|The Lady Abbess of Syon Abbey, South Brent, Devon with the iron cross and the pinnacle from the original abbey gateway at Syon.|
Described by Sir John Betjeman as 'the Grand Architectural Walk', Syon House and its 200 acre park is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland, whose family have lived here for over 400 years. Originally the site of a medieval abbey, Syon was named after Mount Zion in the Holy Land. The abbey was dedicated to the Bridgettine Order, established in the 14th century by the great Swedish mystic St Bridget. One of the last great abbeys to be built (founded by King Henry V in 1415), Syon was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539.
Syon Abbey had become renowned for its spiritual learning, public preaching and library. It was favoured and visited by King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon but it got embroiled in the religious turmoil of the King’s divorce and his subsequent action of making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England. The Father Confessor, of the nuns, Richard Reynolds, could not accept the King’s supremacy and was brutally executed in 1535, his body placed on the abbey gateway. He was later canonised as a martyr.
In 1547, King Henry VIII's coffin was brought to Syon on its way to Windsor for burial. It burst open during the night and in the morning dogs were found licking up the remains! This was regarded as a divine judgement for the King's desecration of Syon Abbey.
Following the discovery of the Abbey Church in 2003 by Channel 4’s Time Team, Birkbeck University of London have continued to undertake annual excavations. See Link for details of their discoveries.
|Portrait thought to be of Lady Jane Grey but also considered to be Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I)|
After the suppression of the abbey, the estate became Crown property and became the possession of the 1st Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector to the young son of King Henry VIII, Edward VI. He built Syon House in the Italian Renaissance style, over the foundations of the west end of the huge abbey church, (which was the size of a cathedral), between 1547 and his death by execution in 1552. Syon was then acquired by a rival, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (no relation to the present family.) The Duke's son, Lord Guildford Dudley, had married Lady Jane Grey, the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII and it was at Syon that she was formally offered the Crown by the Duke. She accepted reluctantly, was conveyed to London by river and proclaimed Queen. Nine days later, she was displaced by King Henry VIII's eldest daughter, Mary Tudor. The following year Lady Jane Grey was executed. In 1557, the Roman Catholic Queen Mary recalled the nuns to re-establish their abbey at Syon. But she died suddenly in 1558 and the nuns left the country on the accession of her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth I. (In 1861 the nuns returned to England to found their religious community in Devon, where they reside to this day). In 1594, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, acquired Syon through his marriage to Dorothy Devereux and the Percy family has lived at Syon House ever since.
|Henry, 9th Earl of Northumberland or ‘Wizard’ Earl|
Henry Percy, the 9th or ‘Wizard’ Earl of Northumberland led an extraordinary life of a true Renaissance nobleman, despite his deafness and 15 years as a prisoner. He was a great scholar, became the patron of the English astronomer Thomas Harriot, the first man to map the surface of the moon before Galileo and earned his nickname ‘Wizard’ by experimenting in alchemy. He was a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and their interest in the New World led them to consume great quantities of tobacco and potatoes. But it was on 4 November 1605, that the Earl’s fortunes declined literally overnight! A distant cousin, Thomas Percy, who was a staunch Roman Catholic, dined with the Earl at Syon before joining Guy Fawkes and his accomplices the next day, in the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. As one of the principal ‘gunpowder plotters’, Thomas was shot trying to make his escape. Although innocent of the charges brought against him, the Earl was implicated through his association with Thomas and the fateful meeting at Syon. He was confined in the Tower of London for the next 15 years on the orders of King James I.
