The Coventry Charterhouse:
A History
Interior wall painting North End of The Charterhouse Coach house


T he Charterhouse of St Anne, founded in 1381, is a Grade 1 listed building of National and International importance. Situated within half a mile of Coventry's City Centre, it is surrounded by green space: an urban oasis.


The rear of the Abbot's house T he Charterhouse and its precinct wall is all that is left above ground of a former Carthusian monastery founded with help of Richard II in 1381. Richard considered himself to be a founder member and laid the foundation stone for the church in 1385. It was one of nine founded at different times throughout England and Scotland. In England there were Witham and Hinton (Somerset), Beauvale (Derbys), Axholme (Lincs),Mount Grace and Hull (Yorks), London, Coventry, and Sheen (London). In Scotland a single house was founded at Perth. Coventry's Charterhouse is today both a Scheduled Monument and a Listed Building.

The Carthusian order had its base at the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, France and spread all over Europe during the medieval period. However, the monks by choice lived very austere lives under a strict rule which was very closely followed. They were thus the only order of monks which was never reformed, since it never needed reform.

Coventry's Charterhouse owed its beginnings to the visionary efforts of one monk, Robert Palmer, who single-handedly began work on the site with no financial backing or landowner permissions. Its community followed over some years, monks seconded here from London living here from 1381. The King's patronage in 1385 gave it the lift it needed and other local gentry followed quickly, although the ownership of the land on which it stood (and with it special rights to the monks' attentions and prayers) was disputed for many years after.

Between 1385 and 1539 the Coventry community grew steadily, gained much local support and was granted lands and incomes in fourteen counties. They made additions to their buildings, produced celebrated manuscripts there and maintained a school on the site for 12 poor boys aged 7-17, giving them an education and fitting them for religious ministry.

In 1980-81 a row of three monks' cells on the eastern side of the cloister was excavated by archaeologists. The monks lived in cells, probably with two floors as in other Carthusian monasteries. In 1980-81 a row of three monks' cells on the eastern side of the cloister was excavated by archaeologists, and can still be seen, in the grounds. Some idea of the way the cells would have looked can be obtained from a reconstruction at Mount Grace priory in Yorkshire

In 1984-7 by further excavation of the church, north-east of the current building. The finds from the excavations are deposited in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.


The Standing Building

The exisitng buildings T he remaining Charterhouse building has been much altered since it was built. It was first completed in the early 15th century on the authority of a painted inscription in the building. This mentions that William Soland was Prior when it was finished (1411-17).

The rooms of today's Charterhouse are more numerous than originally. The building once contained the monks' dining hall which stretched over two (later) floors, and the Prior's lodgings with guest reception.

The dining hall (or refectory) was a large room created for the monks to eat together. Most meals were eaten alone in their own private cell, each a separate detached house with its own private walled garden, arranged around three sides of the main cloister (behind the current building). Meals were taken together to celebrate special occasions, but even then these were in silence, with great spiritual focus. Two huge dining hall windows looked into the cloister for privacy and their filled-in arched scars can still be seen on the rear wall of the building.


Paintings on the First Floor

Portion of cricifiction painting O n the first floor is a poignant reminder of the former dining hall. Here stands a wall painting of the Crucifixion of Christ - but only the lower portion survives, truncated by an added wall and the inserted ceiling and floor of the later second storey.

Winged angels flit around Christ's bleeding feet and legs, collecting his blood in chalices in a direct allusion to the Christian belief in Holy Communion and the sharing of wine in remembrance of his death and sacrifice and his words at the Last Supper. St John the Evangelist stands nearby, holding the book of his Gospel, while a 15th century knight in full armour represents the centurion in charge of the crucifixion, popularly known as Longinus. His words at the cross, awed by Christ's words and the events unfolding around his grisly duty, are in Latin, in a cartoon-like speech-bubble, saying 'Surely this was the Son of God'. Longinus' standard bearer stands behind him flying a pennant; tantalisingly the three rings it bears are the arms of the Langleys, whose ownership of the Charterhouse land was confirmed in 1417. The centurion may be deliberately shown as John Langley, who died only months after this successful transaction. The inscription below the painting dates it to the headship of Prior William Soland (1411 - 1417), and mentions another monk, Thomas Lambard, as instrumental in its completion. It also makes allusion to the difficulties and wrangling which construction entailed:

"This house has been finished, the accustomed praise to Christ, helpful to men... Prior Soland had a hard labour indeed; Thomas Lambard was procurator, putting away deceits..."

Elsewhere in the painting, a large seated figure is that of St Anne, Christ's earthly grandmother. On her lap is a child with an open book, bearing the words 'Lord, open my lips (to speak)'. This is all that remains of the Virgin Mary depicted as a child. St Anne is commonly depicted teaching her daughter Mary to read. Although Coventry Charterhouse was nominally dedicated to St Anne, early on it was for a while known as St Anne's and St Mary's. The latter may have been dropped as it perhaps caused some annoyance to the Benedictines in Coventry, whose much older Cathedral Church was also St Mary's.

