London Luminaries – the people who inhabited the historic properties of west London

Image above: Syon House

Syon House in Medieval and Tudor times

The outskirts of London is littered with the estates of the rich who once ran them as country houses where they took refuge from the business of the city. Fifteen historic properties in west London have come together to produce a series of talks called ‘London Luminaries’ about these estates and their occupants and the rich legacy they have left us of buildings, gardens and landscapes.

Syon House, Ham House, Marble Hill House, Chiswick House, Boston Manor House, Hogarth’s House and Gunnersbury Museum and Park are among those taking part, providing a series of online talks throughout October and November.

Earlier in year Howard Simmons, one of the professional heritage guides at Syon House, gave a talk about the Duke of Northumberland’s estate, which started out in mediaeval times as Syon Abbey, originally founded by Henry V,  and was visited by King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. His talk focused on Tudor times.

Many people know of Syon from the 18th Century, he said – Robert Adams’ wonderful interiors and Capability Brown’s magnificent landscaping – but when visitors come to the house, which belongs to the Duke of Northumberland, they are often surprised how old its history is. The current house is constructed from stone from the original abbey, a Bridgettine order called after the Swedish saint St Bridget, founded in 1340.

Image above: Painting of what the abbey is believed to have looked like, by Dr Jonathan Foyle

At the centre of the lethal politics of the Tudor royal court

“There were some 800 religious houses across the country and Syon abbey was effectively the tenth wealthiest, holding lands from St Michael’s Mount down in Cornwall, right the way up to Lincolnshire, with a whole range of patrons” he said. “

There is much of the abbey that remains, because the house is actually built on the foundations of the old abbey and when they built it, they decided not to build new cellars but to simply use the under croft of the abbey as the cellars of the house. If you haven’t been, I do recommend you come.”

The abbey survived the Wars of the Roses and despite having been set up by a Lancastrian, it thrived into Tudor times. It was only destroyed and rebuilt after the death of Henry VIII. It was Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, who as  Lord Protector guiding the boy King Edward, was effectively the most powerful man in the land, who decided he would rather like to build himself a grand house in the latest Renaissance style on the site of the old abbey.

Syon was at the centre of the lethal politics of the Tudor court. As the abbey was a great centre of religious learning, and just across the water from Richmond Palace, Queen Catherine of Aragon used to visit it with her daughter Mary to engage in debate with the nuns and the brothers.

Images above: Bridgettine nuns c 1435 Paradiso, Florence; Catherine of Aragon – National Trust

Catherine Howard was imprisoned at Syon

Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth queen, was imprisoned at Syon when she was accused of treason. She was held “in just two rooms within the old abbey buildings, for a period of time, three to four months when he dangles in front of her the prospect that she might be forgiven, but in the end he doesn’t and she is sent from here down to the Tower of London to be executed at the age of 17.”

Syon abbey was caught up in the religious schism caused by Henry’s divorce and in the power struggle for the succession when he died.

The abbey signed its own death warrant when it backed Elizabeth Barton, ‘the Holy Maid of Kent’, who spoke out against Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. She was executed and claims the distinction of being the only woman to have her head displayed on Tower Bridge.

That attracted the attention of Henry’s henchman Thomas Cromwell, who sent his agents in to Syon to produce a report which talks about the ‘lust and incontinence’ of the nuns, who ‘make free with the friars’. “It’s somewhat colourful language for the time” said Howard Simmons, “and there’s certainly no objective evidence of it whatsoever, but it is sufficient to lead to the dissolution of Syon.”

Images above: Portrait of Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger; Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery, unknown artist

Syon was used as the venue for councils of state for Queen Elizabeth 1

Edward Seymour was himself executed on Tower Hill for treason. Queen Mary took his house back into royal ownership and promptly gave it back to the Bridgettine nuns.

“Forced out at the time of the dissolution, the Bridgettine nuns are invited back and for the period of Mary’s reign Syon becomes known as a centre for Catholic theology again with major masses and teachings in the open air outside attracting large crowds of several thousand people coming to some of them.”

Naturally when Queen Elizabeth I took over as Queen she booted them out again. She used the place as a venue for holding councils of state.

“There were some 13 Councils of State held at Syon over the years, including one major celebration when Francis Drake circumnavigated the world. It is here that the proposals come about for some of the colonial initiatives that will be taken – the creation of Virginia in the Americas.”

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529 Frank Salisbury

Science, exploration and an ‘exploding corpse’

Walter Raleigh and his mates hung out at Syon with Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. He was known as the ‘wizard earl’ because he was a polymath, interested in alchemy and in sponsoring the arts.

Among their group was Thomas Harriot, “perhaps the greatest British scientist of the period, known as a mathematician, interested in navigation”, who set up an observatory and a laboratory at Syon. “It’s from here that he does the first drawings of the moon and the circles round Jupiter.”

Perhaps the most colourful story of all from Howard Simmons’ talk was the best known tale from Tudor times, of how Henry VIII’s funeral procession to Windsor stopped off at Syon overnight and the weight of the casket broke the bier, spilling the contents on the floor.

“One story, which the Horrible Histories love, is that because of the decomposition, when it falls it explodes. What we think actually happened is that it falls and it cracks open and some of the contents leak out onto the floor and the hunting dogs that are there lick it up.”

It is now down to the speakers in the autumn programme to try and top that story!

London Luminaries autumn online talks

Charms Often Sought – So Rarely Found!’: The Loves of David Garrick
Clive Francis, 4 October, 7pm

Love, Loss, and Longing at Ham House
Dr Hannah Mawdsley, 5 October, 7pm

Love in the Early Modern Household: A Glimpse into Life at Boston Manor House
Angela Platt, 11 October, 7pm

The Mourning and Funeral of Sir John Maynard of Gunnersbury in 1690
James Wisdom, 12 October, 7pm

Morality and Mortality: Death Portrayed in Hogarth’s ‘Modern Moral Series’ and Mourning in Georgian Britain
Katie Hinchliffe, 18 October, 7pm

‘All their blood lyes att the doore of this Bishop’
Alexis Haslam, 19 October, 7pm

Love, Death and Royalty: Kew Palace and Strawberry Hill House & Gardens
Lee Prosser & Mark Lambert, 15 November, 7pm

‘Love is a treacherous emotion’: A Portrait of Catherine de Medici
Mark Lambert, 15 November, 7pm

The talks are free, but a donation of £5 is encouraged. Fine more details and how to book to listen to the talks on London Luminaries website

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar