3rd August 2016

Lopped black mulberry branches overhang the 1405 chequerboard flint and ragstone wall of The Charterhouse.

On the north side of Charterhouse Square, across the road from Smithfield Market, the lopped branches of three mature mulberry trees peep over an early 15th century high stone wall. Out of view from the street in an inner courtyard two more old mulberries lean over, as broad as bulls, amid flowerbeds and bushes. This is Charterhouse, a former Carthusian priory, founded in 1371 and built next to a burial ground for victims of the Black Death.

During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41), the priory was closed, sold off and, in 1545-6, converted to a mansion house by Sir Edward North.  In 1558 Elizabeth I stayed overnight here on her journey from Hatfield House to take up the throne. James I did the same when he succeeded her in 1603.

In 1611 a wealthy philanthropist, Thomas Sutton, bought the property for £13,000 and converted it into a boys’ grammar school, as well as a hospital and alms-house for invalid and elderly military pensioners. Charterhouse school occupied the northeast part of the site until it moved to Goldaming in 1872. Merchant Taylors school took over until they, too, moved out of London in 1933. St Bartholomew’s Hospital then bought the school site for a medical college, which it has since developed and is there today.

Painting of Charterhouse alms-house (on the left) and boys’ school (around the large quadrangle to the right) in 1756, by an unknown artist.  Preacher’s Court is the curved open space to the left (east). The area of trees to the north would be Pardon Churchyard, referred to in the Letters Patent when the alms-house and school were founded. Charterhouse Square is seen in the foreground and was the burial site for tens of thousands of victims of the Black Death in the 14th century.

Alongside the school, from its foundation in 1611 to this day, the Charterhouse alms-house has provided “…a place of abiding for the finding sustentation and relief of poore, aged, maimed, needy, or impotent  People”.[1] In December 1855 there were 79 resident pensioners, known as Brothers -- and one vacancy. By the outbreak of the Second World War there were 63 Brothers. Today there are about 40.

In his novel The Newcomes, William Makepeace Thackeray, who had been a scholar at Charterhouse School, describes this parallel, cloistered world of young and old. The boarding-houses of the school were situated in the square, he writes, “hard by the more ancient buildings of the hospital”, where a boy might see “…a black-gowned pensioner or two crawling over the quiet square, or passing from one dark arch to another.” Today’s pensioners are far more dapper and sprightly, with entirely 21st century apparel!

The last decades of the priory

Long before these upheavals, in the early 1500s, the young Thomas More – who was to become Henry VIII’s Chancellor - lived at (or near) Charterhouse priory, while studying law at Lincoln’s Inn, a ten-minute walk away. According to More’s son-in-law and first biographer, William Roper, More “gave himself to devotion and prayer” at Charterhouse, preferring the monastic life to that of Lincoln’s Inn, where he was expected to live as a Bar student. 

But a mere thirty years later, in the Spring of 1535, this spiritual sanctuary was violated when More’s nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, ordered the Prior and two Carthusian Brothers to be led away to Tyburn to be hanged, drawn and quartered for refusing to renounce the Pope accept Henry VIII as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. A limb of the Prior, John Houghton, was nailed to the gate. Thomas More, who had also refused to sign the Oath endorsing Henry, had watched the priors file past his own prison window in the Tower, while he daughter was visiting him. A few months later he, himself, was taken away and beheaded.

A few years later - two centuries - after it was founded, the priory was closed and tossed like one of Henry’s banquet bones to a couple of privileged members of his household, finally passing to Sir Henry North, a serjeant-at-law in favour at the time, who then built the mansion that forms the 16th century core of today’s Charterhouse.

The Queen’s Mulberry in Preacher’s Court is said to be a cutting from Milton’s mulberry in Christ’s College, Cambridge and was planted around 1840, making it about 175 years old.

Mulberries and monasteries

Despite their ancient appearance, the mulberry trees in Charterhouse are not nearly as old as they might be, given the presence of medieval and Tudor buildings on the site of the Priory. The Queen’s Mulberry, in Preacher’s Court, is thought to date from around 1840 and be a cutting from Milton’s mulberry in Christ’s College, Cambridge. This account comes from A.D. Webster’s London Trees, first published in 1920, where the author claims that the Preacher’s Court mulberry was planted “eighty years ago”. Even though he gives no evidence to support this, the date would fit roughly with the creation of Preacher’s Court between 1825-1840 by the addition of new buildings to close it off.

