Syon Abbey seal

Seal of Abbey and Convent of Syon showing figure of Henry V


I want to thank Theo Keller, of

 for the research he had done about Syon Abbey.

Active lay interest in the Brigittine order in England dates from 1406, when Phillippa, the daughter of Henry IV, married Eric XIII. She was accompanied to Sweden by a Yorkshireman, Sir Henry FitzHugh, third Lord FitzHugh, whose family seat was Ravensworth in Richmondshire. By some means Fitzhugh's attention was drawn to the monastery of Wadstena, the chronicle of which records his visit to it. He volunteered to found a branch of the order of St Bridget in England, and promised the gift of a manor, Hinton near Cambridge, on condition that some of the order took possession of it within three years. This plan proved abortive, as did that of Henry IV, who was caught up in the initial enthusiasm, to convert the decayed hospital of St Nicholas at York into a Brigittine house. But they laid the ground for Henry V's foundation of Syon Abbey in 1415. To assist Lord FitzHugh in his plans two Brigittine monks, John Peterson and Katillus Thorberni, were elected at Wadstena and came over to England in 1408, where they remained until the foundation of Syon. Where they lived while recruiting postulants for the new order is something of a myster. Perhaps they resided at Ravensworth, where they would have been in an ideal position to introduce the devotion of the XV O's to Yorkshire.

In 1415, the same year of his renowned victory at Agincourt, Henry the Fifth, in the presence of Richard Clifford, Bishop of London laid the foundation stone of a building destined for the nuns at his manor of Isleworth, and in March the royal charter was drawn up and signed. Henry first founded the abbey on the Middlesex bank of the Thames roughly opposite his royal palace at Shene (Richmond), but the location proved unsuitable and within a few years it was moved to the site now occupied by Syon House. Six years later of the first foundation, the Regent, John, Duke of Bedford, laid the first stone of the chapel. The "Monastery of St. Saviour and St. Bridget of Syon" was the only one in England belonging to the modified order of St. Augustine, as reformed by St. Bridget (see BRIGITTINES), and comprised thirteen priests,, four deacons, and eight lay brethren, besides sixty nuns. The property extended for half a mile along the bank of the Thames, near Twickenham; the members of the new settlement were bound 'to celebrate Divine Service for ever for our healthful estate while we live and for our souls when we shall have departed this life, and for the souls of our most dear lord and father (Henry IV) late king of England, and Mary his late wife, etc'. Before the close of the year four consecrated Swedish sisters, three novices and two brothers arrived in England from Wadstena. They were sent by the king and queen of Sweden and were sped on their way by the Archbishop of Lund and other dignitaries. The settlement at Syon had been granted an income of a thousand marks, to be drawn from the royal exchequer until the permanent endowments made to it should amount to that sum. In 1418 Pope Martin V received the house under his special protection; the first profession or monastic engagement took place two years later. Twenty-four nuns, five priests, two deacons and four lay brothers pronounced their vows before Archbishop Chicheley of Canterbury (1420). And before the close of Henry's reign (1422) the house was endowed with manors and spiritualities, scattered over the land from Kent to the Lake district, which were chiefly appropriated from the possessions of alien priorles. Endowments and benefactions rapidly flowed in, and towards the close of the century and a quarter which elapsed between its foundation and dissolution, the annual income of the monastery was estimated at 1730, equal in modern money to 100,000 dollars.

The first regularly appointed confessor-general at Syon, replacing the titular Confessor General, William Alnwick, Benedictine of St Albans and Recluse of Westminster, was Thomas Fishbourne (d. 1428), a former steward to the abbot of St Albans who had become a hermit. Fishbourne also provides another link to the north of England. Thomas Gascoigne records that 'before his entry into religion he was a great squire, and a devout, in the north of England'. Not far from St Albans is Markyate, from where came Joan North, the first Abbess of Syon, replacing the titular one, Matilda Newton, (monialis de Barking). At her death in 1433, Abbess North was followed by Maud Muston, and after her Margaret Ashby was Abbess of Syon. The next Abbess was Elizabeth Muston and at her death Elizabeth Gibbs; and her successor was Constance Browne. Agnes Jordan (d. 29 Jan 1546), was the last Abbess (1531-1539), before the supression of the English Monasteries.

