Sunday, 3 July 2011

Syon House: Part One (Revised)

Several weeks ago the Aviatrix invited the Brimstone Butterfly along to Syon House. It has a great deal in common with Osterley Park in that the original house was built by a prominent Tudor courtier and   remodelled in the 18th century by the celebrated architect Robert Adam. But Syon House has an even more venerable history than Osterley Park, for it was once the site of a great Bridgettine abbey. According to Daniel Lysons, in his Environs of London published in 1810, Osterley Manor had even been owned for a short while by the abbess and convent at Syon in the 1530s.
St Birgitta wearing the robes and headdress of her order
Syon Abbey was founded by King Henry V but it was actually built by his son King Henry VI in 1426. The mystic Birgitta Birgersdotter had founded the order of nuns and monks named after her in the previous century. A Swedish noblewoman, Birgitta had married and had fours sons and four daughters by her husband, all of whom survived past infancy which was a miracle in itself given the horrendous mortality rates for medieval children. After her husband died in 1344, Birgitta was able to devote herself wholly to a religious life. Within 20 years of her death in 1373 such was her reputation for piety Birgitta had been made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

The redoubtable Time Team set up an archaeological dig at Syon Park in 2004 to try and determine the location and dimensions of the lost Syon Abbey. To their surprise they discovered that it was far larger than the chapel at Eton or at King’s College Cambridge, both of which had also been built by Henry VI. Since 2004 Birbeck College, part of the University of London, has been carrying out further digs at the site during the summer months. These are open to amateur archaeologists as well as the professional. The Partridge once invited me to join her on an archaeological dig at the Roman auxiliary fort at Vindolanda in Northumberland in England.  Unfortunately I had been obliged to decline her kind offer owing to conflicting commitments. Digs at Vindolanda are funded in part by enthusiastic amateurs who pay for the privilege of taking part. The Partridge proudly showed me pictures of the finds that she and her sister had unearthed on previous summers at Vindolanda. Though not quite in same league as the horde of late Roman silverware found at Mildenhall, nevertheless each find has afforded her enormous pleasure. They have also served to add to the overall knowledge of the daily life of the men and women who had once lived there so many centuries ago.

Vindolanda would have gradually fallen into ruins after the Romans left Briton to defend their beleagued empire. Syon Abbey by contrast suffered a much more dramatic change in it fortunes.  As one of the richest religious houses in England it was an irresistible target for closure under King Henry VIII’s campaign of suppressing monasteries. But he also had highly personal reasons for seeking the abbey’s destruction. During Henry’s reign the Confessor-General of the English Bridgettine house, Richard Reynolds, had invited the nun Elizabeth Barton to Syon House. Elizabeth had gained notoriety as a mystic and prophesier. She incurred Henry’s undying hatred when she openly preached that his decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, would soon result in his own death. Her prophecy remained unfufilled and.Elizabeth was executed in 1533. Having recanted  she was spared the full horrors of a traitor’s death, being hanged as opposed to burnt alive at the stake. Richard Reynolds was not so fortunate. Refusing to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy over the pope he was hung, drawn and quartered in 1535  with his severed limbs nailed to the gates of Syon Abbey as a dreadful warning of what happned to those who set themselves up in opposition against the King. Four years later the abbey at Syon was suppressed and the remaining monks and nuns expelled. The nuns chose to keep together. Consequently, they were able to briefly re-establish their order at Syon in 1557 during the reign of Henry’s eldest daughter, Queen Mary. The nuns left Syon for the last time when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558. They moved to Portugal and in the late 19th century returned to England, but not to Syon House.

At their community in Devon the Birgittines have a sole poignant reminder of their once great abbey in the shape of a fragment of a 15th century carved pinnacle stone. It shows the abbey at the height of its Gothic splendour. Time Team claim that the stone would have been mounted on the gates of the abbey, the very same gates upon which Richard Reynolds’s limbs had been placed after his execution. 
Catherine Howard
Was it a sign of gallows humour that Henry VIII chose to imprison his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, in Syon Abbey in 1541, two years after the order had been closed? St Birgitta was an exemplary example of female rectitude. How very different from the doomed Catherine, whose scandalous private life both before and after she had married the king, exposed her to the full fury of her husband’s vengeance. The King's orders for Catherine to be conveyed to Syon are recorded in the state papers of the Privy Council for 11th   November 1541. Interestingly her prison is styled Syon House, although the Tudor mansion had yet to be built on the site:

"The King, having considered their letters, wills them to persevere in attaining knowledge of the truth and to execute his pleasure before signified to them; foreseeing that they take not from the Queen her privy keys till they have done all the rest. She is to be removed to Syon House, and there lodged moderately, as her life has deserved, without any cloth of estate, with a chamber for Mr. Baynton and the rest to dine in, and two for her own use, and with a mean number of servants, as in a book herewith. She shall have four gentlewomen and two chamberers at her choice, save that my lady Baynton shall be one, whose husband shall have the government of the whole house and be associated with the Almoner."

