The Vision of St Bridget

Is it a mysterious location hidden in the pages of “The Da Vinci Code”? It isn’t. Was it founded in Syon Park- It wasn’t.

The Monastery of St. Saviour, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Bridget of Sion of the order of St. Augustine was built by the Thames on meadows close to where Richmond Lock now stands. It was established on 22nd of February 1415 by King Henry 5th who laid the first stone himself and dedicated to St Bridget, famous for her visions of Christ.

Henry 5th’s royal charter stipulated that his new monastery would be for 60 nuns under an Abbess along with 13 priests, 4 deacons and 8 lay brothers under a General Confessor. To prevent any ecclesiastical hanky-panky the two communities, nuns and monks, were separated by a “procession door” that was firmly secured with two locks, each with its own key. One key was kept by the Abbess in a large chest which had 3 locks, each of which had a key of its own. The other key was kept by the General Confessor in a similar chest which again had 3 locks and 3 keys. A locksmith could have made a fortune.

Nun at Sion

The sisters lived in complete seclusion and were forbidden to leave the monastery “except through the gateway of death”. To remind the women of this sobering fact a bier carrying a handful of earth and a crucifix was placed at the entrance to the church. Under extreme circumstances “dear and honest friends” could visit a nun but the meeting would be through an open window – the nun inside the building and the visitors outside.

Life at the Monastery of Sion was hard, austere and strictly disciplined. The Abbess and the General Confessor gave the orders and the acolytes obeyed without dissent. Disobedience ranged from “light faults” – lateness at services, making ‘a noise of unrest’, soiling the table cloth etc, through to “most grievous faults” like sorcery, ‘lewd affection ’or trying to run away from the monastery. For such serious misdemeanours the sisters could be imprisoned or beaten in the presence of their colleagues who were obliged to _’cast down their heads and sight towards the earth.’_ During the punishment the only words to be uttered by the culprit were “Mea culpa (forgive me) I will Amend.”

Silence was strictly maintained. If it became absolutely necessary to communicate certain hand signals were used to exclude “idle, vain, superfluous, and unprofitable speech.” There were over 100 of them…

Some Signs of Sion

Drink Bent forefinger on upper lip.
Bread Thumbs and forefingers joined to make a “round compass” (For white Bread the forefingers were drawn down the cheek. For brown bread the forefingers were drawn down the sleeve of the habit.)
Myself The right forefinger placed on the breast.
Silence The forefinger was placed by the mouth and moved up and down.

The monastery didn’t go much on fashion either. The priests had tunics of white and grey wool, a frock with a hood and a mantle of grey cloth decorated with red crosses for the priests, white circles with red patches for the deacons and white crosses with red patches for the lay brothers. Looking equally spiffy were the nuns who wore a fillet or band pinned around the head. Over this was a black linen veil and a cap of white linen onto which were sewn 5 pieces of red cloth to represent the 5 wounds of Christ. These were fastened with a single pin representing continence and chastity.

In 1432, 18 years after the original foundation of the monastery, the Abbess asked the King, Henry 6th, for permission to move into a larger building that had been constructed a mile up the river in what is now Syon Park…

The seal of the Monastery of Sion

“The said Abbess and Convent had presented their humble petition setting forth that their aforesaid monastery was so small and confined in its dimensions that the numerous persons therein… were not only incommodiously but dangerously situated… that in consequence thereof the said abbess and convent had chosen out a spot in the neighbourhood of their said priory within the said lordship of Isleworth, more meet healthful and salubrious for them to inhabit.”

There has been no firm conclusion what the Abbess meant when she wrote… ‘that the numerous persons therein were not only incommodiously but dangerously situated.’ Was to referring to the nearness of the river and the possibility of flooding or did she suspect that overcrowding would lead to uncontrollable partying despite the ‘procession door’ and its eight keys and eight locks?

This original monastery, built close to where Richmond Lock now stands, was eventually demolished in the 16th century. There is some evidence that its foundations later became part of St Margarets House after which this blessed plot of ours is now called.

Lacy House from river

Just to put the record straight St Margarets, or the parish of St Margarets-upon Thames as it is more properly known, has nothing to do with what local estate agents like to call “the village” (grrrr). St Margarets is centred very much north of the A316. Those less fortunate souls living south of the A316 do not actually live in St Margarets at all! They live in the parish of St Stephens. So there!

Next week – more fun and games in the Monastery of Sion.

— from Martyn Day