The Abbess governed the Order while a Confessor-General, elected by the brethren, controlled the spiritual direction.  The monastic buildings were arranged so that the Sisters had their own convent on one side with the Brothers on the other side.  A church, situated between the two groups, served both communities but preserved separate enclosure within. The church would appear to be of cathedral size proportions and as a result it is possibly one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings of the 15th century. A colossal 100-metre (328 feet) long church, which would also have been 40 metres (131 feet) wide. The Sisters sang the Bridgettine Office of Our Lady alternately with the Brothers' Hour of the Divine Office. The election of a new Abbess was effected by the sisters alone within three days of the occurrence of a vacancy. It was not managed in quite the same way as elsewhere. The Prioress proposed a name, and if the sisters voted unanimously in favour of it, the election was called 'by the way of the Holy Ghost'. But if they did not agree, they named a candidate and the ballot was repeated till a sufficient majority was obtained. The election was not valid unless confirmed by the Bishop. When the Abbess pronounced the words of her 'obedience' she was supported by a learned man of law or notary, besides the confessor of the house and two brothers. The confessor was appointed at the discretion of the Abbess herself, the 'sadder' or elderly sisters and the brothers; but the other appointments were made by the Abbess alone. She appointed the sisters to office and could remove them. As elsewhere, she was obliged to do so in the chapter-house in the presence of the convent.

'Additional rules for the sisters of the order of St Saviour and St Bridget'.

The chief information we have on the conventual life of the women assembled at Syon is contained in a set of ' additional rules' written in English 'for the sisters of the order of St Saviour and St Bridget'. The same rules exist in a manuscript of contemporaneous date adapted to the use of the brothers, whose duties, save in a few particulars, were similar. They acted as priests and confessors to the double community. The chapel had a double chancel, each with its separate stalls; it was divided by a 'crate' or grille which did not prevent the brothers and sisters from being visible to each other during divine service. The gate of this grille was kept locked, and was only opened for the entrance and departure of the clergy when they said mass at the altar of the sisters' chapel. The lay brothers of the settlement acted as labourers, and had no part in the government of the house.

The additional rules for the sisters are grouped together in fifty-nine chapters, and contain most elaborate directions not only as to the occupation, behaviour and special duties of the various inmates of the convent, but for exigencies of every kind. After directions about the holding of the Chapter, lists of defaults are worked out, grouped under the headings of light, grievous, more grievous and most grievous. 'A careful consideration of this code of "defaultes" and their penalties,' says Blunt, 'leads to the conclusion that it was intended as an exhaustive list of possible crimes, and that it offers no ground for believing that the Sisters of Syon were ever guilty of them or ever incurred the severer punishments enjoined in connection with them.' Among 'light defaults' we note such as neglect in religious observance and in washing; among 'grievous defaults,' despising the common doctrine as taught by the holy fathers, and going unconfessed for fourteen days. 'More grievous defaults' are such as sowing discord, theft, and using sorcery or witchcraft; 'most grievous defaults' are manslaughter, fleshly sin, and blasphemy. We gather from the directions that one mode of severe punishment was imprisonment, whereas 'discipline' was administered regularly by the sisters to each other. The power of the Abbess over the members of the convent was absolute; she is spoken of in these rules sometimes as sovereign, sometimes as majesty. It was she who decreed punishment and penance, and when the Bishop enjoined correction in consequence of an enquiry, she decided upon and administered it. Twenty-eight questions, which the Bishop on the occasion of his visitation was allowed to put to the Abbess and the convent, are given. They refer to devotional duties, to the observance of fasts, etc. One question enquires of the sisters how they are occupied when they are not at divine service or at conventual observances; another if there be an inventory or register of the books of the library, and how they and other books of study are kept; again another  enquires as to the state of the infirmary.

A caution against slander suggests a curious idea of equity. If any sister bring an accusation against another before the Bishop, she shall not be heard 'unless bound to the pain if she fail in proof, that she whom she accuses shall have, if she be found guilty.'

