Syon Abbey

The Abbess in the Archive: the records of the ‘Mothers’ of Syon Abbey

One of the great joys of using archives is the unique opportunity to get to know people from the past on as personal a level as possible (without the help of time travel). We can gain insight into their personalities from their recorded thoughts, their manner of expression, their handwriting, and even their style of recordkeeping. I have been working as an archivist on the Syon Abbey cataloguing project for just over a year and, having now examined most of the material in the archive, I consider myself to be fairly well acquainted with several of the sisters from across six centuries. However, of all the sisters in Syon’s long history, those whom I feel I know best are the abbesses. The abbess – at Syon Abbey most often referred to as the ‘Lady Abbess’ but frequently also as ‘Mother’ – was an elected sister responsible for the management of the abbey, who had final authority on all matters. A large majority of the records throughout the archive were created by or for the abbess, so it is therefore unsurprising that it is abbesses of Syon Abbey who we get to know the best.

Syon Abbey postcard featuring Abbess Mary Peter Wallace (elected in 1964), c 1954 [EUL MS 389/PUB/3].             Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

So how can you go about discovering more about the lives of these women and their role as abbess? A good place to start off your exploration is a manuscript volume entitled, ‘The Annals of the English Bridgettines’, which was completed between 1880 and 1909 and includes a history of the community from 1415 to 1880, annal entries for the years 1878 to 1886, and diary entries for the years 1887 to 1895 [EUL MS 389/HIST/1]. The annals reveal more about the challenges faced by the community, particularly during its exile, and the actions taken by the abbesses of Syon that enabled the brothers and sisters to remain together and continue their religious practice.

Title page of ‘The Annals of the English Bridgettines’ [EUL MS 389/HIST/1]                                                                         Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

Following on from the annals are the 100 community diaries, dated between 1890 and 2004, many of which were kept by the abbess. Several of the diaries, particularly between 1920 and 1970, are extremely detailed and provide a rare insight into daily life in an enclosed religious community. You can browse the Syon Abbey diaries via the online catalogue, where each of the diaries have been described individually.

Syon Abbey community diaries [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/1-100]

If you would like to learn more about the abbesses day-to-day management of the abbey, a good place to look is the ‘Administration’ section of the archive, where amongst other records, you will find minute books of the Chapter and minute books of the Council of Syon Abbey. These record the decisions made by the abbess with the agreement of the community concerning all kinds of matters, including, as you will see below, the purchase of a jersey cow!

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets’, 1898-1907 [EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2]                                                               Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

The Syon Abbey archive contains vast quantities of correspondence regarding all manner of things, and the majority of letters, postcards and telegramms are addressed to the ‘Lady Abbess’. The archive also includes many drafts or copies of letters sent out by the abbess. The correspondence highlights just how important the role of the abbess was, not just within the community, but also externally as the representative of the community. The archive includes correspondence regarding spiritual matters; financial, property and legal matters; relics and treasures; manuscripts and books; and history and research (just to name a few!).

Envelopes from correspondence with other Bridgettine houses [EUL MS 389/HOU/1]

In addition to her many responsibilities regarding the management of the abbey, one of the most important tasks of the abbess was to ensure peace and order within the community. There is much evidence in the archive of the love and respect felt by the sisters towards their abbesses, but the greatest indications of this are the little homemade gifts given by the sisters to the abbess, usually on birthdays or anniversaries. They include poems, songs, and booklets containing spiritual verses. Below are two images from a booklet entitled, ‘Bridgettine Breviary Bouquet’ [EUL MS 389/PERS/JOCELYN], a compilation of extracts from the Bridgettine Breviary which was given to Abbess Teresa Jocelyn by seven sisters in 1923. The inscription reads: ‘To our dear Mother on her Bridal-day…from her loving and grateful children’.

 

This and much more is now available for you to explore – why not visit our online catalogue today to find out what you can discover about the abbesses of Syon Abbey!

Click here to search the Syon Abbey archive via the online catalogue.

 

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive

Exploring Christmas at Syon Abbey

My name is Sophie and I am currently a third year student at the University of Exeter, studying for a BA joint honours degree in History and Archaeology. In September I began volunteering at the University’s Special Collections, allowing me to gain valuable work experience, as I hope to pursue a career in the heritage sector. I have spent my time as a volunteer working with the Syon Abbey archive. My main role has been cataloguing the 99 diaries of the community from the late nineteenth to the twenty-first century at item level. I have enjoyed this task as it has provided me with a detailed insight into the daily life of the community.

