Nestled in the busy heart of London, surrounded by a litany of tall glass skyscrapers and opaque stone buildings is an oasis of silence steeped in over 600 years of history: The London Charterhouse.
If you’re visiting London, or you live here and just need a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle of city life, the charterhouse is worth a visit, and has plenty to offer the whole family.
The Charterhouse from Charterhouse Square, which is also home to Le Cafe du Marche, a lovely (though pricey) French bistro which offers a fixed menu and live jazz music in the evenings.
The Charterhouse Square park is a serene place to sit down with a book or enjoy a coffee, and is completely open to the public. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people were buried here during the black death that plagued London in the 14th century.
A Brief History of the London Charterhouse
The London charterhouse is a large historical complex that has undergone reinvention after reinvention since the site was originally used as a burial ground during the black plague.
A monastery was built on the site of the old graveyard by Carthusian monks, an austere monastic order that would spend 6 days of the week in utter isolation and silence, who lived there until Henry VIII disbanded all monasteries during a brutal crackdown on religious orders in 1537.
The site was then rebuilt in the 1540s as one of the grandest Tudor homes in London. In 1611, the property was purchased by Thomas Sutton, an extremely wealthy self-made businessman known as “the wealthiest commoner in England” who established a school and an almshouse for the elderly in the Charterhouse in a bid for heavenly absolution (my tour guide’s words).
The grave of Thomas Sutton, founder of the most recent iteration of the Charterhouse, including the Almshouse and Charterhouse School, located in the chapel. While Thomas Sutton died the very year he founded the charterhouse, his legacy has lived on through the trust he organised to carry out his wishes, which still runs the affairs of the charterhouse to this day.
Both the school and almshouse are fully operational today, although the school has been moved to another location outside of London, the almshouse is still fully operational, and its occupants (even female ones) are known as brothers and live on the premises.
Things to Know to Plan Your Visit
How to get there
The Charterhouse is located at Charterhouse Square, and is centrally located and very easy to get to by public transport. It’s close by to both Farringdon train station, which is connected to the National Rail Thameslink train line, as well as the TFL Elizabeth train line as well as the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines as well.
It is also five minutes walk from the Barbican tube station which is likewise served by the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines. Public buses 4, 56 and 153 stop in front of the Barbican station which is a 5 minute walk from the site.
There are 4 regular parking garages within a 15 minute walk of the Charterhouse: Smithfield, Barbican, London Wall and the Barbican centre. This is all paid, and I would generally recommend arriving via public transport if possible.
Disabled parking is available onsite as well but you need to give them a ring to book it. If you need to phone the Charterhouse, you can reach reception at: 020 818 8873.
If you’re arriving by bike there are a number of secure and well monitored locking stations so you can be assured that your wheels are safe and secure during your visit.
The Charterhouse complex is open from 11:00 am until 4:30 pm from Tuesday to Saturday. Even if you haven’t booked a tour of the place, you can still access the charterhouse museum which gives you a good sense of the history of the place.
Kids might also be somewhat interested to see the unearthed skeleton of a victim of the black plague which lies at the end of the walk through. This won’t take much more than 15 minutes, so if you really want the full experience you will need to book one of the tours on offer, and you certainly won’t regret it.
Types of Tours at the Charterhouse
The Charterhouse Tour (£15 per person), which takes you on a tour of some of the highlights of the Tudor mansion and its opulent courtyards and will guide you on the history of this place from the era of the Black Plague all the way until the London Blitz.
The Charterhouse Family Tour (£10 per adult, and kids go completely free!) is a lovely little tour for younger historians, which covers the shenanigans of everyone from the sneaky schoolboys to the mischievous monks who have lived here, as well as some of the other wild history of this place. This tour comes in the form of a scavenger hunt to keep things extra interesting for the kids.
The Brother’s Tour, (£20 per person), is a tour led by one of the pensioners (older folks) living in the almshouse. No two of these tours are going to be the same! They’re led by a different member of the almshouse each time, and are very much an expression of their own personal experience of the Charterhouse.
Specialist tours are also available on specific days and are well worth it if you can schedule one. These include:
The Charterhouse by Candlelight Tour (£20, including a glass of wine or soft drink), this usually takes place on the last Friday of the month
The Garden Tour (£20), which showcases the stunning gardens of the Charterhouse and is led by one of the professional gardeners employed there.
