Two rather different houses with the same name, both in the Georgian style but separated from each other by more than 160 miles, play a part in the Raleigh 400 story.
Syon House Brentford west aspect
Credit: Russ Hamer
Syon House is the spectacular London home of the Duke of Northumberland. The house was built in the sixteenth century on the site of the Medieval Syon Abbey, and came to the family of the present owners in 1594. Syon has many layers of history and has seen some profound changes over the centuries
So what’s the link to the other Syon House, at Brentford, the spectacular London home of the present Duke of Northumberland? They’re both Georgian in design of course, but we have to dig a little deeper.
The Vision of St Bridget, detail of initial letter miniature, dated 1530, probably made at Syon. The document is a conveyance of lands bequeathed to Sheen Priory by the will of Hugh Denys(d.1511) to Syon (BL Harley MS 4640,f.15)
Redesigned in the 18th century by the architect Robert Adam and replacing an earlier building, the Brentford Syon House gives little hint to visitors that it was once a medieval monastery. But down in the crypt you’ll find much earlier stone foundations, the curious story of the religious order founded by the Swedish visionary St Bridget and its link with Otterton.
Hugo the salt worker: sculpture by Angie Harlock
Following the Norman invasion of 1066, Otterton was given by William the Conqueror to the Abbey of Mont St Michel in France and a priory was set up. Its various trade interests included exploitation of the salt marshes at Budleigh Salterton. You can discover the story of the Prior of Otterton and Hugo the salt worker who was too fond of his cider, at the town’s Fairlynch Museum.
Syon House before the alterations of the 1760s.
Robert Griffier (1688-1760) landscape painter from London who was active in Amsterdam. - Christies
View across the Thames of Syon House
As for Syon Monastery itself, the King’s minister Thomas Cromwell himself took an active role in ensuring its closure. Its monks were finally expelled in 1539. The estate was acquired by the Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who built the first version of Syon House in the Italian Renaissance style.
Portrait of Henry Percy by Nicholas Hilliard (1590-95)
Ten years younger than Sir Walter, Percy had an unusual
interest in scientific and alchemical experiments which he shared with Raleigh and which gained him the nickname of the ‘Wizard Earl’.
He was also extremely wealthy, finally coming into possession not only of Syon House but of Petworth in Sussex.
The Molyneux globe at Petworth
At this time both men were part of the select coterie of intellectuals based at Raleigh’s London residence, Durham House. The Molyneux cartographical globe at Petworth is supposed to have been given to him by Raleigh, one of many expensive gift which the two exchanged and Sir Walter is known to have consulted the library there in the course of his scholarly pursuits.
Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (the 'wizard earl'), painted posthumously as a philosopher, at Petworth House. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty
Under King James I, Northumberland was a long-term prisoner in the Tower of London. According to the Percy Family History, he took with him into captivity ‘a large number of books, retorts, crucibles, alembics, zodiacal charts and globes’, also a selection of his favourite pipes. Food, good wine, and quantities of tobacco were sent to him regularly, and baskets of fruit were dispatched from his orchards at Syon.
Reading about this episode in Raleigh's life makes you realise how far he had evolved from the brutal thug that he was in his youth. And I enjoyed finding the answer to the puzzle that I first encountered when I saw Syon House on the map on a walk around East Budleigh.