Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Carthusians

Saint Bruno, Founder of the Carthusians, in Habit and CowlArticle

Contemplative. Under Solemn Vows. Founded 1086. Motto: stat crux dum volvitur orbis

The Carthusian Order, the strictest in the Church, enjoys the unique distinction of never having been reformed, for the simple reason that it never needed reform.

Its holy founder, Saint Bruno, was born at Cologne, and from his earliest childhood was noted for his piety. His parents, as he grew up, sent him to Paris to study philosophy and theology; here he greatly distinguished himself, and, after being ordained, was made Canon of Rheims, a city then celebrated for its college, in which the Saint was the teacher of many afterwards celebrated men. The longing to leave the world, which grew stronger daily, induced him to leave Rheims, and, with six companions, he presented himself to Saint Hugo, Bishop of Grenoble, and asked permission to found an Order whose members should give themselves up to a contemplative life of austerity and solitude while still living in community.

Saint Hugo, having been warned in a dream of their coming, granted their request, and gave them a site in a lonely desolate valley among the mountains fifteen miles from Grenoble. The spot called Chartreuse, from which the Order takes its name, was so barren and uncultivated that it might well be called a desert. Here Bruno and his six holy companions built a church, and round it some cells, in each of which at first two monks dwelt; but this was soon altered, and a cell was built for each monk, and this arrangement continued from then to the present day, when each Carthusian lives, sleeps, works, prays, and, except on certain feasts, eats in his cell.

Saint Bruno remained only six years at Chartreuse, and then, in obedience to the call of Pope Urban II, a former pupil of his, he went to Rome, and was never able to return to the monastery at Chartreuse, which he had put under the government of Landwin, the most capable of his subjects, and under the protection of the Abbot of Chaise Dieu. Before he died he founded another monastery at La Torre, in the Diocese of Squillace, Calabria, on a site given him by Roger, Count of Calabria, which was dedicated to Santa Maria dell’ Eremo, and generally known as the Romitorio. In this monastery he died in 1101.

The Order in the beginning did not spread at all quickly; the first written rule appears to have been drawn up by Guigo, the fifth Prior of Chartreuse, who wrote an account of their customs for the guidance of new foundations. These were confirmed in 1208, but the final Constitutions were not confirmed till 1688, when Pope Innocent XI gave the final approbation. The Order itself was formally approved by Pope Alexander III in 1170.

On account of the extreme austerity of the rule, members of any other Order may pass into the Carthusian, and, if they return to their own Order again, take the place they held when they left, but a Carthusian cannot leave his Order for any of the others. The rule for the Fathers differs in some respects from that observed by the lay-Brothers; the Fathers live each in his cell in a different part of the monastery from that assigned to the lay-Brothers, who do not live in separate cells. Formerly each monk prepared his own food in his cell, but now it is prepared and brought to him at his hatch close to his cell door by the lay-Brothers, except on Sundays and certain feasts, and when a death occurs in the community; then the monks all dine together in the refectory.

The rule is very severe as regards fasting. The monks fast from Holy Cross Day to Easter, during which time only one meal a day is allowed and 4 ounces of bread for evening collation. The rule prescribes fasting on bread and water once a week, and, with the special permission of the Superior, the monks may fast three days a week on bread and water. Meat is forbidden at all times, even in illness; fish is allowed, and vegetables all the year round. Butter, eggs, and cheese are allowed, except in Lent, Advent, and on Fridays. Wine or beer or cider is allowed all the year round.

In olden times the principal occupation of the Fathers in their cells was copying manuscripts, old classical works, and other documents. Now their day is divided into periods, in which they are engaged either in work or prayer; on ferial days they say the Little Hours in their cells, but rise at midnight for Matins and Lauds sung in choir, and Vespers are also said or sung in choir. On Sundays and some feasts all the Divine Office except Compline is sung in the choir. Our Lady’s Office is said daily, in addition to the Divine Office, and the Office for the Dead is said very frequently, sometimes in choir, sometimes privately in the cell. Devotion to the holy souls is a mark of the Carthusian spirit. Silence and solitude are the leading notes of the Order; they have no daily recreation, only on Sundays and certain feasts, and once a week they go out for a long walk for two or three hours, when they are allowed to talk. This walk (spatiammt) is an old Carthusian custom which dates from the beginning of the Order; then it was also the custom for the monks to go for a walk daily within the limits of the monastery lands.

Besides the lay-Brothers there is a third class, called Donnas, who attend to agricultural and other work outside and inside the monastery, as well as the lay-Brothers; these are often men who are not strong enough to keep the rule in all its austerity; after some years they can be admitted to profession as lay-Brothers. They wear a brown habit, except on Sundays and feast-days.

