October Meeting 2018

Syon House – Patrick Russell

Acting President Paul Kershaw introduced Patrick Russell who began by saying that the house is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland whose other ducal residence is Alnwick Castle in the North East.    This was built following the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century and has been in the ownership of the family for over 900 years.

Syon House, in Brentford, is unprepossessing when seen from the outside and is clad in honey coloured sandstone which covers the red brick structure,  built between 1547 and 1550.     The house and grounds are privately owned and cover an important area between the River Thames and the present day arterial road to London [A315].     On the other side of the river is the imposing site of Kew Gardens.       Syon is now the only part of the riverbank with a water meadow and a foreshore and is on high ground so that it never floods.  It is thought to have been built originally on an island which was surrounded by inlets from the Thames.

Brentford has always been strategically placed on the river which for many centuries was the main highway in and out of London.     The Thames was forded there by the Romans in 54 BC. and in 1016 the Anglo-Saxon leader, Edmund Ironside defeated the Danish King Canute at the Battle of Brentford.    

In 1415 Henry V founded two religious houses, one of which, dedicated to St Bridget of Syon, was at Twickenham.     It was constructed where Twickenham bridge now crosses the Thames, but because of the extensive marshland the site proved unsuitable and it was rebuilt on the land now occupied by Syon House  in 1426.     The order of Bridgettines was founded by a Swedish Saint at  Vadsterna in Spain  and Syon (Sion) Park was named after their abbey which was named after Mount Zion in the Holy Land.

                                                                                                                                                                                (digital reconstruction)

The order was unusual in that it accommodated separate communities of men and a larger number of women, both ruled over by an Abbess.  At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 the Abbey was one of the wealthiest and influential in the country and was much involved in the religious and political controversies of the times. 

 When Henry VIII died in January 1547, he lay in state at the disused Syon Abbey church whilst on his way for burial at Windsor. His bloated body, left overnight in the Abbey Church, exploded in the coffin which, under the circumstances of the break with Rome, was seen as a very significant omen by the Vatican.

His son Edward VI was only 8 years old when he ascended the throne and for a while the Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector to the young king, was leased the estate and built the house in the Renaissance style between 1547 and 1550.  However, given the politics and jealousies of the time, he was constantly accused of treachery and in 1552 was executed on the basis of trumped up charges.

His rival John Dudley, the Earl  of Northumberland,  then moved his family into the House. His son had married Lady Jane Grey, a descendent of Henry VII,  and a plot to put her on the throne was hatched at Syon. She was formally offered the Crown in July 1553 on the death of Edward VI. However, nine days later she was displaced by Mary Tudor and executed in February of the following year along with her husband, Guildford, at the Tower of London.

Syon, by then a very large Tudor house, again became crown property in 1558 and was frequently visited by Queen Elizabeth.        In 1594 Henry, the ninth Earl of Northumberland, acquired Syon through his marriage to Dorothy Devereux (formerly Percy) the widow of Sir Thomas Perrot who had held Syon for the Crown.      On the death of Elizabeth I, he became an ardent supporter of James I who in 1604 gifted him the freehold of the estate.     It has remained in the Percy family ever since. 

Henry’s  fortunes, however,  were to change when he entertained a distant cousin Thomas Percy, a staunch Catholic, on the night before the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was discovered.       Thomas Percy, one of the principal Gunpowder Plotters, was killed making his escape and Henry was implicated and  was given a massive fine and spent the next 15 years in the Tower of London.       He lived there in some style, keeping his servants and his income, and created a library and a laboratory in the Tower.      He also spent time with Sir Walter Raleigh, a fellow prisoner.        Despite his incarceration, he  was able to manage  significant improvements to both the house and gardens at Syon.      On leaving the Tower he was exiled to his estates at Petworth where he later died.

The 10th Earl. Algernon (1602 – 1668), supported King Charles I and following in his father’s footsteps assembled an impressive collection of current artists, such as Van Dyck and Lely, in addition to old masters.         He became Lord High Admiral and President of the Council of War.       However he lost these posts as he did not fully support the Royalist cause.  Nevertheless during the Battle of Brentford, Syon, used as Prince Rupert’s HQ, was damaged when the King’s army fought and defeated the parliamentarians in the town.  The Royalist advance was eventually halted at Turnham Green.

