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. Henry V also sought papal confirmation for his new foundation. His supplica, drawn up before 1418, stated that he had endowed the monastery of Syon, with Maud Newton (monialis de Barking), and William Alnwick in charge. 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. Shakespeare has immortalized the legend that the abbey was founded in expiation for the murder of Richard II, but there is no reference to it in the foundation charter. 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 Aug 1418 Martin V issued two bulls concerning Syon. 'Eximie devocionis' was addressed to the King and confirmed the appropriation of the churches of Yeovil (Som.) and Croston (Lancs.) to the abbey. 'Integre devocionis' was directed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and the Abbot of St. Albans, and authorized them to amend any error in the foundation of Syon and to admit to regular profession those who wished to enter the monastery so that an abbess and confessor could be elected. Moreover, the Pope gave permission for any member of an order of less strict observance to enter Syon. A third bull, 'Sane sicut exhibita', issued by Martin V probably belongs to the same period, since some of its provisions were embodied in the Additions to the Rule drawn up for Syon about this time. Under its terms the abbey and all its possessions were to be under the protection of the Holy See and were to be free from all sentences of excommunication, suspension, and interdict except by special mandate of the Pope. However, the bishop of the diocese was to be the visitor as prescribed in the Rule and was also to confirm the election of the abbess and confessor-general. If the ordinary neglected this duty, the abbess and confessor-general might invite any bishop as visitor. These bulls were, indeed, issued at a time when the future of the whole Bridgettine Order was in considerable doubt, but in 1419 the Pope decided in its favour and also granted Syon the privileges and indulgences conferred on the whole Order by the bull 'Mare magnum' of 1413.

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). The Bishop of London blessed and installed the abbess, and in the same year granted the brethren the powers of minor papal penitentiaries when hearing the confessions of the community or pilgrims. 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 priories, and many of them were to come to Syon when the leases lapsed, including widely scattered properties which had belonged to St. Nicholas, Angers; Caen; Fécamp; Loders; Marmoutiers; Mont St. Michel; St. Bertin; St. Omer; and Séez. 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 habit was grey. They were to use wool, not linen. The most distinctive part of the nuns' costume was a white linen crown with bands across the top in the form of a cross upon which five small pieces of red cloth were sewn in honour of the five wounds of Christ. The brethren wore a red cross on their habit over the heart. In choir the brethren chanted the office according to the diocesan use, but the sisters had a special office in honour of the Blessed Virgin based on St. Bridget's Sermo Angelicus and known as Viridarium Beate Marie.

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 (elected 1420; d. 1433), replacing the titular one, Matilda Newton. At her death, Abbess North was followed by Maud Muston (elected 1433; d. 1447), and after her Margaret Ashby (occurs 1448; d. 1456) was Abbess of Syon. The next Abbess was Elizabeth Muston (d. 1497) and at her death Elizabeth Gibbs (d. 1518); and her successor was Constance Brome or Browne (elected 1518; d. 1520). Agnes Jordan (d. 29 Jan 1546), was the last Abbess (1521-1539), before the supression of the English Monasteries. The Confessors-General of Syon were: Thomas Fishbourne (elected 1420; d. 1428); Robert Bell (elected 1428; d. 1460); Thomas Westhawe (occurs 1472; d. 1488); Walter Falkley (d. 1497); Stephen Saunders (occurs 1498; d. 1513); John Trowell (elected 1513; d. 1523); John Fewterer (d. 1536); and John Copinger (occurs 1536; d. 1539).

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. On the resignation or death of the Abbess the nuns were to have custody of the abbey's possessions without interference from the King.

The social standing of the nuns was exceptionally high. The choir sisters were drawn from the nobility, the gentry, and London merchant families, whilst the few lay sisters probably came from the London area. No scandal has come to light about the abbey, save the early disputes between the sisters and brethren over obedience, and the unreliable reports of the commissioners shortly before the Dissolution. This may well be due to the comparative maturity of the novices, who had to be eighteen on profession, and to the system of training under which the postulant had to be sent away for a year after her application to make sure of her vocation before entering the enclosure. The rule of strict enclosure seems to have been well observed.

'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.

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.

The same mixture of aristocratic and mercantile families found among the choir sisters appears also in a list of special benefactors in the Martiloge, which contains a hundred names made up chiefly of groups of the nobility, royal officials, and London merchants. The list reflects Syon's influence in court circles which was maintained up to the Dissolution. Beginning with many who had played a part in the founding of the abbey, such as FitzHugh himself, Clifford, and Chicheley, the roll ends with Syon in exile. For the inclusion of some names no reason at all is given, but many were included for gifts of money, ranging from £200 from Margaret, Duchess of Clarence, to five marks from Sir William Banes. Two made valuable gifts -Thomas Chandler gave a jewelled reliquary and William Hemming a missal worth ten marks. Some were monastic officials -Henry Normanton, auditor, who also gave £100, John Sprotte, and Thomas Muston, steward.

