The Monastery of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon
On this day in 1415, the “Monastery of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon” was founded in Sheen (later, in 1431, moving to a nearby new location between Brentford and Isleworth). The monastery-cum-nunnery was of the Bridgettine order, the richest and most powerful of its time, named after its founder, the mystic and later saint Queen Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73). One of the brothers, Richard Reynolds, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1535 for challenging King Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church; famously encouraging those who suffered alongside him by promising them that after their “sharp breakfast” they would have a banquet in heaven. The monastery itself was dissolved in 1539, by Henry. Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was confined here while awaiting her execution in 1542. Five years later, in 1547, the coffin containing Henry’s body was accommodated overnight here on route from Westminster to Windsor. According to one colourful account, the decomposing body burst open during the night, and in the morning dogs were discovered lapping up the liquid that had seeped from the coffin!
Syon House was built on the site of the monastery by Edward Seymour, the First Duke of Somerset (and Lord Protector), sometime between 1547-1552. After Seymour’s execution in 1552, it came to be owned by John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, and it was here that his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey was offered the crown at the beginning of her short and ill-fated reign. After Dudley’s execution in 1553, it reverted to the monarch. In 1594, the then Queen, Elizabeth I, granted the house to Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, and it has remained in his family from that time to this. In the late eighteenth century, Hugh Percy, the First Duke of Northumberland, commissioned Robert Adam to redesign the interior, and Capability Brown to landscape the gardens, thereby creating “one of the finest villas in Europe”.
The fourteenth-century “Monastery Barn” and seventeenth-century “Ninth Earl’s Arch” still stand in the grounds of the house.
In 2003, a “Time Team” archaeological excavation in the grounds of the house unearthed the remains of the Bridgettine monastery church – which was evidently approximately twice as large as the broadly contemporary King’s College Chapel in Cambridge! A number of burials were later unearthed within the church by a team from Birkbeck University of London. Surviving written records, including a “mortilage”, have enabled the buried individuals to be identified. One was the order’s last recorded librarian, Thomas Betson, who died in 1517. Betson’s library catalogue shows that at one time the monastery possessed nearly 1750 books, many of them the only copies in Britain, but almost all now lost. His notebook includes a herbal, that is to say, a list of healing plants, and a list of remedies.