When a friend asked me to cat-sit for a week, my immediate thought was “where is the nearest stately home?” That thought was closely followed by “how do I get cats to like me?” A quick google came up with a)Syon House and b)give them food.
Which brings me to today. After being woken up by a hungry cat jumping onto my bum at 6am, I charged up my camera and got myself ready for a morning of columns and cornices.
I’ve been wanting to visit Syon for a while as it has served as the backdrop for some major events in British history.
Henry V founded Syon Abbey in 1426 and it was a successful convent right up until Henry VIII decided to have a strop. Syon Abbey had been home to two people who had really got Henry in a tizz. Elizabeth Barton got right on the royal tits when she decided to publicly show her opposition to Henry dumping Catherine of Aragon so that he could bonk Anne Boleyn.
Barton, being a Catholic nun, was funnily enough in favour of keeping the Catholic Catherine as Queen. She frequently met with Sir Thomas More, another Catherine supporter, at Syon Abbey to bond over their opposition to the Reformation. Barton had become famous as the Holy Maid of Kent, spouting ‘prophecies’ that warned of dire consequences for anyone who did anything to annoy the Pope. As the Pope was apoplectic at the plans to give Catherine the boot, Barton dutifully fired off one of her famous prophecies. She loudly proclaimed that if Henry married Anne Boleyn he’d be dead soon after the wedding.
As furious as Henry was, he couldn’t arrest her for mere talking, yet. So instead he started a whisper campaign that Barton was bonkers and frequently had rampant sex with priests. He then made it legal to prosecute people for past actions even if those actions had been within the law at the time. Barton was arrested on charges of treason and hanged at Tyburn without trial in 1534. She also has the dubious honour of being the only woman whose head was mounted on a spike on London Bridge.
Another Syon resident and friend of More and Barton was a monk named Richard Reynolds. With his bezzie mate Thomas More in the Royal doghouse for snubbing the coronation ceremony of Anne Boleyn, Reynolds decided to also take a stand. He refused to take the oath that proclaimed Henry as head of the Church in England. Henry, by now, was losing his patience and acted swiftly. Reynolds was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, where Barton had been executed little over a year previously. He’s now a Catholic saint.
By now Henry was not the biggest fan of Syon Abbey and it’s inhabitants. They were evicted and fled to the continent. Henry then seized the property for the Crown, as was his habit.
By the time he was on wifey number 5, Catherine Howard, Henry was even grumpier and even more vindictive. The marriage was doomed. Surprisingly, the very young, very flirtatious Catherine found young men her own age rather more attractive than her morbidly obese, ageing, permanently cantankerous hubby. Upon the discovery that his ‘rose without a thorn’ was actually a bit of a tart, Henry decided that perhaps he didn’t want to be married to a brazen little hussy any more and that perhaps he should get rid of her. Cue the famous story of Catherine screaming Hampton Court Palace down after being charged with treason.
After being stripped of her queenship Henry imprisoned Catherine at Syon Abbey, making sure that two rooms were “furnished moderately as her life and condition hath deserved.” Having become rather used to piles of jewellery and fabulous interior decor, Catherine found the drab rooms rather depressing. They didn’t even have tapestries. Despite this, apparently Catherine spent her time at Syon behaving as imperiously as she ever did as Queen. Eventually the time came for Catherine to be taken to the Tower for execution. She had to be dragged, screaming, into the boat at Syon Abbey that would take her to her death.
The Abbey would have revenge on Henry for bringing such misery and tragedy to its doors. When he died in 1547 his funeral procession stopped off at Syon overnight on the trip to Windsor. By this time he’d been dead a while, and Tudor morticians weren’t exactly wonderfully talented. The hugely corpulent King had begun to decompose. Whilst at Syon Abbey the coffin began to leak the putrefied King all over the floor, where the resident dogs gleefully started feasting on it. A very undignified end for one who had caused undignified ends for so many others.
Soon afterwards the Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset moved in. His sister Jane had been wifey number three to old Henry and had died soon after giving birth to the long awaited male heir, also named Edward. Still a sprog when daddy died, Edward VI had Uncle Eddie working as Lord Protector until he was old enough to rule alone. Uncle Eddie needed a London pad close to court to suit his new rank and proceeded to build a grand Renaissance house on the old Abbey foundations. Unfortunately, Uncle Eddie got a bit too big for his boots, and so like so many Syon residents before him, Seymour was executed in 1552 for supposedly plotting against his nephew.
