reassigned or dismissed their former members and functions. Carthusians at the London Charterhouse who resisted the Dissolution were treated severely: the Prior, John Houghton, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, and of the ten monks that were arrested and taken to Newgate Prison, nine died of starvation.
In the centuries that followed, several Charterhouses were heavily adapted and used for a variety of purposes. The London Charterhouse, for instance, was purchased in 1545 by Sir Edward North and transformed into a luxurious mansion house. This was later acquired by a wealthy civil servant and businessman named Thomas Sutton, who bequeathed a large portion of his fortune to establishing on the site a hospital for 80 impoverished gentlemen and a school for 40 boys.
Each Charterhouse has its own unique history. I recently visited the one in Kingston Upon Hull, where I was treated to a fascinating tour of the buildings and grounds by Master Stephen Deas. He showed me, among other things, a plaque commemorating the two London Carthusians, Walworth and Rochester, whom Henry VIII caused to be lodged in the Hull Charterhouse on their way to execution at York; and the mulberry tree under which Andrew Marvell, the famous poet and MP, is said to have played when his father was the Master of the House.
From its foundation, the Hull Charterhouse enjoyed a separate endowment that enabled it to survive the Dissolution. Nevertheless, the structure of the hospital was significantly destroyed in the first siege of Hull during the English Civil War, when the Master and almspeople had to abandon the buildings and seek refuge in a tenement in Silver Street, on land that the Charterhouse has owned since the fifteenth century, and still owns to this day.
Master John Shawe began rebuilding the war-damaged buildings in the early 1650s. The chapel was rebuilt some twenty years later, and served the house for over a century when, in 1777, it was demolished by Master Bourne, along with the greater part of the seventeenth-century buildings.
Master Bourne enlarged the Master’s House, and rebuilt the rest of the House in the handsome classical style that you can see today.
Johnson removed certain incongruous fittings and replaced the lights he found hanging from eight points in the ceiling with three wooden chandeliers carved by Dick Reed of York. Each is embellished with an earl’s coronet to indicate the Founder’s rank in the peerage and from the foot of each hangs a small roundel containing a set of initials: HMD for Hugh Middlecott Davies, then Master; VM for Violet Mitchell, then lord Mayor of Kingston upon Hull and Admiral of the Humber; and RAS for Rupert Alec-Smith.
The chapel is at the hub and still centre of the Hull Charterhouse. Every Sunday the whole House gathers in it at ten in the morning for a celebration of Holy Communion, and there is also a celebration of the Holy Communion on Wednesdays at ten for those who wish to attend.
The Hull Charterhouse, like the London Charterhouse, is a flourishing institution that has adapted well to the modern world. There are now over 30 residents, both male and female (some are couples), all of whom are over the age of 60 and have a long relationship with the city of Hull. Unlike the Brothers of the London Charterhouse, they do not eat together for every meal; they live independently but have the support of a community as they desire, always keeping one foot in the Charterhouse and the other outside.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and learnt a great deal about the community that live there, and about the city of Hull as a whole. I’m extremely grateful to Stephen Deas, the Master, for showing me about the place, and to Ann Godden, a resident, who chatted to me at length about the history of the Hull Charterhouse and her experiences in the area.
The two Charterhouses, London and Hull, are different in many respects, but at their core they share many things in common, including a strong sense of community.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Hull Charterhouse, you can like their Facebook group, which Ann Godden regularly updates with artefacts and articles from their prodigious history.
(Written by Jack Sharp. All photos by Fiona Byrne).