The Historic Interiors Tour (£20) which showcases the charterhouse’s incredible collection of old Flemish tapestries which can’t be seen on any of the other tours.
The House and Garden Tour (£30), a longer format tour given on Wednesdays from 10:15 to 12:00 which combines the Historic Interiors Tour and the Gardens Tour.
The British Sign Language Tour (£15) for the deaf and hard of hearing which lasts an hour and a half and is followed by tea and coffee.
Guide dogs are welcome at The Charterhouse, and the public areas of the museum learning centre and coat check are completely accessible to wheelchair users, and people with mobility impairments.
Wheelchairs are also available on site if needed. The facility also offers baby changing stations and has dedicated resources to accommodate any visitors with special needs. That said the tours have some uneven ground and the odd staircase so be aware of that, and if you are concerned you can always phone the lovely staff and ask whether a specific tour can accommodate your given situation.
The Free Experience
Ever since discovering this place, I’ve tried to come back whenever I happen to be in the neighbourhood. Even if you can’t manage to book a tour, if you are in the neighborhood it is absolutely still worth stopping by to take in this serene place.
When biking around the city, if I’m ever in the area I always try to stop by Charterhouse Square for a quick moment of respite from all the noise and hubbub, either to read my book in the park square or just take 5 minutes of quiet in.
It’s a remarkable area, which stands in stark contrast to the city around it and the Charterhouse itself almost seems to emanate an ancient, calming vibe that subdues people and puts visitors into a contemplative mood.
The accessible parts of the charterhouse if you opt not to go on a tour are the museum and the chapel. The museum is not too large and provides a quick run through the main historical phases that the charterhouse has gone through to bring it to its present state today.
The museum houses a number of photographs, illuminating not only the lives of the thousands of residents that have lived here in the 600 years, but also the current Brothers housed by the almshouse.
Snippets from the current residents are put on display next to ancient historical artefacts, melding the past and the present in an amazing way that shows how the history of this incredible building and it’s residents is still being made with each passing day.
The exhibits also speak at length about what life was like for the many boys educated at Charterhouse school and names some of the more renowned amongst them. This list includes Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, Roger Williams, a preacher and the founder of the State of Rhode Island, John Wesley, the Preacher who founded the Methodist church and Henry Havelock, whose statue stands at Trafalgar Square.
While many of the treasures that were once part of the Charterhouse have migrated to the halls of museums and been sold to private collections to keep the organisation intact, the museum includes beautiful showcases of artefacts from all over the world, some dating back to the 13th century.
While not pictured out of respect for the dead, the museum also has the skeleton of one of the victims of bubonic plague on display, which was found by construction workers while they were excavating to make way for the nearby Elizabeth line tube station. A funerary room with candles lit commemorating those that died in the Black Death sits at the end of the exhibition.
In addition to the museum, unaccompanied visitors who aren’t part of a tour can also vist the Chapel which is open until 5 every day and hosts 2 services daily. This place also serves as the resting place for a number of London’s wealthy and notable characters.
The original door from when the chapel was in the care of the Carthusians is bolted to the wall, half burned after a fire engulfed the building in the late 1500s.
The doorway chapel which is full of plaques commemorating the various notable people whose stories have intersected with the Charterhouse over the last 6 centuries.
Gorgeous stained glass adorns most of the windows in the chapel, which still stands with much of the original stone from when it was first constructed in the 1340s. For a time, this building also served as the storage closet to house all of King Henry VIII’s hunting equipment.
Beautifully intricate woodworking is to be found throughout the building and the chapel’s wood screens and sconces are breathtaking examples of the prowess of Tudor era artisans. The pictured crest above is the Sutton coat of Arms, which in a strange twist of fate was inherited by The Charterhouse Board after Thomas Sutton’s death.
Since Sutton was a commoner, he had no claim to any coat of arms, but the year he died the aristocratic family of Sutton (no relation) died out as well in a complete coincidence. The coat of arms was adopted by the board and now adorns much of the Charterhouse.
The Tour Experience
I took the Charterhouse tour, which is one of the more basic offerings, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the hour and a half long walk through the hallowed halls of this esteemed building. The tour guide (mine was named Jiff) was an extremely knowledgeable, personable guy, and clearly had an abiding love for this place to top off his deep knowledge of British history.
