Coventry Charterhouse

Text by Paul Jack, October 2013. Photos by Jane Hewitt.

Coventry Charterhouse

Charterhouse Coventry is amongst the cities historic treasures. Dating back to 1385 when King Richard II laid the foundation stone, the Grade I listed Charterhouse building can be found off London Road, Coventry near Charterhouse fields. In September 2013 we had the pleasure of a guided tour during Heritage Open Day, and this article is based upon recollections from that day. So if you spot any factual errors then please drop me a line!

The name Charterhouse is the English term for a Carthusian monastery. The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084, and the name of the order derives from the Chartreuse Mountains in the south of France.

Much still remains of this historic Coventry building. It was originally known as St Anne’s Charterhouse and was occupied by a dozen monks, their Prior and supporting manual labourers known as lay brethren. The Carthusian Order, we were told, was a silent order. They wore white gowns with white cowls, and sported hair shirts beneath. I recall reading somewhere years ago that the order slept on straw, and when they passed away were buried without coffins. When walking around the Charterhouse today the experience is both interesting from a historic viewpoint, as well as atmospheric.

You might imagine that the two storey wooden cells in which monks resided were cramped, but archaeological excavations found them to be comfortable with tiled floors and multiple rooms. Good job - they spent most of their time therein sleeping, praying, taking meals and writing. The wooden cells may have been lost to time and archaeology, but the stone Prior’s house and the refectory still remain today. The highlight of the choir monks' diet was eggs, once per week.

Obviously the building was a victim of Henry VIIIs Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, but before that the inner precinct of Coventry Charterhouse covered an area of 5.6 hectares and that plus the surrounding land provided the monks with accommodation, food and drink. Walking the grounds we could see plenty of room for growing crops as well as a stream, and we were told an area of the land was previously turned into a pond. Kings Henry VI, Henry VII and Richard II are all recorded as benefactors of St Anne’s Charterhouse prior to Henry VIII’s divorce trouble.

Fireplace with altar stone

Coventry Charterhouse fireplace.
Note the ancient altar stone above.

It was in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (or the Suppression of the Monasteries, if your prefer) that St Anne’s Charterhouse was broken up and the remains plundered and hawked off. The Earl of Leicester, a chap called Robert Dudley bought the Charterhouse remains and converted them into a private house. It was he that put in the second storey floor. During the tour we had an opportunity to peak into the loft area. Sadly the lighting was too poor and the footing too unstable for our photos to come out clearly.

During the 16th century the house was regularly visited by Queen Elizabeth and her entourage of courtiers. Walking along the ancient upstairs corridor it is easy to imagine what it must have been like during those times.

Some amazing traces of the early building have survived to present day, although ongoing preservation work appears to be required to preserve the Charterhouse for future generations. Even though we were treated to musical performances by neighbouring Blue Coat schoolchildren in the downstairs wood panelled rooms, (and a gorgeous cake sale next door), the highlight for me was a room still bearing half a mural of Christ.

Charterhouse mural

15th century mural of Christ on the Cross

I say half a mural because, we were told, the room used to be much taller prior to the ceiling having been added by Robert Dudley. That effectively cut the mural in two, with the downstairs scene clearly depicting the legs of Christ on the cross surrounded by angels and other characters including Longinus. It is really lovely. But the upper half of the mural is now lost, which is tragic. The downstairs room used to be the monks’ refectory, and you can imagine how it must have felt for the silent order of monks to meet and dine there whilst looking up at the original high ceiling and the amazing four metre medieval mural dominating the room.

The upstairs area was converted into a series of rooms. The old fireplaces still look impressive after all the centuries. The remains of upstairs wall paintings are thought to date back to the late 16th century and are apparently in the Renaissance style (I’ll have to take the tour guide’s word for that, artistic style not being my forte). Sadly you can see where chopping and changing the walls and doorways around over the centuries has not done any favours for preserving Charterhouse. The wall painting in one room shows mythical creatures and another shows exotic fruit. We were told that the fruit depicted were foreign fruits and hard to acquire in England in those times, but to be honest I mostly recall the painted native blackberries and raspberries. One of the timber beams in the upstairs corridor was said to be one of the oldest surviving pieces of timber on Coventry, part of a monk’s cell before being recycled when the second story of the house was put in.

The grounds of Charterhouse are suitably impressive for a high status building such as this. It was a chap called John Whittingham who kept a diary of his time working at Charterhouse as a horticulturalist in the 18th century while it was owned by the Inge family. We were told how they used to grow fruit crops in the Charterhouse gardens, with underground heating for the soil enabling lemon and orange trees to grow in our cold climate. The gardens today are scenic and nice to walk around; clearly effort is being made to keep them maintained.

Charterhouse was a home to the rich for many centuries, the last of which was Colonel Wyley, who made money from pharmaceuticals. In his will, industrialist Wyley left Charterhouse to us, the people of Coventry for use as a museum and / or arts centre when he passed in 1940.

Coventry Charterhouse

Although not mentioned during the tour, I do recall several years in my lifetime when Charterhouse was occupied by Coventry Technical College, which became City College Coventry. I believe Charterhouse was used as a venue for delivering adult education classes. Signs of 1990s occupation can be seen in contemporary signage etc. I also recall stories in local and national press about an attempt to sell off Charterhouse in 2011, but that seems to have reached a happy conclusion and it appears that Charterhouse may have a brighter future and one more in line with the wishes of Col. Wyley.

A charity called Charterhouse Coventry Preservation Trust is now looking after the Charterhouse Priory building and immediate grounds. Check out their website http://thecharterhouse.tumblr.com. I’m sure they would appreciate support and donations not only to preserve Charterhouse for future generations, but also to turn it into a jewel for Coventry folk to use and enjoy.

We would like to thank Jon from Coventry Charterhouse Association for getting in touch with some useful info to enhance this article. Take a look at the associaion website when you get the chance... www.CoventryCharterhouseAssociation.org.uk.

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