When the Brigittine nuns and priests of Syon Abbey received their copies of The Orcharde of Syon in 1519, their world on the bank of the River Thames was nearing its end. Founded by Henry V in 1415, Syon Abbey took its name from the Holy Mount, and the community had thrived for more than 100 years. Only 20 years later, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and, together with other monastic communities in England, the Syon residents were forced to leave. Syon Abbey’s suppression in 1539 was described by chronicler Charles Wriothesley who wrote that on “the 25th daie of November the howse of Sion was suppressed into the Kinges handes, and the ladies and brethren putt out, which was the vertues [most virtuous] howse of religion that was in England, the landes and goodes to the Kinges use”.
The abbey was more or less demolished and replaced by a grand Renaissance house. Syon House which stands today is a Tudor mansion largely reconstructed from the monastic buildings by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. At Henry VIII’s death on 28 February 1547, Edward VI became king at the age of nine, and Seymour, his uncle, took the opportunity to seize power. He was appointed Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s Person and created Duke of Somerset to boot. This position effectively enabled him to exercise the authority of the king, and he required magnificent residences befitting his new status. Since Edward VI’s principal country base was Hampton Court, with its satellite palaces at Nonsuch and Oatlands, the Lord Protector needed a house nearby, and Syon was the perfect choice. He bought it from the Crown on 23 July 1547 and swiftly began its transformation.
The interior has undergone several changes – most notably by the Adam brothers in the 1760s who remodelled the principal rooms. However, its general external form of a three-storey quadrangular building, with crenellated roof and corner turrets, built around a courtyard, remains unchanged, though the exterior was re-cased in the early 19th century.
The Brigittine Order was originally founded by St Brigit of Sweden at Vadstena in 1346, and St Brigit’s Revelations, thought to be direct conversations with Christ, formed the basis for the way of life, dedicated to prayer and meditation on the Passion of Our Lord. The Abbey of St Saviour and St Brigit was established at Twickenham in 1415 and relocated to the adjacent (less marshy) site at Syon 16 years later. The community was composed by its charter of an abbess and 59 nuns, with 25 men including 13 priests, four deacons and eight laymen.
Syon lies to the north of Isleworth beside the Thames. The watery location was an essential part of the Brigittine vision: the motherhouse at Vadstena is beside a large lake. Water was interpreted allegorically as a fertile life-giving source, providing fish and bearing fruit by the riverbank, which in turn became both a physical and spiritual blessing.
At Syon, as at all monastic establishments, the buildings were centred on the church. Construction may have begun as early as 1426, but accounts show that the substantial sum of £5,629 was spent on it between 1461 and 1479. The church was built of stone, mainly from Yorkshire or from Caen in Normandy. Work was slow and painstaking, and it was not finally consecrated until 20 October 1488. When finished, the church was more than 60 metres in length, and stood to the east of the present house, between it and the river. Unusually for England, but emulating the mother church at Vadstena, the high altar was at the west end of the church, with a two-storey choir, for brethren below and nuns above.
Syon was a double house, of both nuns and monks, with a shared church and separate cloisters. The monastery boasted one of the largest libraries in England, containing more than 1,400 volumes, and was a major centre for learning. The nuns were strictly enclosed, emphasising scholarship and study, and the monks were also preachers. All were under the governance of the abbess. By the time of its suppression, Syon was the 10th wealthiest monastery in England and the richest of all the non-Benedictine houses.
In 1547, Somerset began building his new house on a royal scale and at speed. By demolishing the Abbey church, there was a ready supply of stone available. It was not unusual to plunder monastic buildings for the construction of new houses. Possibly the western end of the church was incorporated into the fabric of the new house, but other than this, it is likely that Somerset’s house was entirely new.
The layout of Tudor Syon can be deduced from a ground plan of about 1604, which shows the square shape of the house as it is today, but with two wings extending from the west front – these no longer exist. An inventory taken in 1593 describes these wings as the “brick lodgings”, and the main house was called the “white house”. Its pale colour made it striking in the river landscape. The Abbey had 30 acres of gardens and orchards, together with Syon Park.
By October 1549, Somerset was removed from power. Among charges laid against him was that he had “made Sale and Exchanges of the King’s Lands … and wasted vast Sums in erecting Sumptuous Buildings”. He was briefly imprisoned in the Tower but released in February 1550. That July, he entertained Edward VI at Syon, suggesting that the new house was substantially complete by then. In October 1551, Somerset was arrested again, and executed on 22 February 1552. All his property passed to the Crown, which retained Syon for the next 52 years, apart from a brief attempt by Queen Mary to restore the abbey in 1557, when the order was able to return.
However, the nuns and priests finally left in 1558, expelled after the accession of Elizabeth, which brought a reversal of religious policy. Unusually, many of them chose to go into exile together, joined by the Dominican priests and sisters of Dartford Priory. In exile, the community maintained its identity first in the Low Countries and then in France, finally settling in Portugal in 1594. Returning to England in 1861, they have the distinction of being the only English community who survived the Reformation. They resided in Devon in a house re-named Syon Abbey until 2011 when, reduced to only three elderly sisters, the Abbey was finally obliged to close, because of a fall in numbers and increasing age.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries represented a sudden and complete transformation of English religious life and architecture: over four short years the vast wealth of the monasteries was seized by the Crown. Though a handful of former monastic churches survived as cathedrals or parish churches, the overwhelming majority of the buildings were either deliberately destroyed, allowed to fall into ruin, or were converted – as was Syon Abbey – to secular use. However imaginative and impressive these conversions were, with extraordinary new houses raised from the monastic ruins, the effect on our religious architecture remains visible to this day.
Raised from the Ruins: Monastic Houses after the Dissolution by Jane Whitaker is out now, published by Unicorn, 400pp, £35.
Image caption: Syon House Conservatory in Middlesex is a popular place for visitors to visit during the summer opening months. It also hosts weddings and conferences – Brentford, England, August 2016 (iStock)
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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