Among the men who necessarily had access to the women's conventual buildings, physicians, workmen and labourers are enumerated.

In the additional rules directions are also given about singing and keeping the hours and the festivals. The day at Syon was divided by the seven 'hours' in the usual way. At the hours in chapel the 'sadder' or elder sisters sang together with the younger ones or 'song-sisters'. The 'observance of the altar' at both masses belonged to the brothers; it was so arranged that the brothers' service came first and the sisters' began when that of the brothers ended. In addition to the usual hours and masses two ceremonies were daily observed at Syon. One was the singing of the psalm De Profundis at an open grave to which the whole convent wended its way after tierce. The other consisted of a prayer addressed to Mary in chapel before evensong, from which none of the sisters was to absent herself except for an important reason.

A number of festivals were celebrated at Syon with special services and processions. Among them were the feast of the Circumcision, the translation of St Bridget and the day of St John the Baptist 'when their feasts fall on Sunday and not else' also Palm Sunday, St Mark's day, Rogation Sunday, St Peter and St Paul, St Anne's, Michaelmas, all the feasts of Our Lady and all the principal or high double feasts of the year. On these occasions the sisters walked two and two in procession, and the sister who was sexton bore the 'image of our lady' after the cross, and two torches were carried on either side a little before the image. The additional rules contain directions to the sisters on the arrangement of divine service on these occasions, and further directions in the rule for the brothers minutely describe the elaborate ritual which took place.

At Syon the Abbess had her meals with the sisters, sitting at a high table while they sat at side tables, and the servitors or lay sisters waited. When they had done the sisters wiped their knives and spoons on the napkins; they were to guard against spotting the cloth, and spilling the food, and were directed to put away their cups and spoons honest and clean into the 'coffyns' which were kept underneath the table, or in some other place ordered by the Abbess. At the end of a meal the sisters swept together the crumbs with their napkins, and then, at a sign from the Abbess, they bore the food away to the serving-house. The youngest sister took the first dish, and each one carried away something according to age. The language in which the utensils are described presents some difficulties. They carried away the drink and then 'the garnapes that they sette on, ther pottes and cruses, after thys, brede, hole, kytte, cantelles, ande crommes, and laste of alle salt', ending evermore with the Abbess or president, and inclining to each sister as they took them up and they again to them.

The behaviour of the sisters to each other and to the Abbess in the refectory, the dormitory, the chapter-house, etc. was carefully regulated. The sisters when they met the Abbess bowed to her, 'for love without reverence is but childish love.' The desire for refinement in bearing and behaviour is manifested throughout by these directions, and some of them are curious. Thus the sister who washed her hands was directed not to 'jutte up' the water on another, nor to spit in the lavatory, nor to presume to go without her veil and crown upon her head, except only in her cell, washing-house, etc. Judging from this reference to cells, the dormitory at Syon was divided by partitions or curtains, so that each sister practically had a room to herself.

The rules of keeping silence, the year of proof, and the instruction and profession of novices, are fully discussed. The additional rules also contain a full description of the duties of each appointment in the convent. The choir in church was led by a chauntres and subchauntres who should be 'cunning and perfect in reading and singing.' It was the duty of the ebdornary, or weekly appointed nun, to be one of the first in choir; she was 'to abstayn and withdrawe herself from alle thynges that wyke that myght lette her to performe her office'. When the Abbess did not execute the service the ebdomary began the Invitatory; and she always gave the third blessing after the Abbess had read the third lesson. She also fulfilled the office of the Abbess at the principal feasts, except in such things as belonged exclusively to the Abbess.

We hear also of the duties of the sexton, sexteyne, who kept the church ornaments and the altar 'whole and sound, fair, clean and honest', and who saw to the washing of altar-cloths, awbes or surplices. She was not allowed to touch or wash the hallowed corporas or cloths with bare hands, but was obliged to wear linen gloves, and in starching the cloths she was directed to use starch made of herbs only. The sexton had in her keeping wax, lamps, oil and all other things belonging to the church; she had to provide for the church syngynge or communion brede, sudarys, wax-candles, tallow-candles, wax rolls, tapers, torches, mats, nattes, and roundlettes; and she provided for the penners, pens, ink, inkhorns, tables, and all else that the Abbess asked of her. Also she opened and shut the doors and windows of the sisters' choir and common places, lighted and extinguished tapers and candles, and snuffed them 'in such wise and in such time that the sisters be not grieved with the savour'.

