Special Report: Syon Abbey Workshop, November 2014

SPECIAL REPORT: “Syon at 600” Project – Syon Abbey Workshop @ Syon House, 7-9 November, 2014

by Sue Powell

Dr Eddie Jones of the University of Exeter was the organiser of this Syon workshop, which took place in the impressive, and even numinous (to us, at least) surroundings of Syon House, the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland since the late sixteenth century and in its present state since the mid-eighteenth century.

The workshop was the first in a series of three events, partly funded by an AHRC international network grant. 2015 events will be in April at Lisbon, and in July at Dartington Hall, Devon (see the Syon Abbey Society website at https://syonabbeysociety.wordpress.com/ and the University of Exeter website at http://syonat600.exeter.ac.uk). This first meeting (unlike many so-dubbed events) was a genuine workshop – twenty-five participants around one large table in a very pleasant Syon drawing room (the Northumberland Room). The twenty-five were privileged to attend such a meeting of minds, with plentiful discussion, opinions, questions, and valuable information and shared knowledge. Especially good was the mix of professional Syonistas (as one delegate called us), knowledgeable amateur enthusiasts, and postgraduate or recent postgraduate students at perhaps their first Syon conference, not to mention the blend of critics (the academics) and practitioners (the archaeologists).

After a welcome by Eddie Jones and Topher Martyn, head gardener (but clearly much more) at Syon Park, the first session of the afternoon was ‘Medieval Syon: Liturgy’, with talks by Ann Hutchison, Tekla Bude, and Delia Sarson (on the Myroure of oure Lady, extant Syon processionals, and the Office of the Guardian Angel, respectively). John Adams gave a spirited account of Thomas Betson’s herbal, which he and Stuart Forbes have transcribed from Betson’s notebook in Cambridge, St John’s College, MS 109 (E6) and which was published 19 November (see www.amicd.co.uk). A wine reception followed, at which we were lucky enough to drink John’s ‘vintage’ (i.e. old) champagne, as well as enjoy wine, canapés, and informed tours of the main Robert Adams rooms led by Topher and his colleague Simon Hadleigh-Sparks. The whole group then adjourned to the Atash Persian restaurant for a very jolly meal, led by Topher through the moonlit conservatory of Syon Park to the dark streets of much more prosaic Brentford.

The Saturday morning sessions consisted of ‘Reading and Writing at Syon’ (Veronica O’Mara on the scribal evidence for nuns, and for Syon in particular, and David Harrap on the Musica Ecclesiastica, the Middle English versions of the Imitatio Christi), and ‘Syon People’ (Vincent Gillespie on Thomas Fishbourne and St Alban’s, vigorously responded to by James Clark, and Virginia Bainbridge on what she self-depracatingly called ‘Virginia’s holiday’, a very interesting uncovering of Syon-associated families in the Stanley territories of Cheshire and north Wales. The afternoon started with an introduction by Harvey Sheldon, recently retired from the Museum of London, on ‘Syon and Archaeology’, followed (just as the rain started) by a visit to the small museum below the first floor of the house and the gardens where the Time Team dig and then the more extensive Birkbeck College excavations have taken place since 2003. The afternoon ended with ‘Syon, Print and Protestantism’, when Brandon Alakas spoke on Richard Whitford and the scrupulous conscience and Philippa Earle on echoes of Walter Hilton in Whitford’s Book of Patience.

Early on Sunday Topher Martyn traced the development (or destruction) ‘From Syon Abbey to Syon House’, a very lively and informative talk, particularly interesting to me on the evidence for the demolition of the church (certainly by 1557, but, argued Topher, probably by 1549 since it would have spoiled the duke of Somerset’s view of his new triangular garden). Elizabeth Goodman and Victoria van Hyning talked on ‘The wandering years’, when the Syon sisters and priests were shuttled around the Low Countries. Elizabeth spoke on the parallel (and at times convergent) experiences of the Dominican nuns of Dartford, and Victoria on the pro-active role beyond England of Margaret Griggs Clement, the adopted daughter of Thomas More, and her family, particularly her daughter Margaret, first English prioress of the Flemish Augustinian convent of St Ursula. Finally, the conference ended with the period ‘Beyond 1594’, with an overview by Eddie Jones, an introduction by Caroline Bowden to the database of her fascinating project ‘Who were the Nuns?’, a prosopographical study of the English convents in exile 1600-1800 (http://wwtn.history.qmul.ac.uk/index.html), and an insight by Carmen Mangion into her study of nuns, including Birgittines, in the post-1940 period, particularly interesting for its extensive use of oral history.

Congratulations must go to Eddie, Topher and the archaeologists, in particular, although every single delegate at this conference deserves congratulations for their enthusiastic and learned participation. However, perhaps the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and the staff of Syon House deserve most thanks, the former for their most generous hospitality in offering free of charge their splendid conference facilities, and the latter for their friendly and helpful assistance in ushering us in and out and round about throughout the conference.


Sue Powell

Emeritus Professor Medieval Texts and Culture (University of Salford)

Research Associate (Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York)

Visiting Research Fellow (Institute of English Studies, University of London)

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