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Edward IV: The ‘Second Founder’ of Syon Abbey

Dr Virginia Bainbridge has been working on the community of the Birgittine abbey of Syon (Middlesex) for the past three decades. In the course of her research, she has traced the families and fortunes of hundreds of individuals associated with this fascinating house and in 2020 received a grant from the Richard III and Yorkist History Trust which allowed her to pursue further research and publish several important new articles, as well as to continue work on her forthcoming book. Here, the Trust speaks to Dr Bainbridge about Edward IV’s involvement with Syon, his role as the house’s ‘second founder’, and its wider Yorkist connections. Her work demonstrates that the history of Syon is inextricably woven with that of the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses, and that politics and piety in this period are inseparable.

Early reconstruction of the church at Syon Abbey by Dr Jonathan Foyle (2003) in the character of a mid fifteenth-century structure of identified width, pending further archaeology to the west end that has subsequently shown a shorter length than suggested here. The proportions are closely modelled on the mother house of Vadstena. With permission of Dr Foyle.

What was Syon Abbey, where was it located, and what makes it so important in medieval history?

Syon Abbey had a very important role to play in the Wars of the Roses. It was founded in 1415 by Henry V to pray for the Lancastrian dynasty. The order to which it belonged – the Birgittine Order – was founded by St Birgitta of Sweden who lived between 1303 and 1373. She was a member of the Swedish royal family and was a very powerful prophet: she spoke out against the Avignon Papacy and she spoke out against the Hundred Years’ War. Henry V wanted to have a Birgittine house in England because he thought that in return she would intercede on his behalf for victory in the war against France. The house therefore had an awful lot of political, as well as spiritual, significance.

Originally, the English house was going to be founded at York and it was really a northern foundation. The trade routes between the north-east of England and the Baltic had brought knowledge of St Birgitta’s cult to England. It was the northern elite – families like the Scropes and the Percies – as well as the Lancastrians who wanted to have this powerhouse of prayer, but there was never quite enough money after Henry IV took the throne and it fell to his son to establish one. Syon was eventually built on the royal manor of Isleworth (Middlesex), which is on the Thames to the west of London and is easy to access by river from royal palaces at Westminster, Sheen, Greenwich, and Windsor. Henry’s related foundation – the Carthusian house at Sheen – was similarly located, on the site that is now Kew Gardens. Syon itself is now the London home of the Percy dukes of Northumberland, Syon House – another interesting historical connection!

Map of the Thames in the Later Middle Ages. By Craig Asquith. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2022.

Syon was a house of enclosed nuns whose prayers were believed to be particularly efficacious because they lived a very strict religious life. They were accompanied by a group of priests, known as the Syon brothers, who provided all the sacraments for the nuns. The brothers lived in separate accommodation on the same site and it was not possible for them to access the nuns’ quarters. This rigorous religious life was attractive to many patrons even though Syon was an expensive foundation to endow.

The main endowment for Syon was provided by Henry V from the confiscated lands of ‘alien priories’ – in other words, religious houses founded by the Norman elite who came over with William the Conqueror that reported to mother institutions in France. During the Hundred Years’ War, English kings were concerned that money was leaving the kingdom to go to the French mother houses in the form of taxes or high-value goods like cheeses, which in turn helped to fund the French war effort. The houses at both Syon and Sheen benefitted from Henry’s judicious redistribution of this land.

The Birgittines themselves were very astute: they were intelligent, educated, able people and they very much subscribed to St Birgitta’s agenda, which was to spearhead religious and social reform and to act as pressure groups to pressurise the elite into funding this reform. So, every time there was a regime change in fifteenth-century England – from the Lancastrians to the Yorkists, and then from the Yorkists to the Tudors – the Birgittines managed to slither over to enjoy the confidence of whoever was on the throne. They therefore became a house of prayer not just for the Lancastrians but also for the Yorkists and the Tudors, and they had links with the Stuarts later on. They were politically very canny.

How did you first come to study the community at Syon, and what course has your research taken since?

Well, my PhD was all about the Reformation, because that had really interested me at school – what a terrible thing, the Reformation, that destroyed the happy religious unity of the medieval Church! Which, of course, is a lovely fantasy, isn’t it? But the Reformation was certainly a very shocking thing in Europe and a lot of the political conflict and warfare of the early modern period had its roots in this religious turmoil, obviously revealing underlying tensions. My doctoral research was on guilds and fraternities in late medieval Cambridgeshire (published by Boydell and Brewer in 1996) and I studied them through to 1558 to see whether or not they came back under Mary I. Being a long time ago, this research was part of the wave of ‘revisionism’ about the Reformation, in which people like Eamon Duffy and Clive Burgess were very important. We all realised that actually medieval Catholicism had been more popular than suggested by the sources used by earlier historians, who had looked at governmental administrative records, polemical works, and writings by firebrands.

