In the stunning countryside of the Seven Valleys, at the foot of the medieval hilltop town of Montreuil-sur-Mer in Pas de Calais, northern France, lies a rather large secret.
A long, tree lined drive surrounded by fields and forests, makes for an impressive entrance to a grand arched doorway. Step through and you’ll enter a different world. One which has its feet firmly in the past.
I’d spotted this monumental building from the ramparts of nearby Montreuil-sur-Mer’s citadel. It’s hard to miss the grey stone belfries reaching to the sky and row upon row of ancient buildings which stand out amongst the forests and fields of the lush countryside. La Chartreuse de Neuville, or the Charterhouse, as it’s called in English, is nothing short of astonishing.
History of the Charterhouse
In 1084, a group of monks who wanted to follow the harsh, contemplative lives of early Christian hermits formed a small community in the Chartreuse Mountains, near Grenoble, southeast France. They led silent, meditative lives and owned no possessions. From this beginning grew a new monastic order that spread rapidly across Europe. The monks became known as Carthusians and their priories as charterhouses.
History of La Chartreuse de Neuville
Charterhouses were established all over Europe. They were all built to a formal specification and for the same purpose says my guide Patrick Alindre at La Chartreuse de Neuville. Around a Cour d’honneur lived the Brothers, monks who worked in the monastery and supported the Fathers. Behind this were the apartments of the Fathers. Each lived alone and in silence. The Charterhouses were huge “because only then could silence be guaranteed and that was essential to the role of the Fathers” says Patrick as our footsteps echo around the enormous cloisters.
The original charterhouse was built in 1324, commissioned by the powerful Count of Boulogne in the shadow of Montreuil-sur-Mer which was a pilgrimage destination, as well as a prosperous port town. In August 1561, Mary Queen of Scots stopped off at Montreuil-sur-Mer on her way to Scotland from France and was given a gift of two peacocks from the Charterhouse of Neuville.
After the French Revolution when the state seized church property, the monks left and the building fell into disrepair. It was sold to a private buyer who dismantled it and sold off the material which was used in local buildings. The Charterhouse was bought back by the state in 1870 and restored by renowned architect Clovis Normand, born in nearby Hesdin and a pupil of Violet le Duc, recreator of Notre Dame Paris. He also designed St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Parkminster, England which is twinned with La Chartreuse de Neuville.
Life in La Chartreuse
The two communities of La Chartreuse de Neuville consisted of 24 Fathers and 24 Brothers who grew vegetables and fruit and supported the Fathers. They were all vegetarian.
Each father lived alone in an apartment called a cell, though it was quite substantial. They lived in silence and without company. Their food was passed through a guichet, a cupboard in the wall with two doors. A Brother would open the outer door, put the food in the cupboard and close the door. Then the Father would open his door to take the food. It was the same with any supplies including firewood. The Fathers were forbidden from doing work other than spiritual, except for cutting firewood. Each apartment was exactly the same, on two levels and with a small enclosed garden where they could grow flowers if they wished.
The ground floor level was considered the material world – connected to the world of man. There was a short corridor known as a promenoir where a Father could walk for exercise. Upstairs they entered the Ava Maria room and left behind the world of the non-spiritual. Here they would pray for hours on end. They also had a wood cutting area, a bedroom and prayer area, a table and chair.
The fathers were allowed to do spiritual things, reading, writing, painting and sculpting but nothing they produced ever had their signature. They had no personal possessions, no ego and no vanity. There were no distractions and their roles were viewed as collective. They prayed. A lot.
A life of prayer and solitude
The Fathers were felt to experience a spiritual consciousness by withdrawing from the world which enabled them to pray for mankind.
I expected to feel claustrophobic and shut in when I stood in the apartment of a Father. But instead, it felt surprisingly open, tranquil and calm. In the small garden I could feel the rays of the sun and hear the birds. Other than that it was silent as it had been for centuries.
Colourful patterns fell across the cloisters from the stained glass windows. There are several cloisters, arched and columned and glorious.
The Fathers met five times a day for prayer in the Great Chapel. And on Sunday afternoons when they dined together – always in silence. On Mondays they were allowed to take a walk outside the Charterhouse and speak if necessary and once a week they would gather in the Chapter Room and speak – but only if they had something relevant to say. The French saying “l’avoir l’avoir a chapitre” – having a voice in the chapter, which means to have influence, originated from this.
They were allowed to meet up with their family for just two hours a year. No part of the Charterhouse was accessible to the public but religious visitors were allowed.
Every Charterhouse followed the same rules and routines.
What to see at La Chartreuse de Neuville
In 1901 the Loi of Association separated the church and state in France, and the monastery finally met its end. It became a sanatorium, orphanage and asylum. In WWI the French Government turned it over to refugees fleeing Belgium. 5000 people passed through, 600 died there and are buried in the grounds.
La Chartreuse de Neuville has dozens of cloisters, chapels, a library and other rooms. It was once the home of the printing press for all the Charterhouses of Europe 1800s. But the equipment was transferred to St Hugh’s Charterhouse (there are plans to have it returned).
A huge central courtyard around which are cloisters is dominated by two belfries – one for God and one for man with bells ringing on the hour. The prior of the community was elected every two years from the Fathers and lived in a bigger house overlooking the central courtyard.
When they died their bodies were laid to rest in the chapel of death. You can spot by the carved skull over the top of the door. They were buried in a cloth, with no marker, nothing remained of them with their purpose fulfilled – to pray for mankind and to have no ego.
Nowadays you can visit and see the beautiful gardens overlooking the Canche Valley but the guided tour (in French but English speakers are given a paper guide to help them) is essential to really appreciate this incredible building.
Exhibitions are held in the refractory and regular events take place year round including a Blues Festival in the summer, electro nights and concerts.
It’s a fascinating place with a real feeling of spirituality…
What to see close by
Le Touquet the “Monaco” of northern France, swish, swanky and elegant seaside resort
Where to take a foodie break in Pas de Calais
Guide to Boulogne-sur-Mer, the port city has an incredible historic walled inner city
Montreuil-sur-Mer, the little town which inspired Victor Hugo to write Les Miserables