Tag Archives: Charterhouse

The intensification of the Black Death in London (Robert of Avesbury, 1349)

victims-of-the-black-death-as-depicted-in-the-toggenburg-bible-of-1411.jpgIn 1349, Robert of Avesbury wrote:

“The pestilence which had first broken out in the land occupied by the Saracens became so much stronger that, sparing no dominion, it visited with the scourge of sudden death the various parts of all the kingdoms … .  [I]t began in England in Dorsetshire … in the year of the Lord 1348, and immediately advancing from place to place it attacked men without warning … .  Very many of those who were attacked in the morning it carried out of human affairs before noon.  And no one whom it willed to die did it permit to live longer than three or four days.  …  And about the Feast of All Saints [November 1st, 1348], reaching London, it deprived many of their life daily, and increased to so great an extent that from the feast of the Purification [February 2nd, 1349] till after Easter [April 12th, 1349] there were more than two hundred bodies of those who had died buried daily in the cemetery which had been then recently made near Smithfield, besides the bodies which were in other graveyards … .  The grace of the Holy Spirit finally intervening, …  about the feast of Whitsunday [May 31st, 1349], it ceased at London … ”.

There were emergency burial sites, or “plague pits”, at East Smithfield, in the grounds of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371.

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The Charterhouse site,  which only came to light during  work preparatory to the ongoing construction of the “Crossrail” station at Farringdon, has recently been partially archaeologically excavated.  A small number of skeletons have been unearthed here that have been dated to the time of the Black Death, and indeed  that still contain traces of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis.  Many thousands more are thought to lie buried here still.  Archaeologists and epidemiologists suspect that so many deaths in evidently such a short space of time must have been caused a particularly contagious and virulent pneumonic or septicaemic strain of the plague, and not  by the bubonic strain (the pneumonic and septicaemic strains are capable of being transmitted directly from infected person to person, and are characterised by mortality rates of 90-100%, whereas  the vector-borne bubonic strain is transmitted by rat flea from infected black or brown rat to person, and is characterised by mortality rates of approximately 50%).  Another argument against the Black Death having been bubonic plague is that it began to spike  in London in the winter of 1348-9, when the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) that transmits this strain of the disease would have been inactive, as it is  everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC.

 

The Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-40)

Priory of St John

The   Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-40 essentially resulted in the appropriation by the Crown  of all the monastic houses in England, Wales and Ireland, of which there were several hundred, and of all of their assets (monastic houses in Scotland were annexed by the Scottish King, James VI, in 1587).    The smaller  houses, with incomes of less than £200 per year, as evaluated by the Valor Ecclestiacus, were dissolved  under The Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries of 1536; the larger  ones, by The Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries of 1539.   After the Dissolution, the assets of the monastic houses were disbursed, under the auspices of Henry’s  Vicar-General and Vice-Gerent in Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, and his Court of Augmentations.   In London, the change in land ownership and usage is evident in the marked contrast between the map of 1520, from before the event, and the  “Copper Plate” one of 1556-8, the “Agas” one of 1561-70, and the Braun and Hogenberg one of  1572 (*), from after the event.  Many of the former monastic properties evidently became parish churches, hospitals, orphanages or schools, or combinations thereof, or play-houses, while others passed into private ownership.    Of the  former monks, nuns and priors, of whom there were several hundred city-wide, and several thousand country-wide, most went to work in the newly created parish churches, although a still substantial number were forced to seek out entirely new ways of life (**).  All were at least  offered more or less generous pensions, although none of their servants was.

(*) The Braun & Hogenberg map was published in 1572, but still shows “old” St Paul’s with the  spire it lost in a lightning strike in 1561.

(**) Lest we forget, between 1535-40, the Prior (John Houghton) and six Carthusian monks from the London Charterhouse, two Priors from other Charterhouses, a Bridgettine monk from Syon Abbey, and a secular priest were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, for refusing to take an oath acknowledging the king as the head  of the church, most of them at Tyburn.  And in 1537, a further nine monks from the London Charterhouse died, or rather were allowed to die, of starvation, in gaol at Newgate.

The London Charterhouse

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The new museum in the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square in London officially opens to the public as of today, and – good news –  admission is free.  Guided tours of the site are also available, although a charge is payable for these.

