The 600th anniversary of the foundation of Syon Abbey - England's longest surviving medieval monastery - falls in 2015. The sexcentenary provides a unique opportunity to attract and engage a wide public with the community's history, and the broader questions that the project addresses.
Intended beneficiaries include
- amateur religious historians
- local historians
- public visitors to sites associated with the Abbey's history (primarily Syon Park)
- professed religious and their associates, including clergy
- the Roman Catholic community in general
Amateur historians will find much to inform, enrich and extend their work. Visitors to Syon Park will attain new understanding of the site, and the historical process that resulted in its present form; some visitors will have been prompted by their interest in the Abbey to visit its original site for the first time. Professed religious in particular, and the Catholic community in general, will find new ways to contextualise and understand their own experiences and histories. For all groups, our primary aim is for beneficiaries of the research to connect with monastic history and monastic identities not merely as 'bare ruin'd choirs' and the stuff of 'heritage', but as a living (if increasingly tenuous) tradition. Syon's unique history means that it is uniquely well placed to enable such connections.
Events will be concentrated at Syon Park (Brentford), the site of the medieval Abbey, and Exeter, where most of its material remains are now to be found. Activities fall into three categories: public exhibitions, lectures and talks to a general audience, and religious commemorations.
Alongside this local focus, we expect that some of the higher-profile events will attract national coverage, including but not restricted to special-interest media (eg Catholic newspapers The Tablet, Catholic Herald).
Public exhibitions will be held during 2015 in Syon House and at the University of Exeter. Talks aimed at a general audience will be delivered as part of established series at Syon House and the Devon & Exeter Institution (Exeter). Religious commemorations will be held in summer 2015 in Exeter and in Syon Park, where an open-air ecumenical event will take place in the meadow, within the outline of the medieval Abbey.
Syon Abbey is the only English religious house that can trace its history in an unbroken line from the Middle Ages to the present day. The monastery, for 60 nuns and 12 priests under the authority of an abbess, was founded in 1415, the last foundation of medieval England, and one of the richest. The Abbey was not dissolved under Henry VIII. Instead the community went into exile, living at a succession of sites in Holland and France (as well as a short-lived restoration under Queen Mary) before settling in Lisbon (Portugal) in 1594. There they remained until the 19th century, when increased religious toleration allowed them to return to England. They stayed at several locations in South-West England, before settling near South Brent in Devon. The Abbey finally closed in 2011, though the three surviving sisters continue its traditions in retirement.
That long and complicated narrative, that traverses much of northern Europe through periods of enormous religious, social and political change, presents a daunting challenge to anyone proposing a comprehensive history of England's last medieval monastery. But the opportunity Syon Abbey represents to bring together the whole, diverse range of scholarship on the English monastic experience across six centuries is not to be passed up.
In Syon's sexcenentary year, the project will take substantial steps towards making that comprehensive history a reality. We will develop a research network that, collectively, has the expertise to encompass the whole of Syon's lengthy history, and that will foster conversations among scholars whose specialisms (in different disciplines and time periods) more commonly keep them apart. We will also bring people from outside the academic community into those conversations, including amateur historians, archivists and other custodians of Syon's material legacy, and current members of the religious orders.
At the centre of the network will be a series of three workshops, to be held at the three principal sites associated with Syon Abbey: Syon House, Lisbon and Exeter. But the project will also face outward, through general-interest talks, exhibitions, and a public commemoration held in the meadows of Syon House (London), within the outline of the foundations of the medieval Abbey.