The 9th Earl’s youngest brother George Percy, was one of the original settlers who sailed to Viginia and founded Jamestown in 1607. George played a signifiacnt role during the early years of the settlement, acting as governor for a short period, when much hardship was experienced. He returned to England in 1612.
|King Charles I and the Duke of York by Sir Peter Lely|
His son, the 10th Earl, was educated in the Tower of London and even kept a pet fox. He became a great patron of the foremost artists of his day, including Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Lely. But it was his reputation for impartiality during the English Civil War, which led him to become governor to King Charles I’s younger son, James Duke of York, from 1646-9, who was to become the future King James II. The younger children of King Charles I lived at Syon in 1646 and the King visited them during his imprisonment at Hampton Court Palace. It may have been during one of these visits that Sir Peter Lely painted Charles I and the Duke of York. The painting hangs in the Red Drawing Room, for which the 10th Earl paid the artist £20.
|Robert Adam (1728-1792) courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London|
In 1750, Sir Hugh Smithson inherited the Percy estates through his wife, Elizabeth Seymour (the Percy family name had ceased due to the 11th Earl of Northumberland only producing a female heir). Proud of her ancestry, Elizabeth and her husband revived the Percy name. In 1750, Sir Hugh became Earl and then 1st Duke of Northumberland in 1766. The first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland were determined to make their mark on Syon Park; their solution was to completely redesign the estate. The Scottish architect, Robert Adam was instructed to remodel the interior of Syon House and the Northumbrian designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to lay out the grounds in the fashionable style of the English Landscape Movement. Brown and Adam had more in common than just being fashionable designers; both were aspiring to create a new ideal form of an earlier time. Whilst Adam’s architecture was inspired by classical Rome, so Brown took the medieval deer park as a model for an ideal countryside. Both were consciously borrowing the connotations of wealth, power and antiquity, and packaging them for their clients.
The Duke was one of Robert Adam’s chief patrons and engaged him soon after Adam returned from Italy. In 1761, Adam published his plan for the interior decoration of Syon House, which included a complete suite of rooms on the principal level, together with a rotunda to be erected in the main courtyard. In the event, five main rooms on the west, south and east sides of the House, from the Great Hall to the Long Gallery were refurbished in the Neo-classical style. It was enough to place a stamp on the architect and his work in England and it is said, “at Syon the Adam style was actually initiated”. Syon House is feted as Adam’s early English masterpiece and has been recognised as the finest surviving evidence of his revolutionary use of colour.
|Joseph Brant (1742-1807) by Gilbert Stuart|
The 1st Duke of Northumberland, (formerly Sir Hugh Smithson) continued the Percy family’s North American connections. He fathered a natural son, James Smithson. James decided that his fortune, valued in excess of half a million dollars, should be left to the ‘The United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institute, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’. The 1st Duke’s legitimate son, Hugh 2nd Duke of Northumberland, made the army his career and fought in the American War of Independence. The 2nd Duke commissioned three paintings by the American painter, Gilbert Stuart, which still hang at Syon today, one of himself, his family and his friend, Joseph Brant, a native American. Joseph Brant was a Mohawk chieftain, his Mohawk name was Thayandanegea, and he rendered valuable assistance to the British during the American War of Independence. He visited England including Syon House. Brantford in Ontario, Canada is named in his honour.
The power and influence of the Dukes of Northumberland, was confirmed when the 3rd Duchess was appointed official governess to the young Princess Victoria. Between 1831 and 1837, when she became Queen, the 3rd Duchess oversaw the Princess’ education. The bedrooms of Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, are still named after them and retain their original beds. The young Princess would have enjoyed the Great Conservatory in the gardens, which was completed in 1830, the first conservatory to be built from metal and glass on a large scale.
|Syon was used as a summer residence, renowned for the magnificent fetes hosted in marquees on the lawns with banquets, dancing and fireworks.|
Today, Syon House is still the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. As well as a home and visitor attraction, Syon Park is still a wonderful venue in which to entertain on a lavish scale, just like the Duke’s ancestors would have done. It is a perfect place for wedding receptions, dinners, parties and more recently, a film location. It is also a wonderful setting for wedding ceremonies, photographic shoots, product launches, exhibitions and fashion shows. To many people Syon Park is regarded, in the words of the 3rd Duchess of Northumberland, “this delicious place”.