Thursday, 7 July 2011

Charterhouse explorations

Both St Hugh and St Augustine Webster were Carthusian Priors, and, entranced by our visit to Mount Grace Priory in Half Term, I’ve been exploring a little of this world.

The first monasteries were really neighbouring hermits’ cells (mono and mon-astic, and solo and sol-itary, come respectively from the Greek and Latin for ‘alone’) around which some elements of common life and rules developed, so it is not surprising that one particular later reform (at the Grande Chartreuse at about the time of the English conquest) established a pattern of mediaeval monastic life in which the main focus was monks living in their own cells for most of the time although emerging to share some worship and occasional meals. The film Into Great Silence gives a flavour of the Carthusian life which continues there over nine hundred years later.

The first English Charterhouse (the Anglicised name for Priories of the Grande Chartreuse) was established at Witham in Somerset as part of Henry II’s public penance for the murder of Thomas a Becket, for which Hugh of Avalon was head-hunted from being Novice Master at the Grande Chartreuse to be an early Prior when things were not going well for the new foundation. It was from there he was elected Bishop of Lincoln, where he initiated the rebuilding of the Cathedral (subsequently extended to house his shrine, at which I was able to pray when there for the Ordination on Sunday).

Only a scattering of other English Charterhouses followed, but the 1390s foundation of Mount Grace on the northern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors was one of them, and the one which suffered least destruction during what a Guide in Grimsby Minister recently referred to as the Disillusionment of the Monasteries. Pictures posted here last month include those of the huge cloister round which the cells were arranged and a modern reconstruction of one of them (which is on the scale more comparable with a comfortable country cottage than a small almshouse).

At exactly the same time, also in the 1390s, another was founded locally in northern Lincolnshire. The site (between Epworth and Owston Ferry on the Isle of Axholme) is on private land, but our physical visit to Mount Grace prompted me to make a virtual ‘visit’ by satellite mapping. There is nothing surviving comparable to Mount Grace, although one farm outbuilding is Grade II listed because it has elements of a mediaeval undercroft (perhaps the only listed building which is pebbledashed and has a corrugated iron roof). What there is are three sides of a square moat, and I was intrigued to measure the space this encloses as being very close in size to the great cloister at Mount Grace. The pictures for this post show aspects of the very advanced water management at Mount Grace, including the outside privy at the restored cell, so the moat may indicate similar skill in drainage of the swampy Axholme land. I discover that detailed records of an archaeological investigation of the Axholme Priory are held in Swindon, and have developed an ambition to seek these out.

Augustine Webster was the penultimate Prior here. He was one of three Carthusian Priors who went to Thomas Cromwell in 1535 to attempt to negotiate some leeway around the oaths required by the Act of Supremacy. Their consequential execution at Tyburn on 4th May (alongside that of a prominent Brigettine monk) was the first of its kind, and originally provided the date of the Catholic Church’s commemoration of its Reformation Martyrs and now provides the date of the Church of England’s commemoration of the Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era.

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