It was the duty of the sexton to ring the bells in the women's part of the house; the ringing of a bell regulated throughout the life of those assembled at Syon. It roused the brothers and sisters from sleep, summoned them to church, called them to meals, and ever and anon gave notice for a devotional pause in whatever occupation was going on at the moment. When one of the community passed away from life the large or curfew bell was tolled continuously.

Another appointment in the women's convent was that of the legister or reader at meals, who was directed to read out distinctly and openly, that all might understand, whatever the Abbess or chauntress had assigned. On one day of the week she read out the rule. Absolute silence reigned during meals. If anyone had a communication to make, this was done by means of signs, used also at other times when silence was to be observed. A curious 'table of signs used during the hours of silence by the sisters and brothers in the monastery of Syon' was drawn up by Thomas Betsone, one of the brothers. Together with other tables of the kind, it suggests the origin of the method by which the deaf and dumb were formerly taught.

Many details are then given concerning the duties of the Prioress and other appointments. The first prioress ay Syon was Juliana Sukeling, who also had three sisters at the house, Margaret, Catherine and Joan. At the end of the fifthteen century, Anne De la Pole, the daughter of the Duke of Suffolk and niece of Edward IV, was the Prioress of the Abbey. Margaret Windsor, the sister of the first Lord Windsor, was a Prioress of Syon, the last before the dissolution; and Rose Pachet, a Nun in 1518, was Prioress of the restored community.

The nuns appointed to enquire into shortcomings are here designated as serchers. The treasurer and her fellow kept the muniments of the monastery and its possessions in gold and silver in the treasury, in a large chest to which there were two keys, one kept by the treasurer and the other by her fellow. These sisters also provided and paid for all necessary medicines, spices and powders, etc.

Duties of no small importance devolved on the chambres, or mistress of the wardrobe, who saw to the raiment of the sisters and the brothers, both in regard to linen and to woollen clothes, shaping, sewing, making, repairing and keeping them from 'wormes', and shaking them with 'the help of other sisters'. I transcribe in the original spelling the things she is told to provide: 'canuas for bedyng, fryses, blankettes, shetes, bolsters, pelowes, couerlites, cuschens, basens, stamens, rewle cotes, cowles, mantelles, wymples, veyles, crownes, pynnes, cappes, nyght kerchyfes, pylches, mantel furres, cuffes, gloues, hoses, shoes, botes, soles, sokkes, mugdors (sic), gyrdelles, purses, knynes, laces, poyntes, nedells, threde,--waschyng bolles and sope--(written in the margin) and for all other necessaries, as directed by the Abbess, which shall not be over curious but plain and homely, without wearing of any strange colours of silk, gold or silver, having all things of honesty and profit and nothing of vanity after the rule, their knives unpointed and purses being double of linen cloth, and not silk.'

In illustration of the office of the chambress, Blunt has published a document preserved in the Record Office, which contains the account of Dame Bridget Belgrave, chambress at Syon from Michaelmas 1536 to Michaelmas 1537, the year preceding the dissolution. This shows that the chambress provided the material for the dress of the sisters and other items. She buys russettes, white cloth, kerseys, fryce, Holland cloth and other linen cloth mostly by the piece, which varies in the number of its yards; she provides soap, calf-skins, thread, needles and thimbles; she purchases new spectacles and has old ones mended. Among many other items of interest we find fox-skins, paper, and pins of divers sorts; she sets down a sum for burying poor folks, and 'expences at London,' from which we gather that she had been there; and pays 'rewards' and 'wages' to the grome, the skynner, and the shumakers.