So, when my PhD supervisor, Caroline Barron, suggested Syon Abbey as my next topic I was very excited, and I could see the potential of looking at it through to 1600 because the community had refused to be broken up at the Reformation. They persisted, coming back under Mary, before existing in exile under Elizabeth I, where they remained until the nineteenth century. That’s a very interesting history, especially as some of their views and ideas transferred through into later Protestantism, publishing Richard Whitford’s Work for Householders, for example, which encouraged lay people to live a semi-monastic life in the world. When you look at seventeenth-century Puritans, that’s the sort of model they’re following. The same is true with funding commemorative institutions that provided charity – almshouses, schools, hospitals – throughout the early modern period. You can see that there’s many different strands of historical enquiry by looking at the different ways the Syon community went both during and after the fifteenth century.

The other thing that I realised when I started looking at Syon Abbey was that kinship groups outside of the community were key to what was happening inside. You could then also see how they were spreading their ideas. I had a fellowship at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, 1996-8, where I had some time for research and one Sunday afternoon I thought: “it wouldn’t take long to trace all those people that are in the Syon Martiloge!” The Martiloge [British Library, Add. MS 22285] is, inter alia, a compilation of the history and benefactors of Syon Abbey, produced there in the late fifteenth century. I had already been to the British Library and copied out notes, but it has taken about three decades to get this far! There’s about six-hundred people that I’ve been tracing – most of them are in the Martiloge and there are about twenty or thirty who aren’t but who were nevertheless very significant to the story like Lady Margaret Beaufort and those involved in Syon’s exile period. Taking a prosopography (the study of collective biographies) approach to all these people has enabled me to see patterns of benefaction and to identify connected groups that were involved with Syon, and I can say that many of them were associated with the royal court, particularly in the later fifteenth century when Syon Abbey really takes off under Edward IV’s patronage. We’ve got courtiers alongside financiers from the City of London, who also want to cosy up to the crown – and often Edward IV leans on them for big “loans” which may or may not have been repaid. I’m also able to deduce regional associations as well. So, looking at these patterns is very interesting.

What do we mean when we say Edward IV was Syon’s ‘second founder’ and what was his association with the house?

Well, pretty soon after Edward took the throne in 1461, Syon gave Edward IV this status as ‘second founder’. I think that the Birgittines couldn’t have avoided this – if they had only acknowledged Henry V’s status as the original founder, they would have lost out on significant income under the new regime. It was a place that needed royal patronage, but I also think that Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville took their responsibilities to Syon seriously.

King Edward IV by Unknown English artist. Oil on panel, circa 1540. NPG 3542 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

After Henry V’s death, Syon had really been in the doldrums. His son, Henry VI, confiscated the house’s most lucrative estates to endow his own foundations of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. Syon faced many challenges: it didn’t have the income from these profitable estates, buildings remained half built, and they had lost prestige. Other people were founding elite colleges, like Archbishop Chichele, an earlier patron of Syon, who had founded All Souls’ College, Oxford, in 1438. All the intelligent, educated, happening priests were going to Chichele’s college – they didn’t want to go to mouldy old Syon where all the funding had run out! It really needed a big injection of cash; it needed people to get behind it and new patrons who had lots of money.

Edward IV provided all of these. The Martiloge records services performed ‘for Lord King Henry V, the first founder of this monastery, and at the same time also for Lord King Edward IV, and their wives, Queens Catherine and Elizabeth’, giving the reason that:

Just like our first founder, the abovementioned King Edward IV was particularly devoted to this order, and especially to this monastery. He considered every success that he experienced a gift from his religion. He made sure that property which had been wrongly taken away from the monastery was returned. He also donated more than 500 marks to the building of the church and gave many other gifts.

Entry in the Syon Martiloge recording Edward IV’s donations. BL: Add. MS 22285, f. 15r. By permission of the British Library.

In addition to returning the estates that his predecessor had commandeered and giving a gift of money towards the completion of the church building, Edward brought lots of new patrons – named in the Martiloge as Syon’s ‘special benefactors and friends’ – from the mercantile and courtly elite. Because of this benefaction, Syon flourished – you could say that it was a ‘golden age’ for Syon Abbey under Edward IV.

