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Archives and Special Collections: The Syon Abbey Collection

Special Collections manages collections of archives, manuscripts and book collections which are too rare, old or fragile to be kept on the open shelves of the library.

Introduction to the Syon Abbey Collection

Syon Abbey was a monastery of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, also known as the Bridgettine Order. It was founded directly from the Mother House in Vadstena in Sweden in 1415, and the community of the Abbey followed the Rule of St Bridget of Sweden. The enclosed community – governed by an abbess and comprising both nuns and monks - was renowned for its dedication to reading and contemplation. In addition, it was unusual in being the only English Catholic community of religious to have continued existing without interruption through the Reformation period.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Syon community spent over half a century migrating through the Low Countries and France, before eventually settling in Lisbon, Portugal in 1594. In 1861, the sisters (the last brother having died in 1695) returned to England. The community spent its final century living in Devon, first in Chudleigh and then in South Brent. On account of dwindling numbers and the age of the remaining nuns, the decision was made to close Syon Abbey in 2011. 

The Syon Abbey Collection is formed of the Syon Abbey archive, the Syon Abbey medieval and modern manuscript collection, and the Syon Abbey Library Collection, as well as several smaller collections relating to Syon Abbey. This collection provides a unique and invaluable resource for research into six centuries of Syon Abbey.

Syon Abbey Archive (EUL MS 389)

The Syon Abbey archive consists of more than 150 boxes of material relating to the workings, business and people of Syon Abbey, dating from 1467 to 2018. It includes correspondence, documents, account books, diaries, notebooks, property deeds with seals, plans, photographs, and artwork. Records in the archive predominantly date from the nineteenth and twentieth century, and so represent a very full reflection of the workings of Syon Abbey from the community's return to England in 1861 to the closure of Syon Abbey in 2011. In addition, the archive contains a significant quantity of material dating from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the period in which the community was living in exile in the Low Countries, France and Portugal. The archive also includes a small number of fifteenth-century records relating to property, as well as several records created or collected by members of the community since the closure of Syon Abbey. The archive was deposited on loan for safekeeping with Special Collections by the remaining Bridgettine nuns of Syon Abbey in 2011, and was catalogued between November 2016 and June 2018.

The Syon Abbey archive has great potential as a resource for a broad range of research interests. Listed below are some possible areas of research, but if you have a particular topic in mind, please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk to chat about whether this collection would be useful for your research.

  •  Daily life in a modern religious community - A variety of materials - including community diaries, correspondence, photographs, minute books, customs books, creative works, and personal papers - can be used to gain insight into day-to-day life at Syon Abbey in the 19th and 20th century.
  • Social networks – The large amount of correspondence in the archive offers an opportunity to explore the community’s extensive national and international networks with laypeople, other religious communities, members of the clergy, and ecclesiastical authorities.
  • Place and identity – The community had to relocate more than ten times after leaving its medieval abbey, and it can be argued that these 'wanderings' during its period in exile significantly shaped the community’s sense of identity. The forging of this identity can be explored in early modern papers in the archive, as well as through the community's own research into its history.
  • Women's readership - Research in the Syon Abbey archive can be be complimented and combined with research into the Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection and Syon Abbey Library Collection, also held at Special Collections. Many of the manuscripts and books are inscribed with the names of those who wrote or read them, and the archive can be consulted to discover the nuns behind the names, providing greater insight into women's readership.

 

The archive has been arranged into 24 sections that reflect the main functions and activities of the community of Syon Abbey. You can search the archive in our online archives catalogue, and you can find out more about the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project in our project blog or by searching #SyonAbbey on Twitter. Please contact us at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information or to make an appointment to consult archive material in the reading room.

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Papers of Canon John Rory Fletcher (EUL MS 95)

Canon John Rory Fletcher (1861-1944) made it his life work to collect and describe all possible material concerning Syon Abbey and its community of Bridgettine nuns in medieval and Reformation times. His work on the history of Syon Abbey was not formally committed to paper until the 1930s and 1940s, when he sent each volume to the Abbey on completion for safekeeping. He published a popular history of the Abbey under the title 'The Story of the English Bridgettines of Syon Abbey' in 1933. As well as studying papers held in the archive of the Abbey in South Devon, he also consulted materials held in other archives and libraries across the UK and Europe. Canon Fletcher died in 1944 and was buried by special licence in the cemetery at Syon Abbey.

The collection consists of 35 bound manuscript volumes relating to the medieval and post-Reformation history of Syon Abbey and the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, also known as the Bridgettine Order.

The collection provides an invaluable point of entry for any researcher with an interest in the history of the community, as it contains materials relating to the foundation of the Abbey at Isleworth, Middlesex. Also included are histories of the community whilst in exile on the Continent following the Dissolution in 1539, as well as are four volumes of 'Syon's Who's Who' (including a detailed index), catalogues of brothers and sisters, lists of manuscripts and book materials, and notes on other Bridgettine communities foundations situated elsewhere in Europe.

