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licking up

Syon Abbey

Syon Abbey, (or Sion Abbey) was a major mediæval monastery of the Bridgettine Order in the late Gothic or Perpendicular style (with alterations to meet the needs of this very distinctive order), its major site bordering Brentford and Isleworth, Middlesex, England. Syon House, seat of the Duke of Northumberland, partly overlies the site, which was identified as lying between Syon House and the River Thames. The abbey's remains were partially uncovered in excavations starting in 2003.

Foundation

Syon Abbey was founded in 1414 or 1415 at Twickenham Park, London by King Henry V of England and completed by his son. It was built in his 'manor of Isleworth Syon', located on the Middlesex bank of the River Thames opposite the royal palace in Richmond, on the boundary of the parish of Twickenham, near where Twickenham bridge crosses the river today. Under royal patronage, the Abbey grew quickly, relocating in 1431 and soon extending half a mile along the north bank of the Thames, near Brentford, possibly using buildings constructed for a Celestine order, but never occupied, on the site of the present Syon House.

Purpose, structure, scholarship and governance

A double monastery of men and women, under an Abbess, the chief duty of the community was to pray for the souls of the royal founder and for all the faithful departed (see also chantry). However the abbey also became a centre of preaching and scholarship with one of the major libraries of England.

The Abbess governed the Order; while a Confessor-General, elected by the brothers, controlled the spiritual direction. The Sisters had their own convent on one side of the shared, double-aisled, two-levelled church, with the accommodation for the Brothers on the other side.

Dissolution

In 1535 Saint Richard Reynolds, one of the brethren, was hung, drawn and quartered for his opposition to King Henry VIII. The abbey was surrendered in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the community expelled. A long-standing legend states that King Henry VIII's coffin, lying in the ruined chapel at Syon on its way to Windsor for burial, burst open during the night and in the morning dogs were found licking up the remains. This was regarded as divine judgement for his desecration of the abbey.

Acquisition by the Somersets - Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I

After dissolution, the estate came into the possession of the 1st Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector to young Edward VI. He having been executed in 1552, it was reconfiscated by the crown under Queen Mary I. She briefly re-established the community there in 1557, but it was driven into exile again under Elizabeth I, who gave the manor to Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland, and the freehold to his heir.

History as a stately home

Between 1547 and his death by execution in 1552, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset built Syon House in the Italian Renaissance style. The square house seen today is hollow in the middle. It has been suggested that the House was built around the convent's cloister garden, or in one end of the nave of the church.

The legend is that the lion (the family emblem) on the roof has its back to London the Duke having fallen out with the king. The lion actually faces London, but was originally on the roof of Northumberland House in 1874.

Post-Elizabethan history of the community

The expelled community moved from place to place in France and Spain, until they finally settled in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1594. The Lisbon community returned to England in 1861, settling first in Spetisbury, Dorset, in 1887 in Chudleigh, Devon and then in 1925 to its current location near to South Brent, Devon. As such, the Abbey of Syon has the distinction of being the only English monastic community that survived the reformation in an unbroken lineage to the present day.

In 2004, the remaining mediæval books in the Abbey's collection were deposited for safe-keeping with the University of Exeter Library. Also a large piece of sculptural stonework from the Abbey's remains was returned to them by Syon House.

Excavation of the Abbey

In the summer of 2003 (broadcast 4th January 2004), investigations by Channel 4's Time Team located the foundations of the church and abbey.. Further excavations by Birkbeck, University of London have continued from 2004-2008.

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