The creation of the second floor of the Charterhouse, probably in the decades soon after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539) involved the destruction of the top half of the painting, although assorted painted stone blocks have been re-used elsewhere in the building. It is an unfinished jigsaw, working out where they may have come from and what each piece shows. A doorway was also pushed through the centre portion of the painting, with a coat of arms over-painted above it.

Also on the first floor is a florid painting wholly in black and white which contains figures, fantastical beasts, horns of plenty with foliage and architecture in the latest Renaissance styles, and dates perhaps to the 1570s, possibly when Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester owned the building. Although it has been damaged by water, the painting was formerly protected by panelling which had once been placed over it. The motto within it encourages the onlooker to know his or her Bible. A former cabinet has damaged the middle of the painting. The painting dates to a period just after the second storey was added and respects the ceiling of that storey above.


The Second Floor

Portion of second floor painting in subdued colour  smaller painting on the second floor continues the theme of plenty and verdant growth. Here the monochrome is dispensed with for full (albeit restrained) colours. Vines and fruits mingle with gourds and exotic-looking flowers in a painting which is said to betray a 16th-century Italian influence. The religious theme is continued, long after the monks had gone, in the words of encouragement it bears 'Love and fear God'.

In the corridor along the top floor is a piece of worked timber put in when the second storey was created, perhaps in the 1570s. It is however, much older and began life as the doorway of one of the monks' cells. Dating therefore as early as 1381, it is arguably one of the earliest pieces of surviving timber in Coventry. It can be identified by the gothic letter 'i' above the centre. Each monk in a Charterhouse had his cell known by a letter of the alphabet. From documents we know that Cell I, the 9th letter of the alphabet, was paid for by Sir Nigel Loryng, one of the original Knights of the Garter. He was advised by Robert Braybrook, Bishop of London who at the time was also Chancellor of England. Cell 9 was the westernmost of cell on the south side of the cloister (facing today's Bluecoat's School).

A fireplace on the second floor contains what is the most poignant item from the Carthusian church. Its lintel is formed from a single block of sandstone, with its arch crudely carved out of one long edge. However, carved into the face of the stone is a configuration of small crosses which mark the wounds of Christ: two in His hands, two in His feet, and one in His side. On the basis of its immense size alone, this was probably the high altar of the church, ripped out in a very pointed act of desecration at The Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. A similar, portable altar made of polished Purbeck Marble was excavated in the Church in 1986 (now in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum).


The Dissolution of the Charterhouse (January 1539)

The alter re-used for fireplace mantel T he Dissolution saw the last of some seven generations of Charterhouse monks packed off with little ceremony and just the contents of their cell. Some were allowed to apply to become clerics in the emerging Church of England, although there must have been many applicants for few vacancies (since some 800 monasteries of all orders were closed down). All were given small pensions for their good behaviour, and some can be traced in documents for a decade or more in Coventry. The last Prior, John Bochard, a man who largely gave in to the King's wishes when it mattered, was given a communion cup and a considerable pension. He died in London a few years later where he had become a vicar.

The buildings themselves were quickly plundered for all they were worth. Stone was sold, timber too, all for re-use. Lead was melted down and carted away, 55 tons of it. What was not needed was simply left on site to moulder in a rubble heap which was picked over for a hundred years. At the start, to ensure that the designated officials got all the benefit, security guards were posted to patrol the place; all the locals wanted whatever they could get. With all of Coventry's seven monastic houses dissolved (Benedictines, Carmelites and Franciscans in the city, Cistercians at Combe and Stoneleigh, Hospitallers at Fletchamstead, and Carthusians at Charterhouse) the City was being plunged into difficult economic times for generations to come, with its principal market for local commerce shut down overnight. Land-ownership too became the stuff of nightmares as ancient monastic estates were broken up and sold on by and to land speculators.


An 18th Century Nursery

Alabaster statues D uring the 18th century, the Charterhouse was home to a notable local horticulturalist, John Whittingham, whose diary, spanning the years 1745-91, survives in Coventry's records. He was working for the Inge family who owned the Charterhouse at the time. His diary records the daily weather and what he was planting and where. Among other things he was deft enough to raise orange trees for sale to Warwick Castle, while his diary also records other disparate things such as national events such as 'The French have taken Guadeloupe and a fleet has been dispatched'. He added personal touches such as a recipe for making ink. The death of his wife merits one line. His son Charles continued after him at Charterhouse but in 1803 sold up and became a seed merchant. John Whittingham's daughter Elizabeth is said to have dug up two medieval alabaster statues in the gardens which depict St Lawrence and St Denis.

During the excavations over the church in 1984-7, archaeologists recorded the planting trenches which were tangible evidence of the former nursery.


A Genteel Home

A home for the wealthy T hroughout the 19th century the Charterhouse was occupied by a succession of relatively well- off individuals and around 1851 the house which stands in front of the main block was built. The occasion led to numerous drawings being made of the buildings by Coventry's artist Nathaniel Troughton. They show the workmen uncovering architecture which is clearly part of the former monastery. The last private owner of the house, Col William Wyley, was an industrialist in the pharmaceuticals trade who was influential in Coventry. On his death in 1941 he left the Charterhouse to the people of Coventry.