The habit of the Carthusians is all white; the capuce and scapular are also white, but they are of coarse, rough material; the girdle is of leather. On journeys a long black cloak is worn over the habit. The novices wear this black cloak whenever they assist at Holy Mass or at the offices said in choir.

Under the habit a hair-shirt is always worn.

In the twelfth century there was a sort of division in the Order, but it was never strong enough to render those who followed the mitigated observance an independent Order. It arose in the monastery of Lewigny, where one of the monks named Guido left the community because he found the rules too severe; the gift of an estate and some other companions joining him enabled him to found another monastery. He and his monks followed the rule of Saint Benedict, to which he added some of the Carthusian Constitutions, and they retained the habit. They were known in Scotland, where they afterwards had three houses, as the Friars de Valle Olerum, after the spot where their first monastery was situated. They founded about twenty priories from the mother-house.

The Carthusian Order spread into most European countries, and in 1360 had about 400 monasteries and convents; its renown sounded throughout the world, and its monks were often chosen for the visitation of other Orders. When at its prime the Order had sixteen provinces; two members of each province were elected to attend the General Chapter. Many of their monasteries possessed great riches and treasures of art and literature.

The great Papal Schism divided the Order into two parties, each with its own General in the fourteenth century.

The Carthusians have given four Cardinals, seventy Archbishops and Bishops, and many illustrious writers to the Church, among whom may be mentioned Walter Hilton, the celebrated author of a well-known mystical book, written for a recluse, called “The Scale of Perfection,” and Denis the Carthusian, a learned and holy man. Among the canonized Saints of the Order our own Bishop of Lincoln, Saint Hugh, must be mentioned.

The Grande Chartreuse at Grenoble was destroyed at the French Revolution, and with it the library and pictures and other art treasures; two houses in Switzerland were destroyed in the revolution of 1848, and the Italian monasteries were robbed of their possessions by the Piedmontese; the Certosa of San Casciano, near Florence, is still inhabited by the monks, but, being in the hands of the Government, is thrown open to the public, who are allowed to go inside the enclosure.

There is no truth in the report that the monks have sold the recipe for making their world-famed liqueur to the French Government; it is a secret which by their Constitutions can never pass out of their Order. The sale and manufacture of this liqueur are on so extensive a scale that the Order derives a large income from the proceeds. Four Brothers and some servants (thirty) at Fourvoirie are exclusively occupied in the manufacture of the liqueur; even the bottling, corking, labelling, and packing provide constant occupation in the house of Fourvoirie (five miles from the Grande Chartreuse), where it is made.

In 1816 Grenoble was reinhabited by the Carthusians; seven other houses were built or restored in other parts of France; but in 1883, when their safety was again threatened, some of the monks came to England, and founded the now well-known monastery of Parkminster, near Cowfold, in Sussex.

At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII there were seven monasteries and two cells of the Order in England, where the name Chartreuse was corrupted to Charterhouse, which is still retained in the public school of that name. The Carthusians refused to accept the royal supremacy; one member of the Order who did so bitterly repented, and was reconciled to the Church. The Prior and several monks of the London Charterhouse were hanged for their constancy to our holy religion, and the remaining eight died of starvation and fever in Newgate, where they were imprisoned.

The Carthusians of Sheen, who fled to Flanders on the accession of Elizabeth, and the Brigittines, of Sion House, Isleworth, were, according to Alban Butler, the only two Religious Orders in England who were never dispersed, but we think to these must be added the Dames Anglaises of the Convent of the Bar, York.

The date of the foundation of Carthusian nuns is 1145, in the days of the seventh General, Saint Anthelm; they soon had five convents, but in 1368, as they were spreading further, a General Chapter of the monks forbade them to found any more houses. They follow the same rule as the monks, except that they do not live in a separate cell and take their meals in common in the refectory. The choir-nuns are called Deaconesses; they always make their vows into the hands of the Bishop, and at their profession receive the stole, maniple, and crown, but only wear them on the day of their profession and feast of their jubilee and their burial-day. A black veil is worn every day, and makes the distinction between the professed and novices.

There are no Carthusian nuns in England or America, but they have three convents in France.

The novitiate for the monks lasts one year and a day, after which they make simple vows, and after four years the final solemn vows are taken.

The only Carthusian monastery in England is the one above mentioned at Parkminster, in Sussex, where there are now fifty choir-monks and twenty-eight lay-Brothers and eight Donnas.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “Carthusians”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 21 April 2021. <>