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A brief history of Syon Abbey

Syon Abbey was a monastic house of the Order of the Most Holy Savioura religious order established by St Bridget of Sweden in the fourteenth century. It is commonly known as the Bridgettine Order. Syon Abbey, England's only medieval Bridgettine monastery, was founded by King Henry V in 1415. It was originally located by the River Thames in Twickenham, but due to the unhealthy conditions at the site, the Syon community established a new monastery a few miles down the river in Isleworth in 1431. There the community remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII.

Manuscript 'Horae' (part of)

Detail from a medieval manuscript

Syon Abbey was a double monastery, meaning that it originally accommodated both women and men, though they remained enclosed and strictly separated. The sisters were dedicated to reading, meditation and contemplation, and the brothers provided for the sisters' spiritual needs. The abbess had final authority in all matters. Books were particuarly important to the community. Both the brothers and sisters had extensive libraries, were actively encouraged to read (the nuns were allowed to collect as many books as they wished!) and, during its first century, Syon became a major centre for the writing of works. 

Syon Abbey was unusual in being the only English Catholic community of religious to continue existing without interruption from its medieval foundation through the Reformation period and beyond. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the community did not disband but instead dispersed into smaller groups in which the brothers and sisters continued their religious practice. In 1557, Syon Abbey was restored under the orders of Queen Mary I and the community was able to return to its former monastery in Isleworth. However, two years later, Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne and religious policy was reversed. To ensure the survival of the community, there was little choice but to leave England and go into exile.     

Over the next 30 years, the Syon community resided at various locations in the Low Countries and France, including Antwerp, Dendermonde, Haamstede, Mishagen, Mechelen and Rouen. The community was forced to move several times due to unhealthy conditions or rising religious tensions; however, eventually a new home for the community was found in Lisbon, Portugal in 1594. In Lisbon the community found the safety and stability it required to flourish, and so it remained there for the longest proportion of its existence - 267 years in total. However, these years did not go without incident - but more of that in the next chapter.

Photograph postcard of 'East View, Syon Abbey.'

Photograph postcard of Bridgettine sisters standing outside Syon Abbey at Marley House in South Brent, Devon, c 1954

Faced with the danger of an imminent arrival of Napoleon's forces in the early nineteenth century, the community with the exception of four nuns and three laysisters who remained in Lisbon attempted a return to England in 1809. By 1815, the nuns in England were struggling financially and had to relinquish many of their ancient treasures to the Earl of Shrewsbury in exchange for financial support. One sister returned to the community in Lisbon, whilst the last of the Syon nuns in England died in 1837. Following the arrival of new postulants in the early nineteenth century, the Syon community in Lisbon recovered and regained its strength.  

By the mid-nineteenth century, anti-religious sentiment had risen in Lisbon, whilst in England toleration for Catholics had slightly improved. In 1861, the community made its second, and ultimately more successful return to England. The sisters initially resided in Spetisbury in Dorset. Following a further relocation to Chudleigh in Devon in 1887, the community finally settled in South Brent in Devon in 1925. On account of dwindling numbers and the age of the remaining nuns, the decision was made to close Syon Abbey in 2011.