Pride Month: Revealing LGBTQ+ history at the Charterhouse

From the days of the medieval monastery until 2017, when women were first admitted, the Charterhouse was a predominantly male community. Many of the Brothers who found a haven in the almshouse from the early 17th century onwards were men who had no family to look after them, and many were gay men.

A decade or so ago, there was a popular assumption that one third of the Brothers were straight (some widowed or separated), one third gay (also some widowed) and one third celibate. A demographic that was believed by most to be accurate. The majority of Brothers were white, male middle class professionals and there was reputedly a somewhat ‘camp’ atmosphere. Within the memory of the present Senior Brother, some of the Brothers gave each other girls’ names, “It was like the Vatican!” he says. ‘Lady Sneerwell’ was a particularly caustic Brother, who was rumoured to have been a double agent since his Cambridge days, before succumbing to an easy life as a country house pet.

There have been gay Governors too. Francis Bacon, Lord St Alban was a leading Jacobean intellectual who had originally opposed the establishment of the Charterhouse before becoming a Governor himself. Bacon reputedly liked Welsh serving-men, much to his mother’s disapproval, and had a type of sauna bath at his house of Gorhambury. His life-long romantic friendship with Sir Tobie Matthew, who he met as a member of Gray’s Inn, is the subject of his essay ‘Of Friendship’, a must-read for all gay men.

Later in the 17th century George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham installed his louche friend the author, poet and educator Martin Clifford as Master of the Charterhouse. Among his own many infamous affairs was rumoured to be one with the actor Edward Kynaston who was the last male actor to portray female roles on stage before the arrival of actresses in December 1660. Their friendship was the subject of the film Stage Beauty (2004) which had a cast that starred Rupert Everett as King Charles II.

After the Second World War, the bomb-damaged Charterhouse was restored by the architects Paul Paget and John Seely, Lord Mottistone, who had both a professional and personal partnership. Late in life and after Seely’s death, Paget married the independent Shakespeare scholar and author Verily Anderson in a ‘mariage blanc’.

By the 20th century, the Charterhouse was home to Brothers who were openly gay.  They include distinguished artist and stage designer Robert Medley whose partner had been the ground-breaking dancer and choreographer Rupert Doon, and the brilliant satirical novelist Simon Raven. As a condition of admittance as a Brother, Raven allegedly had to sign an agreement with the Governors never to write anything based on life at the Charterhouse.

For hundreds of years and until relatively recently, the Charterhouse held an almost unique position in British society by caring for many gay men when they were no longer able to care for themselves.

Written by Charles Duff

Reproduced from Issue 50, Summer 2024, of the Charterhouse Magazine (produced by residents of the Charterhouse and available via our shop)

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