The garden of the Mount Grace Priory cell is English Heritage’s best preserved example of monastic horticulture. It was replanted for the first time in 1994, following archaeological excavation of the cells. The excavations showed that the lay-out and use of each garden varied according to the inclination and interest of the individual monk.
The pattern of paths and beds in the garden was based on archaeological evidence, but it was uncertain which plants were used or how they may have been arranged in the beds. None of the recent planting was intended to be a restoration or reconstruction of the original garden. It instead was a demonstration of the kinds of plants that were grown in gardens at the time the monastery flourished.
Equipment, too, has changed how we tend to our gardens today. Monk’s tools would have been simple wooden and metal ards (like a small hand pulled plough) or mattocks rather than the mechanised marvels of today’s horticulture. Rather than a tractor, power for larger plots would have been provided by oxen.
Cell gardens as at Mount Grace Priory provided monks with the opportunity for manual labour within the confines of their own cell, which was a key part of the Carthusian ideal. As a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) they also had biblical associations including the garden of the ‘Song of Solomon’, and alluded to the ‘original’ Garden of Eden, or to ‘Paradise’ itself. These spaces were not primarily for food production but had multiple functions of spirituality, health and utility. The mass of food for the monks came from much larger kitchen gardens, plots and farms elsewhere.
These cell gardens were strongly geometric in form, often compartmentalised (defining spaces for medicinal or poisonous species) and in the 15th century started to become decorative. This included a mix of medicinal and aromatic herbs, and flowering plants to lift the mind and spirit and to aid contemplation.
English Heritage also describes how Mount Grace was a thriving community as late as 1523, with a waiting list of men wanting to become Carthusians. The last prior, John Wilson, tried to save the house:
The monks refused to become involved with the Pilgrimage of Grace, the popular rising that broke out in Yorkshire in the autumn of 1536 in reaction to the suppression of the lesser monasteries.
When Mount Grace was eventually suppressed in December 1539 the community were given generous pensions. The prior was granted the hermitage and chapel of The Mount in nearby Osmotherley, which belonged to the priory. He, with one of his monks and two lay brothers, was to join the charterhouse of Sheen when it was refounded under Mary I in 1555.
The last prior of Sheen Priory in Richmond, named the House of Jesus of Bethlehem, was Maurice Chauncey. He was:
In exile, the remaining Carthusians gathering in Belgium under Chauncey's leadership in the Sheen Anglorum Charterhouse.