The spiritual life of medieval Londoners

As we mark 650 years since the Charterhouse was founded here by Sir Walter de Manny, here James Spellane looks at the religious and spiritual context for the establishment of this significant Carthusian monastery.

The Charterhouse was a prominent place in medieval London – a major landmark on the way into the city from the north and not far outside one of the entrances to the city, Aldersgate. By 1392, when the building of the Charterhouse’s Great Cloister was underway, the monastery’s precinct had an area more than twice that of the city’s cathedral, St Paul’s. These religious places were important to medieval Londoners.

The doctrine of purgatory was precisely defined in the thirteenth century. This belief specified that the prayers of the living were beneficial to the dead, and the effect of the power of prayer can be seen in the lives of commoners and nobility alike. Sir Walter Manny founded a plague burial ground with a chapel to ensure prayers were said for the victims of plague. He intended to enlarge this foundation to include a college of priests providing increased prayer-power. He was instead encouraged to found a Charterhouse by the Bishop of London, who had recently been to Paris and seen its Charterhouse. Apparently they wanted to ensure London could keep up with its European neighbours in prestige.

Medieval Londoners had their own ways of ensuring passage through purgatory. Indulgences – rewards given for piety and good deeds – were popular. Good deeds included making charitable donations and going on pilgrimage. By the 14th century men like Chaucer’s Pardoner were abusing the system and selling indulgences unrestricted, without the need for good deeds.

As well as indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, people left money in their wills and bequests to have prayers said for them. Commoners could leave a small sum for a candle to burn at the church altar, or in the chapel of a particular saint who would intercede for them.

The scale of bequests was greater in the upper reaches of the social scale. Those with more money to leave in a bequest frequently did so, with the chivalrous class of the 14th century particularly interested in founding colleges of priests to say prayers for their souls. The monasteries were also popular with will-makers, but none more so than the Charterhouses. London and Sheen attracted about three quarters of all wealthy Londoners’ bequests to monasteries between the 1480s and the dissolution.

Sir Robert Rede made such a bequest: in 1518 he paid for a chapel dedicated to St Catherine at the London Charterhouse, and for a priest to say prayers for his soul there. A piece of a statue of St Catherine is in the Charterhouse collection today (see image right). It was discovered during the restoration of the Charterhouse after the Blitz of 1941, hacked to pieces and reused as masonry for the Tudor mansion that replaced the monastic buildings.

The fragment of St Catherine is the only piece of medieval statuary that survived the dissolution of the monastery, and reminds us of the importance of the London Charterhouse to medieval Londoners, who were deeply concerned with the fate of their souls in the afterlife.

Sources: Keen, English Society in the Later Middle Ages; MOLA, Religion in Medieval London; Heale, Monasticism in late medieval England

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