This collection is described here in our online archives catalogue under the reference number EUL MS 95 and each volume is briefly described at item level on the library's OPAC online catalogue under the classmark Syon Abbey FLE, as part of the Syon Abbey Library Collection. This collection can be consulted in the reading room by prior appointment. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information.

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Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection (EUL MS 262)

In 2004, twelve medieval and early modern manuscripts and one folder of manuscript fragments were deposited by the Bridgettine nuns of Syon Abbey with Special Collections for safekeeping. Three subsequent accessions since 2004 have increased the number of Syon Abbey manuscripts in this collection to 191 bound volumes and 8 folders of unbound papers. The collection ranges from early fifteenth-century to late twentieth-century manuscripts, and include spiritual, devotional and theological texts, as well as histories of Syon Abbey.

As the manuscripts were accessioned on four separate occasions, they have been catalogued into separate sections to reflect this. You can explore the sections of this collection by clicking the different tabs in this box.

This collection contains twelve complete liturgical and theological manuscripts, dating between the 15th and 18th century. Many of the medieval  items were purchased by the community as they were known to have formed a part of the pre-Dissolution Abbey library. Other items have connections to other Bridgettine houses in Europe. Some items were acquired by donation to the Abbey. The so-called 'fragments' were found in an attic of Marley House, one the Abbey's former residences in South Brent.

EUL MS 262/2 - Horae

The following items are included:
- EUL MS 262/1 Processionale, 16th century;
EUL MS 262/2 Horae, 15th century
- EUL MS 262/3 Brevarium, 15th century;
- EUL MS 262/4 Horae, c 1424;
- EUL MS 262/5 Horae, 15th c.;
- EUL MS 262/6 Brevarium, 15th century;
- EUL MS 262/7 Sermo de Sancta Anna et alia, 15th century;
- EUL MS 262/8 Missale Hollandicum, 16th century;
- EUL MS 262/9 Officium parvum Beate Mariae, 15th century;
- EUL MS 262/10 Breviary, 17th century;
- EUL MS 262/11 Antiphonale, 17th century;
- EUL MS 262/18 A looking glace for the religious spiritual study of contemplation, 17th century or early 18th century.

- EUL MS 262/fragments 1-8. The collection also contains fragments of parchment sheets (some with water, fire and pest damage) which have also been collected by the Abbey. Some of these are illuminated and are attributed to have formed part of the pre-Dissolution Abbey library.

An information sheet describing these items in more detail can be provided by Special Collections on request. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information. 

This section comprises the contents of a bookshelf at Syon Abbey's last residence in South Brent, Devon, and consists mainly of religious manuscripts, including liturgical, devotional and theological texts. It also includes histories of Syon Abbey, personal accounts of the lives of sisters, and catalogues and notes on the contents of the Syon Abbey library. The manuscripts date to the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with one possibly dating to the 16th century. Manuscripts in this section dating to before 1861 were presumably created or collected during the period when the community was living in exile in Lisbon, Portugal. Later manuscripts were created or collected after the community's return to England at three different locations: in Spetisbury, Dorset (1861-1887); Chudleigh, Devon (1887-1925); and South Brent, Devon (1925-2011). This section includes handwritten and typewritten material, as well as a small number of printed pamphlets relating to Syon Abbey and its history. Many of the manuscripts are inscribed with the names of the nuns or monks who transcribed or read them, providing insight into scribing and readership at Syon Abbey.

EUL MS 262/add1/2 - A revised edition of the Rule of St Augustine and the Constitutions of St Bridget. This page has been signed by all the sisters and brothers in the community.

 

This section comprises 28 manuscripts that were deposited in 2011 as part of the Syon Abbey archive (EUL MS 389). The manuscripts date from the early 17th century to the late 18th century, during which time the community was living in exile in Lisbon, Portugal. They consist of mainly religious manuscripts, including spiritual, devotional and theological texts, as well as two histories of Syon Abbey, and a register of manuscripts that was compiled by the community in the 20th century. The majority of these manuscripts have been written by nuns and monks of Syon Abbey, and many are inscribed with the names of sisters or brothers, providing evidence of scribing and readership at Syon Abbey.

EUL MS 262/add2/27 - Manuscript volume beginning 'A shorte accounte of the transactions of the Conventt of Sion from the first coming of the Cumunity to Lisbon'

 

This section comprises two rare printed books and one manuscript, which were all written by brothers of Syon Abbey. All three volumes were kept in the safe at Syon Abbey in South Brent, together with archival documents of historical value to the community, including vows and profession papers. They were deposited at the University as part of the Syon Abbey archive in 2011 and transferred from the archive to sit with the manuscript collection in January 2018.

