The London Charterhouse: Murder, Plague and Martyrdom
In 1181, the Carthusian Order came to England on account of murder. King Henry II had ordered the death of Thomas Becket. In reparation the King founded the first English Charterhouse at Witham in Somerset.
Two centuries later the Carthusians came to London on account of plague. They came to pray for the victims of the Black Death that was then ravaging the land. The monks also came to help bury the bodies of the dead; London alone had 50,000 bodies to bury. The wealthy landowner, Walter Manny, had devised a scheme. In 1371, on land allocated just outside the City of London a monastery was to be opened to help with the burial of the plague victims and, perhaps more importantly, to pray for the souls of those so interred there. And so, in 1378, a Papal Bull established the London Charterhouse.
Almost two centuries after that, at the start of the 16th century, a young man was living close by the London Charterhouse. His name was Thomas More. For four years, the young More shared the vigils, fasts and prayers of London’s Charterhouse. His vocation lay elsewhere though; he was called to live an exemplary life in the world. Little did he, or indeed the Carthusian monks, know that his death and some of the brethren from London's Charterhouse would come later at the same time and in similar circumstances.
In 1534, the Carthusian monasteries, like all the religious houses of England, were in a quandary. They had to make a choice. King Henry VIII had broken with Rome to ease his conscience over leaving his lawful wife, Queen Catherine, for Anne Boleyn. The king expected all in his realm to accept this proposed new dispensation in regard to the future royal line, especially the religious houses. Sadly, many quickly acquiesced to this Royal wish. Many wondered what the monks of Charterhouse would do?
On May 4, 1534, the Royal Commissioners arrived at the London Charterhouse. They carried a document that contained an Oath that they expected the monks to take. The document nullified the King’s legitimate marriage and substituted Anne Boleyn and her issue as rightful Royal heirs. The monks rebuffed the visitors, asking to be left in peace. This the Royal Commissioners would not do. Eventually, the monks took the Oath having been assured that it was still a matter of politics as opposed to one of faith. Things did not rest there, however.
A year later a different oath was presented. This one substituted not one queen for another but Henry VIII rather than the pope as ‘Supreme Head of the Church in England.’ To refuse to acknowledge this was now a treasonable offence. The Prior, John Houghton, and the community retired to pray on the matter. To begin, the each monk made a general Confession. Next Houghton, kneeling before each of the brethren asked pardon for his shortcomings. Then the Mass of the Holy Ghost was celebrated. At the moment of the Consecration, there came a gust of wind, or a heavenly sound. No one was quite sure what it was, but when later it was discussed all were sure they had heard it. Indeed, thereafter, on hearing that sound in the chapel, for a time, the congregation had noted that the celebrant was unable to continue with the Mass.
Later in Chapter, Houghton spoke of the gratitude that he felt at what had just passed in the chapel. Those gathered noted the prayer of the Prior was changed: no longer seeking what to do, instead it had become a prayer of trust, and resignation. More intensely then before, the Prior was now heard praying for the monks of London’s Charterhouse: ‘Holy Father keep them Thou hast given me in Thy Name.’
After this, all was clear. From then on, the London Charterhouse stood by the faith of the Church, and the Petrine office that was central to it. Soon after, as expected, Houghton was led off to imprisonment at the Tower of London. A sham trial followed in Westminster Hall. On May 4, 1535, from their imprisonment in the Tower, Houghton and two other Carthusian Priors from English Charterhouses were led from the Tower to their deaths. Watching them go was the young man, now much older, who had lived alongside the order for four years. As he observed their last earthly procession, Thomas More’s daughter, Meg was to hear her father remark: “Do you not see that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?”
Later that morning, still dressed in their white monastic habits, at the foot of the gallows, the chance of an official pardon was offered to and refused by all three monks. Instead Houghton embraced his executioner. Mounting the scaffold, he looked out upon the sea of faces come to watch, pausing, he turned and spoke, “Being about to die I declare that I have refused to comply with the will of His Majesty the King, not from obstinacy, malice or a rebellious spirit, but solely for fear of offending the Supreme Majesty of God.” Thereafter, while still wearing his hair shirt, Houghton was taken and hanged; cut down alive; his body was drawn and quartered, as those who looked on heard him utter the Holy Name of Jesus.
Afterward, Houghton’s arm was severed from his body. Subsequently, the King’s men nailed the limb to the arch at the entrance to Charterhouse. This was an attempt to terrorize the remaining monks into submission. Some of the monks were weakened; eventually, some did submit to the King’s wishes. On May 29, 1537, however, from the London Charterhouse, in silent procession another 10 Carthusian monks and lay brothers were led off to the nearby Newgate Prison.
At Newgate the monks were chained so that they could not feed themselves or each other. In their case there was to be no pretense of a trial; they were left to die. Hearing of this, a Catholic woman, named Margaret Clement, Thomas More’s foster daughter, bribed a jailer to give her access to the monks. Then, disguised as a milkmaid, Margaret fed the men as best she could with what she little she had. It was not enough though. In the end, all the Carthusian monks so incarcerated starved to death.
In the end, a total of 16 monks from London’s Charterhouse were martyred.
And with that, and after 167 years, the Charterhouse of London was no more.
For centuries the buildings of the London Charterhouse remained standing. Silent monuments to a life and to a witness long since banished from this city’s memory. Over the years the site of the monastery and what was left of its structure went through a number of incarnations: first as a hospital, then a school, before becoming a hostel. During the Blitz in 1940, what was left of the former monastery buildings was extensively destroyed. However, after the war, this damage allowed archaeologists to examine the original remains of the Charterhouse, now once more unearthed. While so doing, below the former High Altar, the archaeologists discovered a grave and a coffin. It was found to belong to Walter Manny. When opened, beside his skeleton, there lying still intact was the Papal Bull of 1378.
Margaret Clement, like so many Catholics, rather than compromise her faith went into exile. Eventually, she settled at Malines in the Netherlands. By 1570, she lay dying. On July 6, the anniversary of her foster father’s martyrdom, she started to motion to those about her, indicating that her time had come. Asked how she could know such a thing, Margaret replied that there present, standing all around her sick bed, were the monks of Charterhouse — the same monks who had been imprisoned at Newgate and, long ago, for whom she had risked her life.
And, now, these white robed figures did bid her come…