 Algernon had a reputation for fairness and probity and was made Governor to two of the Royal children on the imprisonment of their father, Charles I, at Hampton Court.         From there Charles was allowed to visit his children at Syon but he was later executed in January 1649.     The House was used for council meetings by Cromwell and after the monarchy was restored in 1660 by Charles II.    The 10th Earl retired subsequently to Syon where he continued to develop the garden.

The 11th Earl Josceline died young leaving his young daughter  Elizabeth as the sole heir.      Her third marriage was to Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset, and both were prominent members at the court of Queen Anne.  His interests were widespread, buying many paintings and much silverware. Rich furniture, paintings and even beds were brought by barge from London to Sion which was used mainly as a summer home for the family.      He  also established large stables at Syon, an important staging post on the route to London. 

      Their son Algernon, the 7th Duke of Somerset’  was short lived but was proud of  his Percy ancestry and it was he who placed the Percy Lion above the entrance to Northumberland House in the Strand but it was later moved to Syon on the demolition of the house in the 1870s.

Sir Hugh Smithson then inherited the Percy estates through his marriage to Algernon’s daughter Elizabeth who he first met in 1750.        He also inherited by marriage the title of Earl of Northumberland and managed Sion as Earl and then as newly created lst Duke of Northumberland until1786.        He modernised both the properties and the administration of the estates as well as investing income into them,

  The Duke and  Duchess  commissioned interior designer Robert Adam and landscape designer Lancelot Capability Brown to redesign the now  rather run down house and estate. Robert Adam produced some of his best work here which was inspired by Classical Rome.   ‘Capability’  Brown changed the nature of the surrounding countryside with his landscaping of the extensive grounds.         Adam’s ideas were expensive to realise and after 3 years he moved to Osterley Park where he continued to work for a further 9 years and completed five main rooms.



Patrick then went on to describe some of the physical characteristics of the house beginning with an overall view.       On the east front, the house is Tudor when seen from the river and on the west side the front of the house is approached by carriages from the road.   The house is square in shape with an open courtyard.      




The Percy Lion is prominently displayed and has a straight tail – made of lead it is based on a legend of Michael Angelo.  

There are few private rooms although  the Green Drawing Room is regularly used by the family as is the private dining room.



The Grand Hall at Syon is noted for its wonderful Adam interior of classical architecture which is dominated at either end by copies of important statues, the originals of which are held in the Vatican and at Rome.     The whole effect is specifically designed to make an initial impact and impress visitors.    

The ante room follows which is very colourful and decorative contrast with twelve Ionic columns regularly placed along its wall with statues standing upright on the columns.

The State Dining Room was completed in 1763 and has many of the best features of the work of Adam.       It was a room for entertainment particularly for men to meet and talk the business of politics.       Next door is the Red Drawing Room the colour of which is in direct contrast to the pale colours of the State Dining Room.   The carpet is among many of the features of the room and was made in 1769 the border of which is repeated on the ceiling and across the fireplace.




There follows the Long Gallery which extends along the whole of the East Front, it was designed by Adam and is carpeted and lined with books.





When answering questions, Patrick replied to David Field that the green pattern on the floor of the Great Hall is offset with a diagonal cross which echoes that of the ceiling.    The cross has no significance.   To Derek West he replied that there is a very fine collection of Sevres Porcelain in the House including some massive vases.      To John Demont he explained that there are many full time workers employed including a large administrative team and many guides.       To Tony Bazell he replied that work began in Tudor times in 1530 during the reign of Henry VIII on the construction of the Duke of Northumberland’s River.      Its aim was to transfer water from the Thames for industrial purposes to power the local mills via Northumberland land and was  a valuable source of revenue for the Sion estate.      It joins the Thames at Isleworth.   

 Paul Kershaw thanked Patrick for a very full and interesting account of the fortunes of the Syon estates and their owners and the part which they have played in English history.


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