This paper is part of a major prosopography project which is nearing completion. The project traced around 600 sisters, brothers and benefactors of Syon Abbey ca. 1400-1600. Their names were recorded by the community in three obit lists: the Cambridge obit list ca. 1451 was copied into the second, the Syon Martiloge (BL Add MS 22285), in the 1470s. The third was copied from the Martiloge in Lisbon ca. 1608. The Lisbon obit list contains new information unused by earlier historians. Five lists of names provide snapshots of the community in in 1428, 1539, 1557, 1587 and 1622. Short biographies based on other sources reveal family background, social status, education and book ownership. Collectively they tell the story of Syon Abbey's first two centuries. This paper is about the Syon brothers: 164 have been traced and their names are all published here.
St. Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) founded her Order of St Saviour for nuns as part of a wider movement for reform and renewal in the late medieval church. The Birgittines spread rapidly in northern Europe ca. 1400. Each Birgittine monastery had a house for up to 60 sisters living enclosed contemplative lives and a smaller house for 25 brothers. Their role was to provide the sacraments for the sisters and the community’s patrons and pilgrims. Syon Abbey was the only Birgittine house in England, founded near London by the Lancastrian king Henry V in 1415. It went on to commemorate the Yorkist and Tudor dynasties and had links with the Stuarts. It was important for its proximity to royal power during the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation.
The Birgittines of Syon Abbey were renowned for their holiness and learning and their resistance to Henry VIII’s Reformation. Syon priest St. Richard Reynolds was martyred at Tyburn in 1535 and Lay Brother Thomas Brownell in Newgate Gaol in 1537. Syon was dissolved in 1539, but the Birgittines divided into groups and continued to follow the Rule, some in exile. In 1559 the whole community went into exile, enduring poverty and warfare in the Low Countries and France. Two sisters died in prison and three brothers were captured by pirates before settling in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1594. Syon Abbey was significant in forging English Roman Catholic identity and inspiring the revival of religious orders in Europe.
Scholars have made two main assumptions about the brothers which are countered by prosopographical analysis: firstly medieval Syon attracted steady numbers from foundation by Henry V to dissolution by Henry VIII; secondly numbers declined rapidly from 1539 until they died out in the 1600s. The early death of the founder, and Henry VI’s transfer of patronage elsewhere reduced funding and prestige. Recruitment dwindled until Edward IV refounded Syon in 1461. Medieval Syon’s fame is based on the achievements of the Yorkist era. There were fewer brothers after 1539 and fewer sisters, but the brothers were vital to Syon’s survival as a house of enclosed nuns. In St. Birgitta’s Rule the brothers were 30% of the community. At Syon they reached ca. 20-25%, 1420-1594. After 1600 the brothers continued their work as ca. 10% of the community until 1695.
Bainbridge, Virginia R. Dr.
"Lives of the Brothers of Syon Abbey: Patterns of Vocation from the Syon Martiloge and Other Records ca. 1415-1622,"
Medieval People: Vol. 37:
1, Article 13.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/medpros/vol37/iss1/13
Biographical Table of Syon Brothers
Syon Abbey Brothers. Med People Rev Apx Index 3.7.2020.docx (28 kB)
Appendix, Alphabetical List of Syon Brothers