What this pub lacks in direct history, it soaks up by virtue of its location (see Black plague pits and the last London Tudor townhouse below). The Sutton Arms on Carthusian Street is a tied Fuller’s pub. Its most notable characteristics include the barrel shaped glass frontage, which according to staff is missing some of the original panes of glass from a nearby bomb blast during the Blitz.
The exterior has some ornate tile work surrounding the frame of the frontage, which continues partially inside as can be seen in the above picture. The walls are a light shade of beige with the textured ceiling to match, with creaky wood tables and benches like church pews to line the walls. The interior is mostly quite bland save for one exception: the random busts. The one thing that stands out inside are the 3 busts that line the wall on your right upon entry.
The first 2 are of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra according to the bar keeper, while the third (pictured above) remains unknown. The crowd is your local area mixture, where depending on the time of day you can overhear a conversation about the happenings of the City, or just as easily see 5 locals from the estate across Goswell Road play cards and toss chips. It does serve a nice range of Fuller’s while the external barrel glass, artisan tiles, and friendly staff do merit some respect.
To understand the pubs name, one must understand the local history of the Cartusian Monks who once called this area home. The priory they founded here in 1371 was in an area previously used as a plague pit for the the City during the Bubonic plague outbreak of 1348. The Black death took an estimated 25 million lives across Europe effectively wiping out a full third of the population. The land which is now Charterhouse Square (seen below), with the pub a stone’s throw away from, is the final resting place for some 50,000 Black plague victims ditched in mass graves.
The medieval area of Clerkenwell existed outside the protection and rule of the City walls. The area was dominated by another source of power, the Church. The walled priories and convents of the area were numerous, and once very powerful. This of course was all brought down with the work of Henry VIII and the foundation of the Church of England beginning in 1534, as mentioned in the history of the Blackfriar’s pub. It was a particularly gruesome end for this monastery, ‘the Prior was hung, drawn, and quartered, with one of his arms being nailed to the gate’ (Howard and Nash, Secret London – The Unusual Guide). Good Ole’ Henry was nothing if not outspoken. The Reformation and the dissolution of the monastaries produced the largest legal land grab in English history since the Norman Conquest.
The land of the Carthusian monastery changed hands several times in the course of the 16th c including once into the hands of Thomas Howard, who was later imprisoned there for hatching a plan to wed Mary Queen of Scots. Eventually it became the property of one Sir Thomas Sutton, an affluent businessman and moneylender. Hence the name of this pub, The Sutton Arms.
When Sir Thomas Sutton died in 1611, he provided for the foundation of an almshouse and school in the complex of buildings off of Charterhouse Square. The Charthouse School existed on site until 1872 when it was moved to Surrey. It is one of the original nine public schools in England as defined by the Public Schools Act of 1868, and remains one of the most highly regarded public schools in the country. The evolution of the school to such an exalted status, and to be the learning grounds for the elite of English upper classes is seemingly contradictory to what Sutton made provision for in his will, which was to be a school for 40 poor young boys set up as a charity. The almshouse still operates on the grounds today, providing care as it has since its inception in 1611 for gentlemen pensioners. The chapel is open to the public on Sundays, and inside you can check out the tomb of Sir Thomas Sutton, benefactor and namesake of the aforementioned pub.
Take a stroll around the square, and check out one of the many terrific pubs in the Smithfield area. If coming through on a weekend, I would recommend The Rising Sun (who have some lovely new owners) or the Fox and Anchor as The Sutton Arms is only open Monday to Friday. Regardless, visit and soak up some of the atmosphere of the one of best areas of the City for history and pubs.