Mount Grace

The single manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe is marked "Liber Montis Gracie: This boke is of Mountgrace" on a binding leaf. At some time before the dissolution of the monastery in 1539, this copy of the manuscript was in the possession of the Carthusian monks of Mount Grace Priory in northern Yorkshire. A Carthusian hand annotated the manuscript, so that we can ascertain the book was read and valued as a spiritual treatise by probably the most respected of contemplatives of their time.

Based on the guidebook by Glyn Coppack , English Heritage publications for Mount Grace Priory
Mount Grace Priory, second only to London in repute, is the best preserved and most accessible of the ten Carthusian charterhouses in England. Founded in 1398 by Thomas de Holand, Earl of Kent and Duke of Surrey, the house was part of a revival of spirituality in the latter Middle Ages that began with the founding of the London charterhouse in 1371 on the site of the plague cemetery and culminated in the royal charterhouse of Sheen in 1415. In every case the founder was from the highest levels of society and monks were also drawn from the literate upper levels as well. Many Carthusians began their lives as secular priests, university scholars, or members of other orders.

In 1539 Mount Grace closed under the edict of Henry VIII that established the sovereign as head of the Church and severed links with monastic orders on the continent. Destruction of the Carthusian congregation in England began before the general Suppression, and can be traced back to the order's refusal to accept the Act ofSuccession of 1534 by which Henry VIII legitimized his second marriage despite the Pope's refusal to annul the first. Opposition to the oath was led by Prior John Houghton of the London charterhouse. In May 1535, Houghton and two other Carthusian priors were tried for treason and executed at Tyburn in London. Faced with such brutality, Prior Wilson of Mount Grace, pressured by the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Durham, signed the Act. Similar to other monastic sites, in 1654, Mount Grace's guest areas were converted to a domestic residence. They now serve as the site of the museum and other offices.

Carthusians were founded by St. Bruno (1030-1101) as part of a general reform of western monasticism of the 11th century. Bruno was born at Cologne and for about twenty years, from 1057 to 1075, directed the theological school at Reims until he and several companions withdrew to a remote area in the Alps of Dauphiné named Chartreuse in 1088. Carthusians arrived in England from this monastery (the Grande Chartreuse) in 1178-79 at the invitation of Henry II who had agreed to found several new monasteries in penance for his part in the death of Thomas Becket.

The life combined the eremitical and cenobite (communal) forms of monasticism although the Customs (Rule) of Chartreuse were not committed to writing till 1127. Unlike most other monks, who lived in common, the Carthusians lived as hermits, each occupying his own cell and coming together only at certain fixed times in church. Mount Grace has been carefully excavated and much of the daily life of a Carthusian ascertained by the findings. Twelve individuals "cells" or little cottages are clustered around a great cloister. Mount Grace's cells contained three rooms on the first floor (bedroom, study, and parlor) with a stair leading to a large open workroom above. Each cottage had its own enclosed garden to the rear, and most significantly a latrine with running water. Water supply was one of the most sophisticated for its age, gravity driven, water circulated throughout the monastery including the water tower in the cloister's center,cooking areas, and basins throughout as well as the lavatories. Hygiene and quality food (although meatless) contributed to unusually long lives for many of these monks. English Heritage recently rebuilt a cell showing its appearance in the early 16th century, the furnishings are based on excavations and on images in Carthusian manuscripts from the time.

The monks received their food and all contact with the outside world through an opening in the cell wall. Evidence of book production was found in the cells in the north west corner of the cloister, to the left of the reconstructed cell: one with pen nibs (for the scribe), the other with paints (for the illuminator), and the third with book binding materials. The Carthusians, despite their lives as hermits, continued to exercise intellectual influence in their era. Nicholas Love for example, wrote the widely circulated Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a vernacular treatise based directed to a lay readers and listeners. His tomb, noted here below the arch by the archeologist Glynn Coppack, is unmarked, but located through historical evidence.

Carthusian monasteries were seen as prestigious places for burial. The lavish and often artistically groundbreaking decoration of Carthusian churches is related to their attraction as particularly holy sites, where the exemplary lives and prayers of the monks will benefit the souls of the dead. At Mount Grace, the church shows evidence of rebuilding, a window blocked in and walls heightened to give greater honor to the secular tomb in the center. The Charterhouse in Cologne had an extensive early 16th-century stained glass cycle, most destroyed in the secularization of the monasteries in the early 19th century but some panels surviving such as the image of Donor Portrait of Prior Peter Blommeveen now in the Worcester Art Museum. Some of the best-known works of art associated with the Order are those of the Chartreuse de Campmol, near Dijon, the burial site selected by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy 1363-1404. The portraits of Duke and Duchess keeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child by Claus Sluter, considered the greatest sculptor of his time, appear on the entrance portal of the church. Sluter also executed sculptures for the cloister's central well (just as a well was at the center of Mount Grace's cloister) called the Well of Moses after its best known figure. The Duke also commissioned a great altarpiece (1394-99), whose wings show paintings of the Life of the Virgin by Melchior Broederlam in incipient perspective.

See also David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 3 vols., Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1979.

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