Syon Abbey

In 1432, 18 years after its original foundation on meadows close to where Richmond Lock now stands, the monastery of Sion and its establishment of 60 nuns and 25 brothers, moved to a larger building recently constructed in what is now Syon Park. For all the extra room and facilities, life didn’t get any easier for these ‘Disciples of Christ’ who followed a strict programme of observance and worship…

3.00am Matins or Lauds
6.00am Prime
9.00am Tierce
12.00 noon Sext
2.00pm Nones
4.00pm Vespers
7.00pm Compline or 2nd Vespers

The nuns and the monks never worshipped together. The rules required the sisters to celebrate ‘their Matins after the brothers’ Matins, their Evensong after the brothers’ Evensong, Compline after Compline, so that there never be ceasing.‘ The rules also insisted that their singing should be ’sad, sober and simple, without breaking of notes and gay releasings’ – whatever they were – and without the benefit of any accompaniment – ‘organs shall there never have none!’ There were even strict instructions about how the acolytes should move during the services…

‘In the quire all shall be as angels, inclining together, kneeling together, standing, turning and sitting together. In opening also and shutting of books, turning of leaves, lifting up and putting down of stalls, saying of their beads or devotions, and in all other such things going, they shall wareness of any great sound or noise making.’

catherine of aragon

In 1534, after a hundred years of quietly opening and shutting its books, the monastery faced a new and unexpected challenge. The King, Henry 8th, wanted a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. He was already lining up Anne Boleyn as a replacement. The Pope, Head of the Church in England, refused to grant Henry his divorce, so in 1533 the King ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope’s emissary in England, to give him one. This was fine in principle but the divorce wasn’t valid as it hadn’t been recognised by the Head of the Church. To get around the problem in 1534 Henry 8th decided to break from the control of Rome and appoint himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. He was supported in this move by the majority of the population who were growing increasing weary of Rome and its money grabbing ways. This weariness included most of the inmates at the monastery of Sion. One Sion monk, however, Richard Reynolds, did stand against the King, supported by Sir Thomas More, the chief opponent to the King’s assumption of Supreme Governorship. Anxious to see exactly how things stood at Sion, Henry sent Thomas Cromwell, his main hatchet man, to the monastery to obtain a unequivocal acceptance of the new order. When he arrived Cromwell was disappointed to discover that another monk, Richard Whitford, had also turned against the King, denouncing not only his new title but also his divorce and remarriage. In spite of threats and false accusations Whitford refused to change his mind – “having a brasyn forehead which shameth at no thing.”

st richard reynolds

The nuns at Sion monastery were far less confrontational. They were sat down together in the chapter house of Syon and asked by the Bishop of London if they were willing to recognise the King as Supreme Head of the Church. All who accepted the King’s new title were asked to remain seated. All those opposed were asked to leave the chamber. All remained seated. Believing that their monastery would continue unchanged the nuns sent a special request to Thomas Cromwell that he should “be a good maister unto thaim and to thaire house, as thaire special trust is in you”. It was not to be. In 1539 the Monastery of Sion was finally surrendered to the King and the inmates sent away, most of them retiring to Dermond in Flanders where they established a new community. They took with them pensions ranging from £200 a year for the Abbess to £2.13.4 for the ordinary nun or monk. Surprisingly the dissenting monk Richard Whitford with the ‘brasyn forehead’ was also granted a pension of £8 a year which was a considerable sum at the time. Richard Reynolds, the monk and associate of Sir Thomas More was less fortunate. On 4 May 1535, after a trial for High Treason, he was “drawen from the towr to Tiburn, ther hangid, hedid and quartarid.” In 1970 Reynolds was canonised by Pope Paul VI as one of Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The new Catholic college in Twickenham which opens in September this year is named after him.

catherine howard

Sion Monastery became part of the Crown Estate. From November 1541 to February 1542 it was used as a place of confinement for King Henry’s fifth wife Katherine Howard. Accused of infidelity with a young courtier Thomas Culpeper, on February 12th 1542 Katherine was taken from Sion monastery to the Tower of London where she was executed. According to folklore, her final words were, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.” When King Henry VIII died in 1547, his coffin was brought to the chapel at Syon on its way to be buried in Windsor. During the night the metal coffin sprung a leak…

Execution of Catherine Howard

“… the leaden coffin being cleft by the shaking of the carriage, the pavement of the church was wetted with Henry’s blood. In the morning came plumbers to solder the coffin, under whose feet was seen a dog creeping and licking up the King’s blood.”

Syon house

Shortly afterwards the monastery and its Abbey came into the possession of Edward Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset, who immediately pulled it down and built Syon House, a grand residence in Italian Renaissance style on the site. In 1595 Syon House was acquired by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, and has remained in his family ever since.

— from Martyn Day