The English monastic experience, 15th - 21st centuries: Syon Abbey at 600

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: English


Syon Abbey is the only English religious house that can trace its history in an unbroken line from the Middle Ages to the present day. The monastery, for 60 nuns and 12 priests under the authority of an abbess, was founded in 1415, the last foundation of medieval England, and one of the richest. The Abbey was not dissolved under Henry VIII. Instead the community went into exile, living at a succession of sites in Holland and France (as well as a short-lived restoration under Queen Mary) before settling in Lisbon (Portugal) in 1594. There they remained until the 19th century, when increased religious toleration allowed them to return to England. They stayed at several locations in South-West England, before settling near South Brent in Devon. The Abbey finally closed in 2011, though the three surviving sisters continue its traditions in retirement.

That long and complicated narrative, that traverses much of northern Europe through periods of enormous religious, social and political change, presents a daunting challenge to anyone proposing a comprehensive history of England's last medieval monastery. But the opportunity Syon Abbey represents to bring together the whole, diverse range of scholarship on the English monastic experience across six centuries is not to be passed up.

In Syon's sexcenentary year, the project will take substantial steps towards making that comprehensive history a reality. We will develop a research network that, collectively, has the expertise to encompass the whole of Syon's lengthy history, and that will foster conversations among scholars whose specialisms (in different disciplines and time periods) more commonly keep them apart. We will also bring people from outside the academic community into those conversations, including amateur historians, archivists and other custodians of Syon's material legacy, and current members of the religious orders.

At the centre of the network will be a series of three workshops, to be held at the three principal sites associated with Syon Abbey: Syon House, Lisbon and Exeter. But the project will also face outward, through general-interest talks, exhibitions, and a public commemoration held in the meadows of Syon House (London), within the outline of the foundations of the medieval Abbey.

Planned Impact

The 600th anniversary of the foundation of Syon Abbey - England's longest surviving medieval monastery - falls in 2015. The sexcentenary provides a unique opportunity to attract and engage a wide public with the community's history, and the broader questions that the project addresses.

Intended beneficiaries include
- amateur religious historians
- local historians
- public visitors to sites associated with the Abbey's history (primarily Syon Park)
- professed religious and their associates, including clergy
- the Roman Catholic community in general

Amateur historians will find much to inform, enrich and extend their work. Visitors to Syon Park will attain new understanding of the site, and the historical process that resulted in its present form; some visitors will have been prompted by their interest in the Abbey to visit its original site for the first time. Professed religious in particular, and the Catholic community in general, will find new ways to contextualise and understand their own experiences and histories. For all groups, our primary aim is for beneficiaries of the research to connect with monastic history and monastic identities not merely as 'bare ruin'd choirs' and the stuff of 'heritage', but as a living (if increasingly tenuous) tradition. Syon's unique history means that it is uniquely well placed to enable such connections.

Events will be concentrated at Syon Park (Brentford), the site of the medieval Abbey, and Exeter, where most of its material remains are now to be found. Activities fall into three categories: public exhibitions, lectures and talks to a general audience, and religious commemorations.

Alongside this local focus, we expect that some of the higher-profile events will attract national coverage, including but not restricted to special-interest media (eg Catholic newspapers The Tablet, Catholic Herald).

Public exhibitions will be held during 2015 in Syon House and at the University of Exeter. Talks aimed at a general audience will be delivered as part of established series at Syon House and the Devon & Exeter Institution (Exeter). Religious commemorations will be held in summer 2015 in Exeter and in Syon Park, where an open-air ecumenical event will take place in the meadow, within the outline of the medieval Abbey.


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Description The network was designed to create and nurture relationships among scholars in a range of disciplines working on Syon Abbey across its 600-year history. In this respect, our three workshops exceeded our expectations. We knew we would be bringing together historians and literary specialists medieval, early modern and modern. Across all 3 workshops we were struck by the rich seams of work including Syon that are going on in liturgy, musicology, and art history, none of which have hitherto been consistently joined up with the literary/historical work that has so far dominated research on the community. In addition, at our first workshop at Syon House we were particularly pleased to exchange ideas, research findings and future plans with the archaeologists who have been working on the site over the past decade. For Workshop 2, which took place in Lisbon, we were especially fortunate to be able to link up with a team led by Professor Raquel Henriques da Silva of the University of Lisbon, which, in a project running concurrently with our own, had been investigating the later history and closure of Lisbon's religious houses in the 19th century, and the key role of former conventual buildings in the development of the modern city. When it came to the third workshop, held in South Devon, we teamed up with the Birgitta Foundation (Birgittastiftelsen) of Stockholm for what became a joint conference. Its proceedings will be edited jointly by Eddie Jones (PI on the project) and three Swedish colleagues, and published by the Swedish Academy of Letters. This is the first to be realised, but not we hope the only collaboration that will emerge from the network.

