Catherine PALMER

(Abbess of Syon)

Born: ABT 1500, Angmering, Sussex, England

Died: 19 Dec 1576, Mechelen, Antwerp, Belgium

Father: Edward PALMER of Angmering (Sir Knight)

Mother: Alice CLEMENT

Palmer came of the senior line of a family which had been settled at Angmering since the early 14th century. Her mother's family had lived at Ightham Mote, a stone, timber and moated house in Kent. Sister of Sir John, Sir Henry and Thomas Palmer, Catherine gave up life among the gentry to join the monastery of Syon at Isleworth, on the Thames.

Syon held together until 25 Nov 1539, when it was suppressed through Thomas Cromwell's energy. The community did not disperse after the Dissolution but, apparently in the hope that the schism was only a temporary matter, remained in groups until they could return to Syon. Abbess Jordan rented of Sir Edmund Peckham a farm house, Southlands, near Denham, Buckinghamshire; and with her went nine sisters of the community. Sister Elizabeth Yate with eight others settled at Buckland, Berkshire, with her father, James Yate; and her brother John collected their pensions for them each quarter. Sisters Alice and Dorothy Bettenham took five others to Thomas Bettenham of Sheerland, in Puckley, Kent; and some lived with the Prioress Margaret Windsor, others with Sister Margaret Daly.

Alone among English nunneries of which we have records, the sisters continued to live as best they could under the rule of their foundress in small groups, at first in England, then abroad. Catherine Palmer was a leader in these attempts.

When the monastery was dissolved she received a pension of six pounds. It is unclear where she spent the next twelve years. In 1551, after three or more groups had been living for more than a decade a monastic life in the shelter of friendly houses in England, Catherine Palmer took six Bridgettine sisters and four brothers to live at a house of their order called MariaTroon, where they lived for six years at Termonde in Flanders.

After the accession of Mary Tudor in 1555, Cardinal Reginald Pole visited them and encouraged the nuns to return to England, where the monastery of Syon was refounded, with some rebuilding, in 1557. On 1 Mar 1557, twenty-one sisters and three brothers were officially reestablished back in England, at Syon. Catherine Palmer was elected Abbess on 31 Jul 1557, with the Queen's support.

In Apr letters patent were issued granting the site and more than 200 acres of land at Isleworth. The community then consisted of 21 sisters and 3 brothers, with Catherine Palmer as abbess and John Green confessor-general. A further grant of lands at Isleworth was made in Jan 1558. Meantime the work of refitting the buildings for monastic life had been going on, the cost being borne by Sir Francis Englefield who, through his wife, formerly Catherine Fettiplace, was related to two of the sisters. 

In 1559, Abbess Palmer conducted the community into its second exile a year after Elizabeth came to the throne. Syon was dissolved by Parliament in May 1559 and Catherine Palmer and some of her sisters left England in the party of the departing ambassador from Spain, the Count of Feria. The nuns had to flee again, at first back to Termonde until 1564, with Catherine Palmer at their head. She secured legal recognition that her community was the same that had been founded by Henry V in 1415. Otherwise their life proved hard and dangerous, from pestilence, then from civil unrest in the Low Countries.

Pope Pius IV had issued a papal bull on 7 Jul 1563 to ask church leaders, particularly the Archbishop of Utrecht, to assist the nuns in exile from Syon. They moved to Zurich Zee, then to Antwerp (1568-1571), then to Mechelin. There on 8 Nov 1576, Catherine Palmer bravely faced a Calvinist mob set on ransacking the monastery. She died the next month, on 19 Dec.

After burying Catherine Palmer in Mechelen, the others moved on to France and then to Portugal, finally settling in Lisbon in 1594. They returned to England in two groups, one in 1809 and the other in 1861, and eventually established a permanent community, still extant, in Devon.

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