From the Black Death to Henry VIII’s break from Rome, a historic medieval refuge in the heart of London’s throbbing financial centre is destined for a new lease of life — by allowing women to move in.
Nestled between building sites in the City of London, Charterhouse’s grey stone is the abode of a few dozen men who have to be poor and aged over 60 to qualify.
But hundreds of years since the first stone was laid, a revolution is underway: Charterhouse is opening up to women and creating a museum open to the public.
“Not everyone is overjoyed,” Stephen McGhee, a former orchestra manager and one of the current “brothers”, told AFP during a visit to the complex.
“Some were happy, some not so happy. Whatever happens, it will have to be done very sensitively… and the newcomer will have to adapt to 42 men!”
After living abroad for more than two decades, first in Australia and then Thailand, McGhee said he wanted to return to London for his retirement.
“I had just enough money to buy a cupboard in a kitchen,” the 64-year-old said.
He searched online for a solution.
“I saw a picture, there was a vacancy for a brother. I thought: ‘it is a holy place and I am not holy!’
“I applied online, I had a formal interview, and I was accepted,” said McGhee, happy with his good fortune, after three-and-a-half years living within the community.
Plague and treason
Leaving the chaos of the City and crossing over the threshold into Charterhouse feels like entering a different world — a few centuries in the past.
Some of the darkest moments in British history were played out within its walls.
Charterhouse’s monastery was built in 1371 on land which was used to bury victims of the “Black Death”, the bubonic plague which decimated London in 1348.
Those struck down by the plague were still being exhumed in 2013, said Dominic Tickell, development director at Charterhouse.
The friars lived in silence but broke their rule for 10 days in the 16th century, to debate Henry VIII’s break with the Pope. The dramatic split from Rome in 1535 led to the monastery being dissolved and its friars put to death in an atrocious manner.
The land on which the men once lived was passed to the Duke of Norfolk, who built a cloister and a palace.
The Duke, too, met a violent end — he was decapitated for high treason in 1571.
The Charterhouse complex was reinvented in the 17th century when it was bought by the wealthy Thomas Sutton, who founded a school, a hospital and a home for 80 impoverished gentlemen.
The latter tradition continues, while the school was moved to Surrey in the 19th century where it is now a private boarding school.
London’s Charterhouse today hosts 42 “brothers” who are chosen not for their religious affiliation but under strict criteria. They must be over 60, single, poor, prepared to live in a community and to be in good enough health to live independently.
The majority of residents are artists, actors or musicians, but there are also teachers, a cook, a butcher and a priest.
Actors living in Charterhouse take every opportunity to return to the stage, giving up their earnings for the community, McGhee said.
“Most of them are vulnerable, lonely, isolated, poor, in social need and in good health. One of the criteria is that people can still make a contribution,” Tickell said during a media visit to Charterhouse.
While Tudor tragedies are centuries past, the stone walls, low ceilings and stained-glass windows retain a sense of mystery.
Charterhouse benefits financially from its school fees — nearly 37,000 pounds ($46,000) annually for each boarding pupil — and from its donors.
Governors of the London institution include Queen Elizabeth II, her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, and their son the Prince of Wales, in addition to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Charterhouse also has a specialist nursing home for those approaching the end of their lives.
“It is very rare that a brother leaves; almost all end their days here,” said Tickell.