The other important findings centred on the present state of research on Syon Abbey, and the resources on which future work on this unique institution may be based. These latter include the abbey's administrative archive, currently in Exeter, which was showcased in Workshop 3, but also the archaeological and architectural remains - notably in Lisbon, which have hitherto been known only to a handful of scholars. The network confirmed the healthy state of research on Syon in the medieval and immediately post-Dissolution period, though we agreed that the early years of the foundation remain imperfectly understood. We began to appreciate the challenges that will need to be overcome in order to provide an account of the community's years in Lisbon (1594-1861), though in identifying them, and some of the pathways to their solution, we have already advanced our knowledge significantly. The history of Syon since its return to England holds out exciting possibilities: there are rich and almost entirely untapped resources for the community's history since 1861, though we also noted the scarce research context for work on the contemplative orders in England in the 20th century, to which any future work on Syon could make a significant contribution. Our concluding meeting identified this as a priority for research beyond the life of the project, including possible further grant applications.
Exploitation Route Further academic collaborations:
Jones (PI) with colleagues from Sweden on conference proceedings
Jones and another network member (Carmen Mangion) on Syon in the 20th century
A new series of Syon texts is to be introduced by Liverpool University Press on the back of discussions initiated between participants at our first workshop.

Museum of London Archaeology, participants in Workshop 1, are preparing to publish an account of the finds from their investigations at Syon House

Emerging work on Portugal's religious houses will continue to benefit from an understanding of Syon's history in Lisbon

It is hoped that interest in the abbey's administrative archive (among academics but also among local people) can be harnessed for future projects

There are significant opportunities, which we have highlighted, for detailed archival research (eg at PhD level), on Syon's continental experiences, and also on its last 150 years.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The network was designed in the first place to bring together as wide a range of participants as possible, and to identify future directions for research on Syon Abbey. With that in mind, we note the range of participants who attended the workshops. They included: *custodians of sites (Syon Park estates; the University of Lisbon; residents of Marley House, Devon) *amateur local historians and archaeologists *professional religious (Bridgettine and of other orders) *archivists and librarians with relevant holdings in their keeping *clergy and parishioners with a connection to Syon Participation in the network nurtured and inspired the publication of works of amateur history by a number of individuals (John Adams, Stuart Forbes, Jonathan Nicholson) Jones (PI)'s history of Syon for the general reader, "England's Last Medieval Monastery", was featured and excerpted in the souvenir programme for a major public celebration of Syon's sexcentenary at Syon Park in July 2015, detailed separately elsewhere in this return. Several participants have since visited the University of Exeter to explore the Syon archive, and we hope to build on these relationships in future projects.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Devon Rural Archive 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Illustrated talk in Devon Rural Archive's evening lecture series at Shilstone House. The evening was sold out (approx. 50 attendees). Lively discussion following, including valuable information exchange: local people were able to understand much more about the monastery that had existed in their midst for the past 80 years, and I picked up valuable leads to unexplored archival sources. Possibility of future links with DRA.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Marley House visit July 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact network meeting attendees visited Marley House, site of Syon Abbey 1925-2011, and talked with current residents (the buildings are now converted into private apartments). I was able to help one of the residents, Jonathan Nicholson, with his project to write a history of Marley House, initially for private circulation but now also for sale; he has subsequently visited the University to use the Syon Abbey archives, and we have discussed the possibility of his volunteering and bringing his expertise (as a retired solictor) to future projects based around the archive
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description South Brent Community Radio interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed for South Brent Community Radio (about 30 mins) on the subject of the Syon Abbey sexcentenary. The abbey was based in the township of South Brent for most of the 20th Century. Listeners remarked that they had often wondered about the abbey and life there, and were interested to find out more. Plans for future projects around Syon intend to take advantage of this local interest, which was greater than I had realised.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Syon Park sexcentenary event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Open-air ecumenical service to mark sexcentenary of Syon Abbey, at Syon Park Isleworth, celebrated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols and in the presence of the Duke of Northumberland. Organisers (Syon Park estates and Isleworth churches) met at network meeting in November 2014, when event was in early stages of planning, and maintained contact with network throughout. I and other project members were among VIP guests at the event, and reception afterwards. Excerpts from my history of the abbey, England's Last Medieval Monastery (Gracewing, 2015), were included in the commemorative Order of Service that was available to guests on the day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015