THE HISTORY OF COVENTRY’S CHARTERHOUSE
By Ann Evans
Photos courtesy of Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography.
Continuing our series of articles on the City of Coventry, Ann Evans takes a look at life in the cloisters of the Charterhouse Priory of St Anne.
To see Coventry’s 14th century Charterhouse Priory of St Anne you need to venture a short distance out of the City Centre onto the London Road. Taking a leafy slip road off the dual carriageway, you cross a small bridge over the River Sherbourne and soon come to a red sandstone building that looks surprisingly modern. A conservatory has been added to this Grade 1 Listed Building, but step inside and you step back into history.
A monk by the name of Robert Palmer was the visionary who began the Priory of St Anne in 1381. Single-handedly and without the finances or formal agreement for the land he began a Carthusian monastery, of which only nine were founded throughout England and Scotland. The patronage of King Richard II in 1385 gave it the boost it needed, and the monastery grew.
The monks produced manuscripts and also started a school for 12 poor boys aged 7 – 17. This was something of a rarity as generally boys would have left school and be earning their keep far earlier. These boys were most likely being trained to become monks.
In addition to income from farmers renting their land, locals would request prayers which they paid for. But life for these Carthusian monks was austere. Theirs was a silent order. There was no talking, no touching; they weren’t allowed to have any personal possessions. No one except the Prior had dealings with the public. In fact, there were no windows on the outside of the building so no one could see out, and no one could see in. As no one was allowed into the monastery, monks would leave beer and bread on the doorstep for hungry travellers.
When given their meals, it would have come via a short L shaped corridor. The cook put the meal on one area, and the monk reached round and got it. Only on special occasions would the monks eat together in the dining hall. Even then there would be no talking. They would most likely have quietly reflected on the magnificent wall painting of the Crucifixion of Christ.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid 16th century, additional floors were put into the priory completely cutting in half the wall painting, so that today only the lower half is visible. And upstairs sadly, no sign of it – although, if you look carefully around the Charterhouse, you will find an assortment of painted stone blocks that have been used elsewhere in the building. Also, bizarrely, a doorway has been cut through the wall painting. And on the next level you will discover a black and white painting featuring all kinds of figures and fantastical beasts in a Renaissance style covering one wall.
As with all Charterhouses, there would always be a prison cell, and the strongest Carthusian prison cell was in Coventry. So, whenever a monk needed to be locked away for whatever reason, Coventry would have been a good place for them to come. One wonders then, if the phrase ‘Sent to Coventry’ originates from this, rather than the general belief that it came from the Civil War when Royalist prisoners were jailed in St John’s Church.
However, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the chapel, the cloisters, the monk’s cells – almost everything was destroyed. Fortunately, the Charterhouse remained and over the years has been added to. There are still sections of the ancient precinct wall to be seen outside, and 20th century excavations have unearthed the remains of three monk’s cells and other artefacts.
After the Reformation, the Charterhouse was bought by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Later, in the 1700s the estate was leased by horticulturalist John Whittingham, and over the decades following, became home to various well to do individuals.
The last owner of the property was Col. William Wyley, an influential industrialist in the city. He bequeathed the Charterhouse to the people of Coventry and over the years it has been used for various purposes. When the city council wanted to sell it, The Charterhouse Coventry Preservation Trust was formed, and ownership was transferred to them in November 2011.
The Charterhouse is now owned by Historic Coventry Trust and is in partnership with Coventry City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the building and open to the public as a heritage visitors’ centre and educational attraction. Although it’s not currently open to the general public all year round, it does open on special occasions such as Heritage Open Days – and certainly worth a visit if you get the opportunity.
Discover more: http://coventrycharterhouseassociation.org.uk
Writer Ann Evans has hardback copies of her illustrated book A Children’s History of Coventry. Priced £4.99 + P & P.
Contact Ann to arrange for a signed copy.