The duties of the cellaress stand next in the additional rules, and they recall the complex duties belonging to the same post at Barking. Blunt has also illustrated these duties by publishing the accounts, rendered by Dame Agnes Merrett, for the last year preceding the dissolution. This cellaress also charged herself with various sums received for hides, calf-skins and woolfelles or sheep-skins. She received payment for boarding My Lady Kyngeston and her servants, and Sister Elizabeth Nelson. She received rent from various tenants and managed the home farm at Isleworth. We hear of her buying horses, cattle, hogs and peacocks for its storing. Its dairy was managed by paid servants. This cellaress, like her fellow at Barking, purchased provisions and fish for the use of the convent, but her entries are more numerous and infer a higher standard of living, perhaps due to the fact that these accounts are more than a hundred years later than the 'charge of the cellaress at Barking'. The cellaress at Syon also bought salt salmon, herrings by the barrel, and red herrings by the caade' also stubbe eels. She further bought spices, fruits, sugar, nutmegs, almonds, currants, ginger, isinglass, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace, figge doodes (sic), topnettes (sic), great raisins, prunes, saffron and rice. Her 'foreign payments' include seed for the garden, boat-hire, and expenses at London, by which we see that she too, like the chambress of the house, had been there. Among her other expenses are rewards to the 'clerke of the kechyn,' the 'baily of the husbandry,' the 'keper of the covent (convent) garden,' and the 'cookes.' Members of the convent were deputed by the Abbess to look after the sick (c. 57), and the writer insists upon the need of gentleness and patience in dealing with them.

'Often change their beds and clothes,' he says, 'give them medicines, lay to them plaisters and minister to them meat and drink, fire and water, and all other necessaries night and day, as need requires after the counsel of the physicians, and precept of the sovereign; do not be squeamish in washing and wiping them by avoiding them, be not angry nor hasty, nor impatient though one have the vomit, another the flux, another the frenzy, and now sings, now cries, now laughs, now weeps, now chides, now is frightened, now is wroth, now well apayde, for there be some sickness vexing the sick so greatly and provoking them to ire that the matter drawn up to the brain alienates the mind'. And therefore those in attendance should have much patience with them, that thereby they may secure an everlasting crown.

Aungier has also reprinted lists of the capabilities of indulgence granted to Syon, and of the pardons secured by those who offered prayers in the chapel there. This shows one of the means by which money was secured to religious houses in the 15th century. Indulgences were granted at Syon on almost every festival in the year. By 'devoutly giving somewhat to the reparation of the said monastery' and offering prayers on Midlent Sunday, the visitor at Syon might secure pardon extending from a hundred days to 'clean remission of all sin except in the points which are reserved to the Pope.' To give alms on the feast of St Bridget, the patron saint of the house, secured to him who sought help 'pardon and clean remission in all cases reserved and unreserved,' according to the wording of the document. This power, as the manuscript informs us, had been granted 'by diverse holy fathers, popes at Rome, archbishops, bishops, cardinals and legates.' Aungier supplements it by printing a document which came from Norfolk on the capabilities of pardon possessed by different religious houses. There are entries in this referring to the 'pardoun of beyds' of the Charterhouse of Mount Grace and of the Charterhouse at Sheen, and to the pardon of beads at Syon and at the 'Crossed Friars' beside London Tower.

The Order followed St. Bridget's rule of poverty fervently.  Each year before All Souls Day, the monastic accounts were examined, bare provision was put aside for the coming year, and the entire surplus of money or food was given to the poor on All Souls Day.

Robert Bell was the second confessor general at Syon. Although strictly enclosed, the brethren, many of whom were university graduates, were influential as confessors, by their writings and by preaching to pilgrims who came for the "Pardon of Syon" at Lammastide.  A Monk of Syon Monastery was Richard Whitford or Whytford (d.c1555), Fellow of Queen College, Cambridge, Dean of Chapel, Chaplain to William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, to Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester; author especially of such devotional works as 'The Wretch of Syon'; friend of Erasmus; retired with a pension to the Mountjoy's house after the Dissolution. William Bond (d.1530), other fellow of Queen´s College; Philosophical Lecturer; Fellow and Junior Treasurer of Pembroke College after 1506; University Preacher, was a Monk of Syon Monastery.