Although not included among the special benefactors, other names are mentioned in the Martiloge for gifts and favours, whilst others who left bequests to the abbey, including even such a famous lady as Margaret Beaufort, were not mentioned at all. There were, however, obits for Edward IV 'who restored possessions which had been taken away unjustly', Thomas, Earl of Derby, benefactor, and Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, who gave £40 a year.

The household accounts of Margaret Beaufort (held at St. John's College, Cambridge) reveal that she made her home at Syon Abbey, recording payments to her from May 1505 until May 1509, the month before Lady Margaret's death.

In contrast to the lengthy list of benefactors, letters of confraternity seem to have been issued only rarely. The sole known case in favour of an individual was to John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury. Two other cases were of interchange of confraternity -in 1420 with St. Albans and in 1455 with the Prior and community of Durham. In 1536 the monastery of Syon was granted confraternity with All Souls College, Oxford, but there appears to be no record of a corresponding grant by Syon.

Several devout lay people lived close to the enclosure in order to gain the spiritual ministrations of the brethren. In the early 16th century Sir Richard Sutton had as his confessor one of the brothers, Alexander Bell. Lady Kingston, widow of the steward of Syon's manor of Minchinhampton (Glos.), occupied a chamber in the precincts. At an earlier date Margaret, Duchess of Clarence, specially sought the guidance of Simon Winter and indeed obtained permission from Rome for him to leave the enclosure to minister the sacraments to her.

Before Syon was implicated in the case of the Holy Maid of Kent, the intellectual atmosphere seems to have been tolerant and the community ready to follow the official policy over the King's matrimonial troubles. Richard Pace, an Imperialist, was apparently confined by Wolsey at Syon because he opposed the annulment suit, and in 1527 wrote from the abbey saying that he had changed his mind. In 1528 a London citizen, Humphrey Monmouth, when accused of heresy because of certain books in his possession, pleaded that he had shown the works to the confessor-general who had found little wrong with them.

In 1530, the Abbess Agnes Jordan commissioned (with John Fewteren, the confessor-general) a printing of the Mirror of Our Lady, a commenary on the sisters’ office.

The position changed in 1533. At the trial of Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, it was stated that her 'revelations' had been shown to many at Syon, including Abbess Jordan, the Confessor-general, and Richard Reynolds. This would be natural, as she was alleged to have been influenced by St. Bridget's writings and to have been supplied with some of the material of her visions by the Syon community. Moreover Sir Thomas More had been told of her visit, had seen her in the chapel there, and later discussed her visions with the brethren, warning them against her.

Syon had attracted the attention of the government, and the precincts were frequently invaded by royal officials. In Jan 1534 John Stokesley, Bishop of London, and Mores, surveyor of Syon and a supporter of Henry VIII, were very anxious to secure the signatures of the community on a document concerning the marriage question. The first draft was duly signed, but the wording was not sufficiently explicit to secure the approval of the Council. Mores produced a second draft, but this time the brethren refused to sign and advised the sisters to follow the same course.

When Sir Arthur Pole died in 1535, his mother Lady Salisbury and her son, Lord Montague, did not wish the widow, Jane Lewknor, to remarry, which would deprive the Pole family, and Arthur's heirs, of her fortune. They coerced Jane to become a novice at Syon Abbey. Jane was eventually released from her vows by William Barlow, the new Bishop of St. Asaph, who was residing in his priory of Bisham. She said to Bishop Barlow, 'Can I leave the veil at pleasure?'; 'Yes, for all religious persons have a time of probation. You are only a novice and could leave your nun's weeds at your pleasure. I bind you no further...', he said.

In 1535 a further crisis developed. The central figure was the most renowned of the brethren, Richard Reynolds. Born in Devon in 1492 and was educated at Cambridge, was elected a fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1510, and took the degree of B.D. and was appointed university preachers in 1513. That same year, he entered as a Bridgettine monk at Syon. Friend of More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. When King Henry VIII demanded royal oaths, Richard and others opposed the monarch and refused to subscribe to the Act of Supremacy.

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". He was one of the first martyrs hanged at Tyburn, after being forced to witness the butchering of four other martyrs. It had been felt that if such a distinguished person took the Oath of Supremacy, many other hesitant individuals would follow.