On the  13th February 1542 the French ambassador was writing to his king, Frances I  relating all he had heard about Catherime Howard's fate: 
"Her execution was expected this week, for last night she was brought from Syon to the Tower, but as she weeps, cries, and torments herself miserably, without ceasing, it is deferred for three or four days, to give her leisure to recover, and "penser au faict de sa conscience."

Not to be outdone the Spanish Ambassador Chapuys wrote to the Emperor Charles V of Catherine's forcible removal from Syon House ealier that month:
"Forgot, when writing on the 10th, of the Queen's trial and condemnation, to mention that after the condemnation passed against her in Parliament, the King, wishing to proceed with moderation, had sent to her certain Councillors and others of the said Parliament, to offer her to come and defend her own case in the Parliament. This she declined, submitting entirely to the King's mercy and owning that she deserved death. Some days later, on the afternoon of the 10th, she was, with some resistance, conveyed by river to the Tower. The lord Privy Seal, with a number of Privy Councillors and servants went first in a great barge; then came the Queen with three or four men and as many ladies, in a small covered barge; then the Duke of Suffolk, in a great barge, with a company of his men. On their arrival at the Tower, the lords landed first; then the Queen, in black velvet, and they paid her as much honour as when she was reigning."
Chapuys goes on to add: "the King has been in better spirits since the execution, and during the last three days before Lent there has been much feasting." Henry VIII was evidently not the kind of man to allow the beheading of a wife to come between him and a good meal.  

Five years after Catherine Howard was brought struggling out of Syon House to be rowed to the Tower of London, the coffin of Henry VIII lay in the abbey church overnight. The following day it would be taken from Syon by barge on its final journey to Windsor Castle in 1547. There is an apocryphal story that Henry's bloated corpse leaked and his bodily fluids seeped out of the coffin onto the ground  were they were promptly devoured by a dog. This legend seems to vindicate a prophecy that Henry would suffer the same fate as the Biblical King Ahab, who had likewise incurred God’s wrath. Modern scholars contend that this was probably just wistful thinking on the part of Henry’s enemies. It is highly unlikely that his coffin would have been left unguarded let alone that a stray dog would be allowed to wander around the vicinity. 

Henry’s son, Edward VI, was a minor when he came to the throne. Syon Abbey had passed into Crown hands following the Dissolution but now came in the ownership of the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, who was the new King’s tmaternal uncle. Seymour built himself a magnificent Renaissance mansion on the site of the former abbey. The recycling of the abbey fabric led to a certain degree of confusion for Time Team in 2004. They had assumed that the Tudor mansion had been built directly on top of the demolished Abbey. More recent research has indicated that the Tudor builders simply reused the material from the demolished abbey across the way for the foundations of their new building.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset

Thomas Seymour. Lord High Admiral
Being uncle to the king might have had its perks but it also had its dangers. King Edward VI clearly saw himself as a Tudor rather than as a Seymour. He truly was a chip of the old executioner’s block when he signed first the execution warrant for his younger Seymour uncle, Thomas, in 1549 and then  the warrant for Edward in 1552.

Edward Seymour’s death paved the way open for John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland to acquire Syon House. One of his sons, Robert Dudley, was to become the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, having shared her imprisonment in the Tower of London. Robert’s brother, Guildford, also became involved with a Tudor queen but with more fateful consequences. Shortly before Edward VI’s death, the young king had bequeathed the succession to Lady Jane Grey rather than to either of his two half-sisters. As he had already proved by the treatment of his two maternal uncles, Edward set little store by family ties. In the month before Edward changed his will, the 16 year old Jane had been married off to the Duke of Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley. According to tradition, Lady Jane was at Syon House in 1553 when she was persuaded by her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, to accept the terms of the late King Edward’s will and agree to set off for the Tower of London to be proclaimed Queen of England. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Jane Grey would suffer the same fate as Catherine Howard. Like that other tragic Tudor queen, Jane Grey left Syon House for the Tower, where she too would end her days being beheaded on Tower Green.
Henry Percy. 9th Earl of Northumberland
Syon House once more reverted to the Crown. In the late 16th century it came into the possession of the Percy family through the marriage of Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, to one Dorothy Devereux. Like Lady Jane Grey and Catherine Howard before him, Henry Percy also wound up imprisoned in the Tower of London accused of High Treason. He had been implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. But, unlike the Tudor queens he was eventually freed from the Tower. He had to pay a heavy fine but it was not so ruinous that he was unable to keep Syon House, which has  remained within his family ever since.