The long wars with France finally ended the ties between the Lancaster Priory and its headquarters in Normandy and in 1414 it was handed over to the Brigittine nunnery. After this the church became the Parish Church of Lancaster with the right to appoint the vicar in the hands of the Abbess of Syon. This remained the position until the Abbey was dissolved in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's Reformation, It is not clear whether the Priory buildings were then destroyed or merely allowed to deteriorate by being used as a stone quarry.

In 1415 John Fitzalan, 13th Earl of Arundel, sold the advowson of St. John’s church to Henry the Fifth. In 1420, following the resignation of Yeovil’s rector, the King bestowed both rectory and lordship on the Abbess of Syon as titulator head of the convent, and so, from 1420, the church was served by a vicar and chaplains or curates. The town now came under the rule of the Abbess, who took all the greater tithes as well as fines from the courts, presided over by her steward, and toll from the markets and fairs. A visiting steward regularly accounted and collected the sums accruing. However, in common with contemporary practices, the Abbess ‘farmed’ much of her authority to Sir John Horsey of Clifton Maybank. An indenture of 1493 shows the lease to him, for four years, of the lordship of the Town, though the Abbess reserved to herself the parish church and appointment of a steward. Sir John paid £45 per annum for his rights. This arrangement continued until 1539.

Top of Carved pinnacle fron the gateway of Syon Abbey, on which part of the quartered body of Reynolds was placed after his death.

When the Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared Henry VIII to be supreme head of the Church in England, Robert Lawrence, prior at Beauvale, and Augustine Webster, monk of the Charterhouse at Sheen, near Richmond (who had previously been prior at Axholme), came to London to confer with John Houghton, prior of the Carthusian monastery or ‘Charterhouse’ at Gray’s Inn.  They approached Thomas Cromwell in an attempt to obtain an Oath of Supremacy which would be acceptable in conscience to their communities, but were thrown in the Tower.  Later, Thomas More, also a prisoner in the Tower, saw them being taken to Tyburn, 4 May 1535, and said to his daughter, then visiting him: “Lo, dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms ot marriage?”  Important people of the royal court assisted to the executions, including Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, the bastard son of the King. With them died Richard Reynolds, also called "The Angel of Syon", a monk of the Bridgettine Order at Syon Abbey, a scholarly man and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, friend of More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester.  It had been felt that if such a distinguished person took the Oath of Supremacy, many other hesitant individuals would follow.

After the execution of the bridgettine monk, Syon suffered from periodical and harassing visits by the commissioners of the King, who strove hard to induce the religious to acknowledge the King's Supremacy. Some brothers acceded, and Brother Thomas Brownal rebuked one of them publicly in the church, with the result that Brownal was sent to Newgate Prison and died there, 21 Oct 1537.

In 1539 all Catholic monastic orders were suppressed due to their resistance to Henry VIII's religious policy.  Of all the English monasteries only Syon refused to surrender. The good observance of Syon was maintained to the last; and even Layton and Bedell, Henry VIII's servile commissioners, could find little or nothing to bring against the community. Several Syon scholars were put to death because of their support of Elizabeth Barton

The confessor General did his best to persuade Abbes Jordan to accept the King's Supremacy, and Cromwell sent Bishops to her with the same purpose. They called her by hard names, but the letters of the commissioners about her submission are self-contradictory.

Apparently Syon did not surrender, for there is no record of its "surrender" in the Augmentation Office, and the community did not deliver up either the seal or keys, but took them with them when they were turned out. The fact was that Syon was not tractable and had powerful friends, so Cromwell devised another method to suppress the monastery and gain possession of its property. In May 1538, the King's attorney took out a writ of Praemunire against John Stokesley, Bishop of London, and, as accessories with him, against the Abbess and Confessor-General of Syon, accusing Stokesley of having officiated on three occasions, in 1537 and 1538, at the profession of Brethren at Syon; that on these occasions he had executed a bull of Pope Martin (A.D. 1418) attributing authority to the See of Rome and to the present Bishop of Rome, and that thereby those taking part had made themselves liable to the penalty of praemunire. The punishment for praemunire was: "They should be out of the King's Protection, attached by their Bodies and lose their Lands, Tenements, Goods and Chattets". Stokesley, taken into custody, acknowledged his guilt, implored Cromwell's intercession, and threw himself on the King's mercy. He obtained the Henry's pardon in JuI, for it was not the Bishop but Syon that Cromwell aimed at. Among the State Papers of 1539 are some of "Cromwell's Remembrances" and three of them refer to the suppression of Syon-one runs:

"touching the monastery of Sion the king may dissolve by praemunire, and he will."