What changes do we see as a result of Edward’s new-found patronage of Syon?

Syon always seemed to be able to recruit nuns quite well, and there doesn’t seem to have been a dip in numbers with them after the abbey had lost pace financially in the period between 1422 and 1461. But they had really struggled to recruit priests, and they were the ones who provided the sacraments for the sisters and who preached to pilgrims and provided spiritual direction to elite members of the royal court and other wealthy lay people. So, with Edward IV we see an influx of priests, and we also see some very able people entering the posts of abbess and confessor general. For instance, Abbess Muston arrived just after Edward came to the throne and was in office until 1497. Father Westhaugh had been appointed confessor general just before Edward IV’s reign but remained in office for a similar period of time. Together, Muston and Westhaugh instituted internal changes – Westhaugh was the first of the confessor generals to come from Pembroke College, Cambridge, and had had specific experience as a spiritual director of the nuns at Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire. The founder of both had been Marie de Saint Pol, a noblewoman with familial connections to royalty, in the fourteenth century. At Syon, Westhaugh was able to get people in who were really experienced in educating religious women. More specifically, more priests were enrolled who had been to one of the two universities. So, thanks to the increase in prestige and funding spearheaded by Edward, we see that religious life for the nuns of Syon was directly improved.

Edward IV also paid for the lovely manuscript book known as the Syon Martiloge, which recorded the many donations made by benefactors associated with the Yorkist regime. Syon’s library also developed during this period. It really was buzzing – people associated with Syon were influential in the wider community. Benefactors were also founding chantries and hospitals, and helping to fund colleges at universities. Although these things were of course more widespread, a higher proportion of Syon benefactors – or the families of the sisters and brothers – were doing these things than you might expect in an average sample.

About half of the list of special benefactors are from the Yorkist age and are part of Edward IV’s fundraising drive. About 20% of them came from the London mercantile elite, a high proportion of which were merchants of the Calais Staple who had the monopoly on wool exports. And when you trace the people associated with Syon (not just the special benefactors), a good number are also associated with the Calais Staple, and when you also look at the brothers and sisters who entered Syon in the fifteenth century, a lot of them came from families where key members were part of this mercantile elite. It’s the sort of billionaires’ club of the day, these are seriously rich people. Now, Edward IV showed his appreciation to London merchants (for their support in securing his reign) at two key points. The first was at Elizabeth Woodville’s coronation in 1465, where he knighted the mayor, Ralph Josselyn, and four of the twenty-four aldermen, including Hugh Wyche and John Layneham (alias Plummer), all of whom were special benefactors of Syon. Hugh Wyche came from a family in Cheshire which made its wealth in the salt trade. All those Cheshire towns with the suffix -wich – Middlewich, Northwich, Nantwich – were the locations of salt mines. By Hugh’s generation, the family had gone international and were trading all sorts of things out of Southampton with a London base. Layneham, on the other hand, was associated with a group of Syon’s benefactors in the Thames valley centred on the Danvers family, about whom I have written quite a lot. This group were patrons of Syon right through into the Tudor period and, indeed, some of them into the period after 1539.

The second was in 1471, after the brief moment in which Henry VI was returned to the throne, when Edward IV knighted another group of Londoners who had repelled the Bastard of Fauconberg’s pro-Lancastrian forces at London Bridge. These included William Hampton and John Crosby, who were also very wealthy merchants and Syon benefactors. We therefore have a lot of links between Edward IV, Syon, and this mercantile and financial elite that was pushing England’s economy and able to invest heavily in Syon’s religious community.

Yorkist ‘special benefactors and friends’ named in the Syon Martiloge. BL: Add. MS 22285, f. 71r. By permission of the British Library.
Tomb of Sir John Crosby, grocer and alderman of London, at St Helen’s Bishopsgate. Photo: Richard Asquith.

There are also a lot of courtiers in the list of benefactors, especially people who were nobles with familial connections to royalty. Many of these were sisters and some of the priests at Syon, although the priests really come through the educational route, they tend not to come to Syon though family links so much.

What other Yorkist connections did Syon have?