The original Charterhouse, or “Chartrouse”, a Carthusian monastery, was built  in 1371 by Sir Walter (de) Manny, “a stranger born, lord of the town of Manny, in the diocese of Cambray, beyond the seas,  who for service done to  Edward III was made Knight of the Garter” (Stow).  In fact, the site was first consecrated as a burial ground for victims of the “Black Death” in 1348-9 (again as Stow put it, “A great pestilence … overspread all England, so wasting the people that scarce the tenth person of all sorts was left alive, and churchyards were not sufficient to receive the dead, but men were forced to choose out certain fields for burial”). 

During the Reformation, between 1535-40, the Prior, John Houghton and six  Carthusian monks from the London Charterhouse were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, for refusing to take an oath acknowledging the king as the head  of the church, most of them at Tyburn.  And in 1537, a further nine  monks died, or rather were allowed to die, of starvation, in gaol at Newgate.

After the associated Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site became a private residence, originally owned by Sir Edward North, the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, from 1545; and then a charitable alms-house and school founded by a bequest by Thomas  Sutton, the one-time Master of the Ordnance in the Northern Parts and the richest man in England, from 1611  (the school relocated to Godalming in Surrey in 1872). 

Remarkably, much still survives here from the Medieval to post-Medieval, Tudor to Stuart period, either in its original state, or restored thereto by Seely and Paget following damage sustained during an incendiary bombing raid in 1941.

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Perhaps the most notable buildings, fragments of buildings or fitments are Sutton’s memorial in what is now the Chapel, but was once the Chapter House, dating to 1614;

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North’s Great Hall, dating at least in part to the 1540s;

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his Great Chamber, also dating at least in part to the 1540s, and one of the finest in all England, where Queen Elizabeth I more than once held court, at great cost to her host;

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Wash-House Court, dating back to the early 1530s, in the case of the brick buildings, and to an even  earlier part of the monastic period, in the case of the stone ones;

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and the doorway to “Cell B”, in the Norfolk Cloister, complete with  its guichet or serving hatch, dating all the way back to the time of the original foundation of the monastery in 1371.

A Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) monograph describes in detail the findings of recent archaeological excavations at the Charterhouse site.  Another describes, among other things, the burials from the  “Black Death” burial ground that only came to light during excavations at the associated “Crossrail” development site in 2015.

 

The Black Death (Robert of Avesbury, 1349)

Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London, this one written by the Lambeth Palace clerk Robert of Avesbury in 1349 …

Victims of the Black Death, as depicted in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411“The pestilence which had first broken out in the land occupied by the Saracens became so much stronger that, sparing no dominion, it visited with the scourge of sudden death the various parts of all the kingdoms … .  [I]t began in England in Dorsetshire … , and immediately advancing from place to place it attacked men without warning … .  Very many of those who were attacked in the morning it carried out of human affairs before noon.  And no one whom it willed to die did it permit to live longer than three or four days.  …  And …  reaching London, it deprived many of their life daily, and increased to so great an extent that from the feast of the Purification [February 2nd, 1349] till after Easter [April 12th, 1349] there were more than two hundred bodies of those who had died buried daily in the cemetery which had been then recently made near Smithfield, besides the bodies which were in other graveyards … .  The grace of the Holy Spirit finally intervening, …  about the feast of Whitsunday [May 31st, 1349], it ceased at London … ”.

Victims of the Black Death, as depicted in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411

Victims of the Black Death, as depicted in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411

There were emergency burial sites, or “plague pits”, at East Smithfield, in the grounds of the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Graces, and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian Monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371.

A Black Death skeleton being analysed by an osteoarchaeologist, CharterhouseThe Charterhouse site,  which only came to light during  work preparatory to the ongoing construction of the “Crossrail” station at Farringdon, has recently been partially archaeologically excavated.  A small number of skeletons have been unearthed here that have been dated to the time of the Black Death, and indeed  that still contain traces of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis.  Many thousands more are thought to lie buried here still.  Archaeologists and epidemiologists suspect that so many deaths in evidently such a short space of time must have been caused a particularly contagious and virulent pneumonic or septicaemic strain of the plague, and not  by the bubonic strain (the pneumonic and septicaemic strains are capable of being transmitted directly from infected person to person, and are characterised by mortality rates of 90-100%, whereas  the vector-borne bubonic strain is transmitted by rat flea from infected black or brown rat to person, and is characterised by mortality rates of approximately 50%).  Another argument against the Black Death having been bubonic plague is that it began to spike  in London in the winter of 1348-9, when the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) that transmits this strain of the disease would have been inactive, as it is  everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC.

A Black Death skeleton being analysed by an osteoarchaeologist, Charterhouse

A Black Death skeleton being analysed by an osteoarchaeologist, Charterhouse