And he did. The eontemporary Chronicle of Wriothesley has this entry:

" A.D. 1539. The 25 daie of November the house of Syon - was suppressed into the Kinges handes, and the ladies and brethren putt out, which was the vertues (virtouosest) house of religion that was in England, the landes and goodes to the Kinges use"

The inmates were expelled in 1539, and the buildings seized by Henry, who imprisoned his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, in them for some months.  Yeovil’s rectory and lordship was appropriated to the Crown and conferred by the King on his consort, Anne of Cleves. The Horsey family continued to retain the lay rectorship and lordship of the town under the Crown, for which, in 1584, the sum of £26 18s 8d was rendered. They continued to hold the lordship until 1610, when it was acquired by George and Thomas Whitmore, of London. They sold it the following year to Sir Edward Phelips of Montacute.

At the dissolution of monasteries 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.

Sister Catherine Palmer, who later became Abbess, led a group of nuns to the Netherlands and took refuge in a convent of their order at Dendermonde in Flanders. There they were visited by Cardinal Pole, and through his influence were re-established at Syon in 1557, under Queen Mary, and the greater part of their property was restored to them. At the accession of Elizabeth they were driven into exile again, and returned to Dendermonde, and after various wanderings in France and Spain settled in Lisbon, where they still own property. The community moved from place to place until they settled in Lisbon in 1594.  Issued 7 Jul 1563 by Pope Pius IV, a papal bull is addressed to all the Christian faithful but is particularly directed to the Archbishop of Utrecht and others who might assist the community of Bridgettine nuns in exile from Syon Abbey.  The Pope wrote of the Abbess Catherine and the trials she and the nuns were enduring.  He offered a variety of spiritual concessions and indulgences to all individuals who had helped the Syon community in their time of distress. For the next three centuries the monastery maintained its existence despite great hardships. The Lisbon community returned to England in 1861, settling at Spettisbury, Dorsetshire (transferred to Chudleigh, Devon, in 1887). The Abbey of Syon has the distinction of being the only English religious community founded in medieval times that has maintained an unbroken lineage to the present.

Abbess Jordan

Brass plate at Denham parish Church.

King Henry VIII´s coffin, lying at Syon on its way to Windsor for burial, burst open during the night and in the morning dogs were found licking up the remains. This was regarded as a divine judgement for his desecration of the abbey.

The present Syon House is built on the site the great church of Syon Abbey. The Lord Protector Somerset began the building in 1547. It was there that lady Jane Grey reluctatly accepted the crown that John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, offered to her agter the death of Edward VI. In 1604, Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland was gifted the freehold of  the Isleworth monastery by King James I and it has remained in the ownership of the Percy family for the last 400 years. The architect Robert Adam created some of his finest interiors at Syon House in the 1760s. The House was remodelled in the grand neo-classical style, making a fashionable home, where the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland could entertain on a lavish scale. The present mansion is mostly the work of Inigo Jones, the ancient mulberry-trees in the garden being, it is said, the sole relic of the conventual domain). Syon is still renowned today for being a grand venue for entertaining, not only in the House, but also in the Great Conservatory, the showpiece of the Gardens, built by the 3rd Duke in the 1820s. The 200-acre park was landscaped by 'Capability' Brown in the mid 18th century and the views across the Thames-side water meadows, still grazed by cattle, give Syon a unique rural landscape, close to the heart of London.

BRIGITTINES: The Bridgettine Order(s)

The  Bridgettine Order was founded principally for  contemplative nuns.  Each Abbey was to be independent and its government would be exercised by an AbbessBridget also included monks in the Order, so that there were, for many centuries, Abbeys with double monasteries (i.e., one for women, one for men -- they would share one building only, the church).  The monks were to be chaplains to the Nuns.