If Cromwell had hoped to secure submission by terror, he was disappointed. In Jul his visitor, Bedyll, reported that the sisters and most of the brethren were willing to conform but there were still two who refused and might have to be expelled. By the end of the year opinion among the community had hardened against the government. Bedyll made a further visit in Dec and found opposition even among the sisters. Many theologians were sent to persuade the brethren, but despite threats and promises, two of them, Richard Whitford or Whytford (d.c1555) and Little, and a lay brother, Turlington, remained obdurate. It may well have been about this time that another lay brother, Thomas Brownal rebuked one of the commissioners publicly in the church. Brownal, was imprisoned at Newgate Prison. His death on 21 Oct 1537 is recorded as due to the squalor of the prison. Opposite his name the marginal note 'martyr' has been inserted in the Martiloge.

Whitford was 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.

In 1536, however, Syon was seemingly restored to favour, possibly because the disaffected had been expelled. In Nov the Abbess Jordan was commissioned to take charge of Lady Margaret Douglas, who was bent on marrying against the wishes of the court. Earlier in the year the brethren had been engaged in persuading the London Carthusians to agree to the royal supremacy, and Copinger reported to Cromwell that he thought he had been successful. In Sep the secretary had a further opportunity of securing his grip on the abbey when he attended the election of Copinger as confessor-general.

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.

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"

Agnes Jordan, the abbess, was granted £200 a year, but the confessor-general, Copinger, was already dead. On the same day as the pensions were granted the community was expelled with its keys and seals. Thus the 'most virtuous house of religion in all England' was brought to a temporary end. In all, pensions were granted to 52 choir nuns (including the abbess), 4 lay sisters, 12 brothers, and 5 lay brothers.

According to the Valor Ecclesiasticus, the principal possessions of the Abbey, besides its own site, were rents from Brentford, Heston, Isleworth, Sutton, Twickenham, Whitton, and Worton (Mdx.); the rectories of Chilham, Molash, and Throwley (Kent); rents and other payments from Aldrington, Brede, Charlton Ashurst, Ecclesden, Fishbourne, Littlehampton, Sompting, Steyning, Toddington, Warminghurst, Wiggonholt, and Withyham (Suss.); the manor of Cherry Hinton (Cambs.); the rectories of Martock and Yeovil (Som.); Olney rectory (Bucks.); rents and farms in Bothenhampton, Bradpole, Loders, and Upton (Dors.); rents and other incomes from Axmouth, Budleigh, Donnington, Harpford, Haderland (Otterton par.), Otterton, Sidmouth, and Yarcombe (Devon); Poulton rectory and pensions from the vicarages of Croston and Eccleston and rents from Lonsdale (Lancs.); pensions from Boothby, Navenby, and Spalding and the farm of Aungee fee (Lincs.); tenements in the parish of St. Benet near Paul's Wharf, London; rents in Avening, Cheltenham, Slaughter, and the manor of Minchinhampton (Glos.); Felstead lordship (Essex); the lands of St. Michael's Mount (Cornw.); Corsham rectory and Tilshead manor (Wilts.). There were also sundry small rents and other payments. The total income was £1,944 11s. 5d., expenses were £213 5s. (sic) and the net income £1,731 8s. 4d. (sic). Syon was the richest of the non-Benedictine houses and the largest and richest of the nunneries. Some of these lands, including the abbey buildings and demesne at Isleworth, remained in the king's hands, while the rest were disposed of in small parcels. In Devon, for example, Otterton, Axmouth, and Haderland were leased to court officials, while the remainder stayed in the king's hands.

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.

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.

A group, led by Catherine Palmer, went abroad, staying first at Antwerp and later took refuge in a convent of their order at Termonde in Flanders. There they were visited by Cardinal Pole. The accession of Queen Mary brought the fulfilment of their hopes. Naturally it took some time to gather together the scattered community, but some were enclosed by Pole at Sheen in Nov 1556. The official re-establishment of Syon was confirmed by the Cardinal on 1 Mar 1557, and 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. The re-establishment was completed by the solemn enclosure of all who had rejoined by Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, assisted by John Feckenham, Abbot of Westminster. Both the Queen and Cardinal Pole were rewarded for their favours by obits at the abbey.

Abbess Jordan

Brass plate at Denham parish Church.

The community was not to remain long in enjoyment of its peaceful round. In May 1559, after the accession of Elizabeth, Parliament decreed the dissolution of the re-established monasteries, pensions being granted only to those religious willing to take the Oath of Supremacy. Once again the community at Syon decided to continue its monastic life and it was arranged that the retiring Spanish ambassador, Feria, should take them and other religious abroad with him. The community moved to Flanders, where it began a long exile in the Bridgettine house at Termonde. 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.

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


to Life Page to Home Page