Today (May 9) in London History – Charterhouse

May 9th, 1611 was the “birthday” of Charter House School and Hospital (alms house). This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling. London Walks connecting. Time for your London fix. Shall we have a natter about excessive building and excessive children?  And about the wealthiest commoner in England.

I think we should.

Excessive building and excessive children. That’s what did for Thomas Howard, the first Earl of Suffolk. 

Well, it did for his financial affairs. Holed them beneath the waterline. Bankrupted the Earl. 

Eleven children in all – “excessive children” – and the Earl did his best by them. 

As for the excessive building, well, start with the Earl’s house in Essex. Audley End – it was easily the largest private house in England. 

Building it and furnishing it had cost him £200,000 – or so he told King James I. That was £200,000 over 400 years ago. That would come to maybe 200 million pounds today. 

And then there was the Earl’s magnificent townhouse at Charing Cross. He decided it needed a capacious new wing fronting the Thames. More expenditure. Serious expenditure.

Excessive building indeed. And it doesn’t end there. Because to Audley End and the Charing Cross townhouse we have to add magnificent Charterhouse. 

Charterhouse – splendid in its size, its finery, its furnishings. To say nothing of its astonishing history. Charterhouse, where Sir Thomas More prayed when it was a monastery. And wore a hair shirt in penance. Charterhouse where Queen Elizabeth stayed on two occasions – for five days and three days – when it was the grandest house in London. Charterhouse, where King James stayed for four days on his arrival in London prior to his coronation. Charterhouse, sold to the Earl of Suffolk’s father, the Duke of Norfolk.

And what a dangerous – and losing game – he played. Yes, the Duke of Norfolk who made the mistake of planning to marry Mary Queen of Scots. A mistake that got him arrested, imprisoned in the Tower and finally beheaded. And – needless to say – it also severed Charterhouse from him. Only for Elizabeth, 30 years later – I find it really hard to get my head around this – only for Elizabeth, Good Queen Bess, to restore Charterhouse to the executed Duke’s family. She couldn’t restore his father’s head to its rightful place; she could make a gift of his father’s house to his son – our man, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Suffolk. Imagine, if you will, how complicated his feelings must have been when Her Majesty’s largess came his way. “Charterhouse – your executed father’s palatial house – I’m returning it to his son, you – that’s you, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk.” 

It may have been a house too many. Palatial Charterhouse would have cost the Earl a fortune to run had he been frugal. But frugal he wasn’t. The Earl entertained lavishly at Charterhouse.

Entertained lavishly until he was forced to sell Charterhouse in 1611.

And thereupon the curtain rises on our other principal in this London story. Thomas Sutton.

If excessive children and excessive building were the hallmarks of the first Earl of Suffolk’s life, excessive accumulation of money was the hallmark of Thomas Sutton’s life. 

For a first glimpse, picture Thomas Sutton riding south with two horse-loads of money.

And then in London we see Thomas Sutton’s ‘great iron chest’, so heavy with gold pieces that a visiting client feared that it would break through the floor into the shop below.

And we see his black bag. 

Fast forward. Picture Thomas Sutton on his death bed – calling for his black bag and the keys to his great iron chest. In the black bag was Thomas Sutton’s will. He didn’t want it – the will – to fall into the wrong hands because there were many people who were going to be very unhappy with its provisions. Among them his son, to whom he left nothing.

And so, we begin to get the measure of the wealthiest commoner in England. Rich Sutton, as he was known.

He was all business. A lifetime devoted to the management of his lands and moneylending – a lifetime devoted to the accumulation of wealth on a 17th century Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk scale.

Usury and parsimony did the trick. So, yes, the wealthiest commoner in England was a usurer. He got a hefty ten per cent return on the money he lent. And he lent a lot of money. 

Including to the man of excessive children and excessive building, Thomas Howard, the first Earl of Suffolk.

The Earl was hopelessly in debt to rich Sutton.

He was able to clear some of it by selling Charterhouse to Thomas Sutton. 

That was in March 1611. Two months later – on this day, May 9th, 1611 – Charterhouse became a combined hospital and school. For poor people, men and children. That’s hospital as in hospitality – almshouses in other words. Which is what it is today. And Charterhouse the school, while it’s not in London anymore, is still very much with us. It’s in Godalming in Surrey. It’s one of the great public schools in England.

And as for that will, when it was published, later in 1611, it aroused astonished admiration. Sutton’s charity – his foundation – was hailed as “the greatest gift that ever was given in England.”

And that’s our Today in London History tale for May 9th.

And full marks for guessing – easy guess though it was – Today’s Today in London recommendation is to make sure you visit Charterhouse come Open House Weekend in September.

Ok, this train is pulling out of the station. Let me bid you farewell.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

Our secret recipe? It’s no secret. It all comes down to the guiding. The calibre of the guiding. You can rest assured, guiding for London Walks  is not a summer job done by high school or college students. It’s not paint-by-numbers guiding. You will NOT be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script. You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, University of London geologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Professionally qualified guides who’ve won the big one, the MVP award – the Guide of the Year Award. 

The creme de la creme, the maestros: well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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