The tour experience begins in the learning room, where your tour guide will give you a brief overview of the 7 ‘chapters’ of the charterhouse’s history starting before the plague and spanning all the way to the present day. I won’t spoil the whole thing but below are some highlights of the experience, which offers just a glimpse of what to expect when you visit.
The dining halls where the brothers who live at the almshouse are required to sup together 3 times a day to foster a sense of community, in accordance with the wishes Thomas Sutton laid out in his will in 1611.
Brothers who stay at the Almshouse are housed and fed completely free of charge. The charterhouse provides a home for people over the age of 60, who are single, capable of living independently but in financial and social need. The Almshouse places a great emphasis on fostering community, and brothers come from all walks of life. When residents grow old they are cared for on site in the infirmary.
The cloister. The grey stone on the left was laid in the 1300s, while the red stone was laid in the 1500s when it served as a hallway from the main house to the tennis courts for the Lord of the Manor.
In later years, after Sutton took over the place, the cloister (yes, literally this hallway) was used as a football pitch and The Charterhouse School team was actually at the inaugural meeting of the English football association (FA) in 1866, which first codified the rules of football. It is rumoured that the throw-in rule was included because Charterhouse’s cloister did not leave enough room for the ball to be kicked into the pitch.
The entry to one of the apartments which was lived in by the Carthusian monks. The Carthusians were an austere order of monks who dedicated their lives to silent contemplation of scripture. For 6 days a week excluding mass, they locked themselves away in their apartments and did not leave or speak to anyone.
Their meals would be silently delivered to them by servants via the porthole to the left of the door, and they would leave their bedpans to be cleaned in the one on the right. Each apartment was 3 stories tall and had its own personal garden. The monks lived comparatively luxurious lives to the rest of London’s non-aristocratic population, who were often starving or beset by plague.
This courtyard is surrounded by the apartments of the current brothers of the Almshouse. You can also see Jiff, our guide standing on the right. Great guy. This part of the tour is conducted in silence out of respect for the residents who live around the courtyard.
The dining hall entry. A working sundial sits perched behind the coat of arms of King James. The apartments surrounding this courtyard are lived in by the brothers housed by the Almshouse.
The crown jewels of the Charterhouse, which is the home to a bona fide throne room, one of only two true historical ‘throne rooms’ in England outside of official royal residences. Two monarchs have held court in the room pictured above, known as the Charterhouse’s great hall.
After the death of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth the First stayed at the charterhouse for 5 days while shoring up support for her bid for the crown. She held court here, and stayed in this room the night before her coronation.
Her successor, King James VI of Scotland, likewise came south to petition the powerful London gentry to support his bid for the crown, and knighted over 120 rich Londoners in this room over 4 days, who promptly repaid him in kind by making him King of England.
The original oil portraits of many of the Tudor elite hang in one room, the ceiling is adorned with the coat of arms and motto of one of the Charterhouse’s old masters. The room was almost completely destroyed during The Second World War, when a Nazi bomb came right through the roof, damaging much of the original construction.
The space was rebuilt from a shell, and an unbelievable original fireplace from the 1500s sits as a centrepiece, it has been meticulously restored (a grand total of 4 times, actually).
Hopefully this has provided you with just a taste of what to expect from the storied, resplendent and historically dense halls of London’s Charterhouse. More treasures await behind the locked doors and cloistered halls of this incredible building, not to mention its gardens, which are kept strictly for residents and any lucky visitors who manage to get a spot on the garden tour.
This place is truly a piece of history, and to step through each doorway is to be transported into a different century, inhabited by its own cast of strange characters and their various intrigues, tragedies and circumstances.
The Charterhouse is a rare and exceptional example of the physical archeological record of the city of London, and a place that makes you feel as though you are walking through the halls of time itself. At the same time it is an active charity, a home, and a hospital for the infirm and elderly.
Unlike most museums which have relegated their space to commemorating history as though it were locked in a glass case, the Charterhouse is still very much alive and makes you feel as though you too are part of its story. It’s a place that remains relevant, lived in and loved by those lucky enough to be touched by it.
I cannot recommend this place enough to any visitors in need of a distraction or a few moments of quiet serenity, and I can say with certainty that I’ll be going back for another taste of what this incredible space has to offer.