They include:

EUL MS 262/add3/1 - Printed book entitled 'The pype, or tonne, of the lyfe of perfection' (Pipe of Perfection) by Richard Whitford (1532);

EUL MS 262/add3/2 - Printed book entitled 'Here begynneth the Rosary of our Sauyour [Saviour] Jesu...' by William Bonde, first edition in late 18th or early 19th century morroco binding (1526);

EUL MS 262/add3/3 - Manuscript volume entitled 'The Life of St. Bridget and St. Catherine' and transcribed by an unknown brother of Syon Abbey [possibly the same hand as EUL MS 262/18] (c 17th century).

The manuscripts can be browsed in our online archives catalogue. To bring up all entries for manuscripts in this collection, search EUL MS 262* in the 'Ref no' box on the Advanced search page.

The twelve medieval and early modern manuscripts, and the folder of manuscript fragments are described in the collection description.

Manuscripts in section EUL MS 262/add1 are described here at item level.

Manuscripts in section EUL MS 262/add2 are described here at item level.

Manuscripts and rare books in section EUL MS 262/add3 are described here at section level.

Please contact us at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information or to make an appointment to consult the manuscripts in the reading room.

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Bound volumes of 'The Poor Souls' Friend and St Joseph's Monitor'

'The Poor Souls' Friend and St Joseph's Monitor' was a monthly magazine published by the community of Syon Abbey to support and advertise the Crusade of Prayer, a prayer association also known as The Rosary Crusade. The magazine featured a variety of content, including essays on spiritual and historical subjects, news from the community, notes on the work of the prayer association, as well as serials, prayers, and jokes. The first issue appeared in March 1893, and the community continued to publish the magazine until 1974.

This collection comprises bound volumes of the magazine from the library at Syon Abbey. The set is almost complete, but lacks volume 1, Nos.5-7.

The entry for the bound volumes of 'The Poor Souls' Friend and St Joseph's Monitor' is available on the library's OPAC online catalogue under the classmark Syon Poor. Volumes can be consulted in the reading room by prior appointment. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information.

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Syon Abbey Library Collection

The Syon Abbey Library Collection contains over 1000 printed books from the library of the Bridgettine nuns of Syon Abbey, dating from the early sixteenth century to the late twentieth century. The collection contains many Catholic hagiographic, devotional, polemical, and historical works, and is a remarkable testimony to the role of print in post-Reformation Catholic religious communities. The collection was deposited in the University Library in September 1990, through the intercession of Dr Marion Glasscoe, then of the School of English.

 

As well as containing numerous individual titles of interest, the collection as a whole is a rich source of study for ecclesiastical history; for the history of libraries and reading habits; and for its significance to researchers interested in the history of women's learning and reading. Numerous books in the collection bear manuscript annotations by the nuns, some with several pages of manuscript prayers and notes bound in with the text. Other books contain letters about their provenance. Some volumes in the Syon Abbey library collection predate the monastery's dissolution, but many of these early sixteenth-century titles will have been purchased at a later date and added to the collection. A study by Professor Vincent Gillespie does suggest, however, that at least one title, Reductori moralis libri quatuordecim by Pierre Bercheur (1521), has survived intact in the nuns' library since before the dissolution.

The collection is fully catalogued and the books are briefly described at item level on the library's OPAC online catalogue under the classmark Syon. The books can be consulted in the reading room by prior appointment. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information.

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Papers relating to the library and its readership at Syon Abbey (EUL MS 265)

The catalogue of the Syon Abbey LIibrary was created at Syon Abbey between 1989-1990 by Marion Glasscoe and Claire Johnson during preparations for a change of premises. During this period, the pre-1850 items forming part of the library were transferred to the University of Exeter Library (now held in Special Collections): these books were denoted the classmark A. The remaining catalogue and associated papers in this collection were donated to the University Library in 2004.

This collection includes a paper catalogue of the library of Syon Abbey (14 softbound volumes of card-index entries and 19 boxes of the original loose index slips; papers relating to the cataloguing process; and papers relating to readership at Syon Abbey.

You can find the full description of this collection here on our online archives catalogue. This collection can be consulted in the reading room by prior appointment. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information.

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Papers relating to the Syon Reliquary and Marion Glasscoe's relationship with Syon Abbey (EUL MS 394)

This collection comprises a small number of papers relating to Syon Abbey that were donated to the University by Marion Glasscoe, who catalogued and co-ordinated the transfer of the Syon Abbey Library Collection to Exeter University Library, 1989-1990.

You can find the full description of this collection here on our online archives catalogue. This collection can be consulted in the reading room by prior appointment. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information.

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Photocopy of a letter from Sister Catherine Witham of Syon Abbey to her mother in 1763

A letter from 'Catherine Witham de Sta. Anna', sent from 'Lisbon Sion house' to her 'Dear Mama' and dated 17 April 1763. It includes references to friends and family, cleaning her cell, worship, her decision to become a nun. praying for peace, and her duties as a 'hebdomadarium' [hebdomadary].

You can find the full description of this item here on our online archives catalogue. This item can be consulted in the reading room by prior appointment. Please contact Special Collections at libspc@exeter.ac.uk for more information.

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