Friday, 15 December 2017

Syons of the Times

I think it's time for some sober scholarship, as opposed to pub crawling for Raleigh 400 - though there's more of that to come.

Two rather different houses with the same name, both in the Georgian style but separated from each other by more than 160 miles, play a part in the Raleigh 400 story.

East Budleigh’s Syon House, pictured above and described as ‘the perfect boutique country house B and B’, would at first glance seem to have no connection to Sir Walter. It’s a fine 18th century building overlooking the village of Otterton, and in fact is separated from the older part of East Budleigh and Raleigh’s birthplace by the main road.

Syon House Brentford, London: the west aspect

Credit: Russ Hamer

Syon House, at Brentford, is the spectacular London home of the Duke of Northumberland.  The house was built in the sixteenth century on the site of the Medieval Syon Abbey, and came to the family of the present owners in 1594. Syon has many layers of history and has seen some profound changes over the centuries

So what’s the link to the other Syon House in East Budleigh? They’re both Georgian in design of course, but we have to dig a little deeper.

The Vision of St Bridget, detail of initial letter miniature, dated 1530, probably made at Syon. The document is a conveyance of lands bequeathed to Sheen Priory by the will of Hugh Denys(d.1511) to Syon (BL Harley MS 4640,f.15)

Redesigned in the 18th century by the architect Robert Adam and replacing an earlier building, the Brentford Syon House gives little hint to visitors that it was once a medieval monastery. But down in the crypt you’ll find much earlier stone foundations, and the curious story of the religious order founded by the Swedish visionary St Bridget and its link with Otterton.

Hugo the Otterton salt worker: sculpture by Angie Harlock-Wilkinson in Fairlynch Museum 

Following the Norman invasion of 1066, Otterton was given by William the Conqueror to the Abbey of Mont St Michel in France and a priory was set up. Its various trade interests included exploitation of the salt marshes at Budleigh Salterton. You can discover the story of the Prior of Otterton and Hugo the salt worker who was too fond of his cider, at the town’s Fairlynch Museum.

During the wars between England and France, in 1414 King Henry V seized the manor of Otterton and granted it to the monastery of Bridgettines which he had established by royal charter on the banks of the Thames. Its full title was given as ‘The Monastery of St Saviour and the Saints Mary the Virgin and Bridget of Syon of the Order of St Augustine and of St Saviour’. The foundation stone of Syon Monastery was laid by the King himself in 1431, the name coming from the Bible’s description of Syon or Zion, the citadel of Jerusalem.

Syon Monastery retained ownership of Otterton Priory for just over a century. Then came the turmoil of the Reformation in the reign of King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monks were dispersed, and the monastic half of Otterton’s church was pulled down, or simply allowed to decay.


View across the Thames of Syon House before the alterations of the 1760s by Robert Griffier (1688-1760), landscape painter from London who was active in Amsterdam

As for Syon Monastery itself, the King’s minister Thomas Cromwell himself took an active role in ensuring its closure. Its monks were finally expelled in 1539. The estate was acquired by the Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who built the first version of Syon House in the Italian Renaissance style.

More religious and political upheavals took place, including the Duke’s execution for treason in 1552, and the lease of Syon House was finally given in 1594 to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland.

Portrait of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and friend of Raleigh, by the Exeter-born artist Nicholas Hilliard, painted 1590-95.

Framed oval portrait version of Hilliard's larger work

Ten years younger than Sir Walter, Percy had an unusual
interest in scientific and alchemical experiments which he shared with Raleigh and which gained him the nickname of the ‘Wizard Earl’.

He was also extremely wealthy, finally coming into possession not only of Syon House but of Petworth in Sussex.

The Molyneux globe at Petworth
Image credit Mark Sherouse 

At this time both men were part of the select coterie of intellectuals based at Raleigh’s London residence, Durham House. The Molyneux cartographical globe at Petworth is supposed to have been given to him by Raleigh, one of many expensive gifts which the two exchanged and Sir Walter is known to have consulted the library there in the course of his scholarly pursuits.

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (the 'wizard earl'), painted as a philosopher, posthumously in 1641, by Anthony van Dyck, at Petworth House. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty   

Under King James I, Northumberland was a long-term prisoner in the Tower of London, suspected of having played a part in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. According to the Percy Family History, he took with him into captivity ‘a large number of books, retorts, crucibles, alembics, zodiacal charts and globes’, also a selection of his favourite pipes. Food, good wine, and quantities of tobacco were sent to him regularly, and baskets of fruit were dispatched from his orchards at Syon.

There were also visitors, and he had living with him three wise men, scientists known as the ‘Three Magi’ who assisted him with his experiments. He played chess and draughts, and an early version of kriegspiel, for one item in his accounts is for 300 model soldiers and other necessary equipment.

Raleigh too, having offended Queen Elizabeth’s successor, was a fellow-prisoner with Northumberland at this time. Their friendship and the intellectual curiosity that they shared, along with their dislike of King James - ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’ -  would no doubt have helped to make their lives more tolerable than those of most of the Tower of London’s residents.  

William Shakespeare and a Raleigh connection - apart from that earring. This was long thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare that had any claim to have been painted from life, until another possible life portrait, the Cobbe portrait, was revealed in 2009. The portrait is known as the 'Chandos portrait' after a previous owner, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856.
It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company 

In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594), there is a mention of the ‘School of Night’. It has been argued that this refers to a circle of scientific investigators including Northumberland, which met at Syon House, though other commentators think the word ‘school’ is a misprint for something like ‘shawl’.  Since Northumberland was often considered to be an atheist, the ‘school’ was sometimes referred to as the ‘School of Atheism’.  Raleigh was the supposed leader.

Reading about this episode in Raleigh's life makes you realise how far he had evolved from the brutal thug that he was in his youth. And I enjoyed finding the answer to the puzzle that I first encountered when I saw Syon House on the map on a walk around East Budleigh.  

For more insights into the Percy family see

The East Budleigh Syon House website is at


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