Edward VI, meanwhile, was growing up to be a sickly youth who nevertheless had strong views about the future of his nation. The last thing he wanted was for his sister Mary to become Queen as she had a massive chip on her shoulder about the whole Reformation thing. So Edward went with an early version of his dad’s will, one that didn’t include his sisters inheriting. Henry had annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so essentially that made Mary illegitimate. And Henry had thoughtfully annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn before lopping off her head, so that made Elizabeth a bastard too. Although there’s been much debate over which version of the will was the legal one, Edward decided to stick with the version that named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as the heir to the throne.
I have to admit I rather like Jane. She was a geeky bookworm who spoke in more languages than some of the male politicians of her time and was more widely read even as a teenager. I often wonder what our country would be like now if she’d have been given a chance to reign. All accounts of her paint her as a very wise, level headed young lady. Jane was staying at Syon when she received the news that the fifteen year old Edward had passed away and that she was therefore Queen. Although apparently reluctant, even in the nine days she spent shoring up her throne at the Tower she proved herself to be a worthy monarch. For instance, she refused to proclaim her useless husband Guilford king as she knew that he was a feather brained lump. However, we all know what happened next. The curse of Syon struck again and Jane was beheaded.
As Queen, Mary tried to restore the Abbey to its former glory. After all, they had been loud and staunch supporters of her mum. However as soon as Mary kicked the Royal bucket her firmly Protestant sister Elizabeth promptly evicted everyone again and they fled to the continent again. The nuns did return to England, but not until Victoria was on the throne a few of centuries later.
The house, meanwhile, was snapped up by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland and Elizabethan courtier. When Lizzie bit the big one, stuttering Percy found that relatives can be a pain in the backside. His cousin Thomas was one of the Gunpowder Plotters, and in the days that followed the failed assassination Henry became implicated in the plot and consequently spent the next 15 years of his life incarcerated in the Tower. Given the fates of previous residents of the Syon estate, he must have been thanking his lucky stars, especially as by all accounts he spent his time at the Tower in some style. Mercifully for the Percys their estates weren’t confiscated and Syon House has been the London residence of the Earls of Northumberland ever since.
During that time the house has been shot at (during the Battle of Brentford) and hosted a royal birth (although Prince George, son of Queen Anne, died within hours of his birth.)
If a history with more angst and tragedy than an episode of Eastenders isn’t enough to convince you to visit, the architecture should.
I am a classicist at heart, and anything Neo-Classical gets my heart skipping a beat. That meant that within minutes of entering Syon House I was constantly on the verge of needing a defibrillator.
By the 1760s the house needed a bit of TLC and John Adam was drafted in to give the place a makeover. A lover of all things ancient, Adam started to turn Syon into a love letter to classical architecture and interior design. If, like me, you’ve worked in stately homes you may have suffered from an overdose of gilt, but here I didn’t get that feeling of being slapped in the face by a designer with a passion for gold leaf, despite it being used a lot on the ground floor. Adam filled the house with elegant scagliola columns and antique statues. Although John Adam only finished a portion of the ground floor, what he did create is visually stunning. The rest of the house is filled to the rafters with beautiful portraits of famous past inhabitants and guests. I’m a Lely fan myself, but you can’t go wrong with Van Dyck.
Other highlights are the grounds which were landscaped by Capability Brown, crowned with a beautiful conservatory that Horrible Histories fans will immediately recognise as a stand in for the Crystal Palace.
On a professional level I was pleased to note that nearly all of the wardens initiated conversation. Hallelujah! No hesitating to engage here! Only one, (male, tellingly) steadfastly refused to talk to me. Perhaps it was because I was wearing trainers and not a twin set and pearls, because he was more than happy to follow some well heeled middle aged ladies around for ten minutes talking at them. Just because I am in my twenties and I wear jeans does not mean I do not appreciate a nice Sevres vase, Mr Warden. Tut tut. Go and de-fluff your ill fitting tweed jacket and contemplate on your behaviour! However, the less stuffy ladies more than made up for his snobbery and I chatted with every single one of them for quite some time. I’ve always maintained that this makes the difference between a good and a great visitor experience. Bravo, ladies of Syon!
In short, or actually, quite lengthy, you should visit Syon House. You definitely won’t regret it, and the ticket price in comparison to similar stately homes is practically a steal. Also, top marks for a very well written and presented guidebook, which is full of lovely photos and has that lovely, luxurious feel to the touch.
If you haven’t already started planning a day trip to Brentford, then what is keeping you!? In the meantime do peruse the Syon Park website for visitor information: http://www.syonpark.co.uk/index.asp
5 out of 5 stars and a huge, enthusiastic thumbs up!