Bridget's rule specified numbers for each community, i.e.,

"the number of choir nuns shall not exceed sixty, with four lay sisters;  the priests shall be thirteen, according to the number of the thirteen apostles, of whom Paul the thirteenth was not the least in toil;  then there must be four deacons, who also may be priests if they will, and they are the figure of the four principal Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome, then eight lay brothers, who with their labors shall minister necessaries to the clerics, therefore counting three-score sisters, thirteen priests, four deacons, and the eight servitors, the number of persons will be the same as the thirteen Apostles and the seventy two-disciples" (Rule).

The order grew, and by many accounts, its reputation was one of holiness.  The constitutions were further approved by Urban VI again by Martin V.

In the very late middle ages, a Brother of Syon Abbey composed the famous Mirror of Our Lady, which saw (printed)  publication in 1530.  It is a detailed commentary on the Bridgettine Office, though it became very popular among clergy and laity.  There is no direct evidence as to authorship, but the best research suggests that it was Thomas Fishbourne, one of Syon Abbey's Bridgettine Monks and its first Confessor-General.

Mirror of Our Lady  is a learned text, though it is not considered "great" literature from the period;  however, its author had an excellent understanding of the liturgy of the hours, and took great pains to ensure that his readers (primarily the Nuns of Syon Abbey) understood their Breviary texts.  (For example, he shows that while every antiphon in the office is Marian-focused, it also derives its text and theme from the psalm or psalms which it frames)

BRIDGET OF SWEDEN  (ca 1303 - Jul 23, 1373)

Bridget was a woman of many roles: wife; mother of 8 (one of whom is also a Saint); princess of Sweden; confidant, advisor and critic of Kings, Popes and Councils; pilgrim; visionary and recipient of several revelations; foundress of an Order; Saint.

Her marriage, begun in 1316, ended when her husband died in 1344, after they had returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela in Spain.

From early childhood, Bridget believed she had received visions or revelations, and after her husband died, these revelations become more frequent. 

In one of them, the Lord directed her to found an order, his Order  « The Order of the Most Holy Savior, O.Ss.S.» to live a life of praise for His Mother, the Blessed Virgin. The revelations detailed a rule of life, the form of liturgical prayer her Nuns were to pray, and even the unique habit the Nuns were to wear. 

Bridget, with the assistance of King Magnus of Sweden and his wife, founded a monastery at Vadstena in 1346.  She was directed to go to Rome to seek papal approval for her community, and her rule.  She journeyed to Rome in 1349.  The Popes, however, resided in Avignon in France at this period, and one of Bridget's many missions was to encourage, in any way she could, including criticism,  the return of the papacy and the curia officials to Rome.

There was a temporary success, and during it, in Aug of 1370, in Rome, Pope Urban V confirmed the constitutions of Bridget's new order.

Bridget continued doing charitable work in Rome and throughout Italy and then made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1373.  She returned to Rome, died on Jul 23rd.  Afterwards, her daughter, St. Catherine of Sweden, returned Bridget's body to Vadstena and became first Abbess of the new order.

It is of interest to note that Bridget, although both foundress and lawgiver, was never a member of her order, never wore the habit of the order and which she had described from her visions, never was a nun, in fact.  And perhaps never prayed the office she left for her Nuns.  Much of the iconography which shows Bridget does picture her in a habit, or in pilgrim's attire and sometimes, even in the dress of royalty.

In 1999, she was named, along with Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein, as one of the women co-patroness of Europe.  The men are Benedict, Cyril & Methodius.


Aunger, History and Antiquities of Syon Monastery (London, 1840);

Blunt, The Myroure of our Ladye: offices used at Syon (London, 1873), historical introduction;

Dugdale, Monastic. Anglican., VI (London, 1825), 540, 541;

Willis, History of Abbies, II (London, 1719), 136;

Tanner, Notitia monastica: Middlesex, II (London, 1787);

Baxter, Syon Abbey (Chudleigh, s. d.);

Gasquet, Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, II (London, 1889), 256, 459, 476, 483.

Eckenstein, Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (Cambridge, 1896)

Fletcher, The Story of the English Bridgettines of Syon Abbey

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