In a drawing by Charles Walter Radclyffe, dated 1844,[2] Preacher’s Court does not yet have the central garden that it has today, where the two oldest mulberries are -- so the trees may even be a few years younger.

Milton’s black mulberry in the Fellow’s Garden at Christ’s College, Cambridge, from which the Charterhouse “Queen’s mulberry” is said to have been grown. Milton became a student at Christ’s in 1625 and gained his MA in 1632. It’s unlikely that he actually planted the tree, though. And even if it was planted as a sapling as part of James I’s silk initiative around 1608-9, it would still have been a relatively young tree when Milton is said to have composed poetry under it.

Although there is no concrete evidence to support the presence of mulberries at the medieval Charterhouse monastery, or the 16th century mansion built by Edward North, a plausible site might be the Master’s Garden, where the Brothers replanted a mature mulberry after an incendiary bomb uprooted an older one in May 1941, at the height of the Blitz. This is the sixth of today’s Charterhouse mulberry trees.

The Letters of Patent for the sale of Charterhouse to Thomas Sutton in 1611, do mention that the property includes “…all that Orchard and Garden with the Appurtenances thereunto likewise belonging and appertaining, and all that parcel of Land and Ground, with the Appurtenances, commonly called Pardon Churchyard.” This was a plot of land immediately north of Charterhouse and shown on maps and drawings as covered in trees, although this may have been artistic license. There were gardens at Charterhouse for supplying fruit and vegetables for the kitchen, though these proved to be insufficient.  It is probable, then, that there were fruit trees at Charterhouse since the very beginning of the Priory and these may well have included at least one mulberry.

Black mulberries (Morus nigra) were often included in the orchards and infirmary gardens of medieval monasteries, priories and abbeys and could well have been present in Charterhouse long before those that are there today. Black mulberries are native to the region covered by the Persian empire and have been grown in Britain since Roman times for their fruit, unlike white mulberries (Morus alba), which are native to China and have been cultivated for over 4000 years for their leaves, to feed silkworms, while their fruit is rather sweet and bland.

After all, a few hundred yards away on the other side of Long Lane, the 12th century Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew-the-Great had a “mulberry garden”, adjacent to the Infirmary. An ancient mulberry tree was cut down near Middlesex Passage in 1849, roughly where the mulberry garden would have been – now buried for ever under a massive new development. But whether this had been a veritable mulberry orchard, or an infirmary garden with one or two mulberries (more likely) may never be known.  

The College Garden at Westminster Abbey, which has been continuously cultivated for the past 900 years, is a model for what an infirmary garden might have been like. It would have been planted with apples, pears, plums, figs, nuts, medlars, mulberries and vines, as well as medicinal plants and - to offer monks a place of peace and beauty - flowers and perhaps a fishpond. There is a black and a white mulberry tree there today, albeit fairly recent plantings.

The Queen’s mulberry tradition

In a long-standing tradition, at the end of July every year the Master and Brothers of Charterhouse offer a basket of the first ripe mulberries from the Queen’s mulberry in Preacher’s Court to the Lord Mayor of London.  No-one seems to know when the tradition started, but London has had a Lord Mayor since 1189 and Charterhouse has existed since 1371. All we know for sure is that the fruit couldn’t have come from the Preachers Court (Queen’s) mulberry until after the 1840s.

Charterhouse and St Bartholomew-the-Great, from the 1561 Agas map, reproduced with kind permission of the London Metropolitan Museum; Head Gardener Claire Davies (right) in 2014 with the Lord Mayor; and Mulberries from the Queen’s mulberry tree.


[1] Philip Bearcroft An Historical Account of Thomas Sutton esq. and of His Foundation in Charter-house. London. 1737.

[2] See Stephen Porter The London Charterhouse, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, 2009.

Article and pictures by Peter Coles.

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