Medieval Charterhouse Rises from Decades of Neglect
With deeply-spiritual origins, and an important function in the religious framework of medieval England, Coventry's medieval Charterhouse priory was all but destroyed in the Reformation. But now, this once legendary house of God is finally set to open to the public.
What is the Coventry Charterhouse?
Coventry is a city in central England that in the medieval period was at the center of national power. So much so that Coventry hosted Parliament and courts and it served as the national capital at times during the Wars of the Roses.
Perhaps best known for its St Michael's Cathedral that was built between the late 14th century and early 15th century, it was bombed almost to destruction during the massive attack on the city by German bombers on the night of November 14th, 1940. The cathedral now stands ruined, but a new religious powerhouse was built in the 1950s by architect Basil Spence.
The Charterhouse, however, is a Grade I listed 14th century Carthusian monastery that suffered gravely at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries when it too was mostly destroyed. Today, only the Priory House and the remains of the inner precinct wall remain standing.
Representing the sixth of only nine Carthusian Monasteries built in Britain, according to Historic Coventry, the Charterhouse’s foundation stone was laid by King Richard II in 1385 AD, and it was completed by 1410 AD. During the 15th and 16th centuries it had numerous royal benefactors, including Richard II, Henry VI, and Henry VII.
Coventry's Charterhouse priory is a grade I listed 14th Century Carthusian Monastery. (Charterhouse Coventry)
A Building with a Turbulent, Yet Fruity History
The majority of the religious buildings at this site were demolished in 1539 AD, and in the 1560s the Priory House was bought by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who lived nearby in Kenilworth Castle. In the 1700s the estate was leased by John Whittingham and it was used for growing oranges for Warwick Castle and other stately homes.
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Charterhouse was gifted to the citizens of Coventry in the Second World War and the Charterhouse Coventry Preservation Trust took ownership of the historic building in 2015. Speaking with The Art Newspaper Ian Harrabin, the chairman of the Trust, says “now the people of Coventry are finally on the cusp of enjoying their 80 year old gift,” that includes various ruins and parkland, a grand Victorian cemetery across the road, and a street of rundown shops.
Sketch showing the medieval layout of Charterhouse. (Charterhouse Coventry)
A Heavy Investment for the Future
In total, the Trust has assumed responsibility for 27 properties from the local authority in Coventry, “including the remains of two medieval gatehouses that will be restored as holiday accommodation,” said Harrabin. The trust officially bought the Charterhouse for £1 and after several years of fundraising, and a £4.3million ($5.8 million) National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, they have currently spent £8.2million ($11.3) on the project.
The entire roof has now been repaired and the preservation teams are about to begin stabilizing and restoring the magnificent wall paintings. A broken image of Christ on the cross is described as being “too battered and truncated to restore.” However, Ian Harrabin said there are plans for a “projected digital recreation.”
Part of a wall painting dating to the early 1400s depicting the crucifixion scene. This extremely rare painting was located in the monks’ refectory. This fragment shows the legs of Christ and a centurion underneath the cross with St John the Baptist. (Historic Coventry Trust)
Visitors can enjoy a new café which has been built into two medieval monks’ cells, and because the Carthusian order was known as a “Silent Order” cells will be engineered to allow visitors to experience “that rarity in modern life”, the silence in which monks developed - spiritually closed off from the stresses of the everyday outside world.
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Expansion and Opportunity at the Charterhouse
One good thing about people believing they might win the Lottery is that historic houses, castles, and cathedrals get a massive boost in income. And so too do local folk looking to work. Historic Coventry Trust and the National Trust are currently recruiting for a number of exciting roles at the same time in a coordinated program. These include an Education & Engagement Manager, Volunteer Co-ordinator, and Property Operations Manager for Charterhouse.
According to the website, the Historic Coventry Trust has “great aspirations and intends to maximise Coventry ’s unique heritage assets to benefit the community and the local economy both today and in the future.” And in the face of 2020, and what the pandemic did to tourism, globally, England has never before needed new attractions like it does today, to stimulate a fearful public back outdoors.
Top image: Part of a Tudor wall painting inside the Charterhouse priory, Coventry, England. Source: Charterhouse Coventry
By Ashley Cowie