Elizabeth of York by Unknown artist. Oil on panel, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1500. NPG 311 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Edward’s whole family were keen on Syon Abbey, and we see this as a pattern not just in England but throughout northern Europe – particularly with new dynasties supporting Birgittine foundations and harnessing their prayers. Edward’s parents – Richard, duke of York, and Cecily, duchess of York – were both commemorated at Syon. But when his sister Margaret married Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, she took over patronage of the Birgittine house of Mariatroon, Dendermonde, in Flanders, from her mother-in-law Isabella of Portugal, who had founded the house. The Burgundians also had a number of Carthusian houses (like Syon’s brother house at Sheen) which the ducal family had founded and funded, and Margaret similarly supported Carthusian initiatives in the Low Countries. So, we have a general family pattern of patronage of these two religious orders that really were on the cutting edge of late medieval devotional trends – there was no opportunity for a lax religious life or a casual attitude to your vocation if you’re in one of these houses. Edward IV’s whole family were very keen to support both Birgittines and Carthusians.

More specifically, Anne of York, duchess of Exeter and Edward IV’s sister, was a special benefactor of Syon and she encouraged a lot of people who came from her estates in the Exeter area to join the community at Syon. The most important of these was Abbess Elizabeth Gibbs, who came from a wealthy family which had interests in trade through the port of Exeter, which was a much bigger port then than it is now. She occupied the role after the death of Abbess Muston in 1497 through to 1518 and she collaborated with Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, who had married Henry Tudor after the latter came to the throne, and with the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to produce printed editions of devotional books written or translated by the brothers of Syon. We therefore have another generation of Yorkist patronage through Elizabeth of York as well as through her aunt, Anne of York.

Finally, how did funding from the Richard III and Yorkist History Trust aid your research on this important community?

The funding was very important financially, but so was having the accolade and the support of a group of people saying “yes, Virginia, your work is interesting, it is worthwhile, and we will help you”. And, if I hadn’t had that funding, I would have been unable to revise my six-hundred mini-biographies of the sisters and brothers and I would have been unable to write the three academic papers that are in the process of being published, which include lists of all the sisters and all the brothers. The Trust has, then, helped to get this information out there, and the lists will be very useful to other scholars as they include verified dates – not just the date of death from the Martiloge but also the dates at which different individuals flourished. Also included are tables that record information such as location of origin, family background, and career, as well as details of their books and their associations with the kingdom’s political, learned, and religious elite. So, it’s enabled me to get that work done – that’s not to say that I wouldn’t have sweated blood to complete it, but it probably would have taken another few years to get those products to completion if I hadn’t had the funding and support from the Trust. 

The three papers that I’ve been working on with this grant relate to three out of the seven chapters of my forthcoming book on Syon, so I’ve significantly moved forward with that project and have begun revising some of the material for a fourth chapter, too. The funding has really made it possible that this book will now be completed within the next two to three years!

Further reading:

Primary Sources

British Library, Add. MS 22285.

C. Gejrot (ed. and trans.), The Martiloge of Syon Abbey: The Texts Relevant to the History of the English Birgittines (Stockholm, 2015).

Daily Office Of Our Lady: The Syon Breviary, trans. and set to music by Rev Brian Foley, with a preface by Sr Anne Smyth, O.Ss.S. (Order of the Most Holy Saviour) (Plymouth, 2015).

Secondary Sources

C. A. J. Armstrong, ‘The Piety of Cicely, Duchess of York: a Study in Late Medieval Culture’, in England, France and Burgundy in the 15th Century (London, 1983), 135-56.

V. R. Bainbridge, ‘Syon Abbey and Nation Building: Patronage by Political Elites and their Regional Affinities in England and Wales c.1415-1558’, in Continuity and Change: Papers from the Birgitta Conference 2015, ed. E. Andersson, C. Gejrot, E.A. Jones & M. Åkestam (Stockholm, 2017), 128-144.

V. R. Bainbridge, ‘Syon Abbey: Women and Learning c. 1415-1600’, in Syon Abbey and its books c.1400-1700, ed. Eddie A. Jones, and Alex M. Walsham (Woodbridge, 2010), 82-103.

P. Cunich, ‘The Brothers of Syon, 1420-1695,’ in Syon Abbey and its books c.1400-1700, ed. Eddie A. Jones, and Alexandra Walsham (Woodbridge, 2010), 39-81.

M. C. Erler, Women, Reading and Piety in Late Medieval England (Cambridge, 2002).

J. B. Holloway, ed. Saint Bride & her Book: Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations translated from Middle English (Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1992).

E. A. Jones, England’s Last Medieval Monastery: Syon Abbey 1415-2015 (Leominster, 2015).

F. N. Macnamara, Memorials of the Danvers Family (London, 1895).

For more information on the research grants offered by the Trust, please see the Grants page on our website.