CONVENT OF SYON

convent of Syon

Lords of Yeovil from 1420 until the Dissolution

 

In 1415, the year of Henry V’s (reigned 1413-1422) victory over the French at Agincourt, the king personally laid the foundation stone of the Convent of Syon at Isleworth, Middlesex. In 1420 the Abbess and 35 nuns took possession of the convent, properly known as ‘The Monastery of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon of the Order of St Augustine’. It was built as part of “The King's Great Work”. Joan North was elected to be the first Abbess and the social standing of the nuns was exceptionally high. The choir sisters were drawn from the nobility, the gentry, and London merchant families, whilst the few lay sisters probably came from the London area.

The King's original foundation consisted of 85 persons comprising sixty women (the Abbess and 59 nuns) and twenty five men (1 Confessor General, 12 priests, 4 deacons and 8 lay brethren). The different sexes were “to dwell in separate habitations, to wit the said abbess and sisters within one court by themselves and the said confessor and brothers in a separate court by themselves, within the same monastery”. The legal corporate entity was “The Abbess and Convent” which could transact business by affixing its single corporate seal. While the Convent consisted of the Abbess and nuns together with the Confessor and all the religious men, the Abbess was in overall charge.

In order to part-support the convent, Henry granted them the rectory of St John the Baptist and lordship of the Borough of Yeovil together with ‘two acres of land in Huish and a portion in Martock’. For the next 114 years, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534 by Henry VIII, Yeovil came under the jurisdiction of the Abbess and was administered locally by a resident bailiff in conjunction with the Portreeve and Burgesses.

The Borough of Yeovil was just one of the many scattered possessions bestowed on the Convent. This, in itself, presented complicated problems of management and the administrative staffs of Syon gives a good example of the usual system adopted by nunneries. The business affairs of the abbey were the responsibility of the abbess, who delegated the administration to the treasuress and undertreasuress. The nuns were advised and assisted in their work by a lay central staff, the head of which was the chief steward. Two distinguished men held this post early in the16th century; Sir Richard Sutton, a lawyer in the Inner Temple, probably carried out his duties in person, since he had a room at Syon and took great interest in the Order. Sometime after Sutton's death in 1524 Thomas Cromwell held the office, although the actual work was performed by Thomas Watson, steward of the household and steward general of all the lordships of the monastery. The central staff was completed by a receiver-general, an auditor and a clerk. Most of the lands owned by the Convent were farmed through bailiffs. In most counties a steward was in charge and supervised the work of the minor officials for each manor.

The Abbesses of Syon and, consequently, Lords of Yeovil from 1420 until the Dissolution in 1534 were :-

  • Joan North, elected 1420; died 1433

  • Maud Muston, elected 1433; died 1447

  • Margaret Ashby, occurs 1448; died 1456

  • Elizabeth Muston, died 1497

  • Elizabeth Gibbs, died 1518

  • Constance Brown, elected 1518; died 1520

  • Agnes Jordan, died 1545


After the Reformation the expelled community did not disband, but exiled itself to the Netherlands, from where they were recalled briefly to Syon following the accession of the catholic Queen Mary (reigned 1553–1558) in 1553. On the accession of Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) in 1558 an Act of Parliament was passed annexing and re-dissolving certain religious houses, including Syon, whereupon the nuns obtained royal license to leave England, eventually settling in Lisbon, Portugal, where they arrived in 1594.

The Lisbon community returned to England in 1861, settling first in Spetisbury, Dorset, moving in 1887 to Chudleigh, Devon and moving again in 1925 to its current location near South Brent, Devon. The religious community, or Convent, of Syon has the distinction of being the only English one that survived the Reformation in unbroken form to the present day.