Sophie with a sheet of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper found inside one of the diaries in the Syon Abbey archive

References to Christmas in the Syon Abbey diaries

As Christmas is fast approaching, I wanted to share some details of the celebrations that are recorded in the diaries. Many of the diaries mention the sisters’ festive decoration of the Abbey. For example, in a diary kept in 1955, an entry states that ‘the sisters’ gifts were hung on a large Xmas tree gaily decorated and illuminated with colourful lights’ and that ‘all danced around the tree and sang the Jubilee song’ [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/53]. This heart-warming image of the community is particularly festive and is one of my favourite entries from the diaries.

The sisters gave gifts as a sign of their love and affection for each other, especially during the Christmas period. The diary for 1906 contains a beautiful handmade paper snowflake, given to the abbess as a gift [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/1]. The community’s enthusiasm for gift giving can also be found in the diary for 1954 which records the gifts given to the Abbey’s gardeners and farm hands. The presents included: an electric kettle, socks, tobacco, biscuits, cake, pudding, butter, tea, and a hen [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/51]. This particular diary contains many more festive references, and even an inserted piece of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper. It also contains a lovely anecdote about how the Abbess ‘thoroughly enjoyed herself’ when she carved the Christmas turkey!

Elsewhere in the Syon Abbey Collection…

In addition to the diaries that I have been working with, the Syon Abbey Collection (which includes the archive and collections of printed books and manuscripts from the Syon Abbey library) contains further material relating to the celebration of Christmas. For example, within the Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection is a Syon manuscript entitled ‘A Discourse or Entertainment for ye sacred time of Advent’, written by the abbess in 1657, containing instructions for activities that the nuns should undertake during Advent [EUL MS 262/add1/B/5].

 

A particular favourite of mine in the Syon Abbey archive is a box containing small illuminated prayer cards with detailed calligraphy and hand drawn images relating to Christmas [EUL MS 389/97/1]. These beautiful pieces of art were created by Sister Mary Veronica during her religious life at Syon Abbey between 1933 and 2008.

EUL MS 389/97/1 – A Christmas prayer card created by Sister Mary Veronica Kempson, c 1933-2008.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

The Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection contains an illuminated transcript of the words and musical notation for ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’ (which translates to ‘On Christmas Eve’) from the Roman Martyrology [EUL MS 262/add1/A/38]. This is a proclamation of the birth of Christ and would traditionally have been chanted or recited on Christmas Eve. It also contains a note on the back which details that the ‘Syon melody’ was originally taken from the Lisbon book and was handed down orally with some alterations. This ‘Christmas Martyrology’ was created in 1952 by Sister Mary Stanislas, of whom more artwork can be found in the Syon Abbey archive.

EUL MS 262/add1/A/38 – ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’, created by Sister Mary Stanislas in 1952.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

To close…

The Syon Abbey Collection contains an array of fascinating material, including many insights into how the community celebrated Christmas. To find out more about the Syon Abbey Collection click here, or head to the Special Collections website to search our online archives catalogue. For those feeling festive, why not take a look at our Twitter account, where we are posting images from across the collections in our very own virtual Advent Calendar.

By Sophie Morgan, Volunteer

Cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive: project highlights

Eight months have elapsed since I began working on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, and since then I have been cheerfully cataloguing my way through a multitude of fascinating records. You can find out what has already been catalogued via our online catalogue here.

As I reach the halfway point, with a further eight months still ahead of me, I take a look back at some of my highlights of the project so far…

 

Profession papers

A very special collection of records within the archive are the profession papers, which I first looked at in January 2017. The profession papers record the vows made by novices when they officially entered the order (often referred to as ‘simple’ or ‘temporary profession’) and the renewal of these vows at a later period (often referred to as ‘perpetual’ or ‘solemn profession’). The handwritten profession papers in the Syon Abbey archive date from 1607, when the community was living in Lisbon in Portugal, to the late twentieth century, when the community was settled at South Brent in Devon. It is clear that these documents were of great importance to the community, not only because we know they were kept in a safe at Syon Abbey before they were deposited at the University of Exeter, but also due to the very great care that was taken in creating them. The vows have all been lovingly transcribed and signed, and a large majority of the vows have been beautifully decorated, illuminated and illustrated. Below are four examples of vows illustrated by one of the Syon nuns, Sister Mary Stanislas, in the 1920s. I’m looking forward to cataloguing the profession papers soon as part of the ‘Community’ section of the archive.

 

History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland conference

A great highlight of the project for me personally was the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI). H-WRBI is a research network which encourages research of women religious, and includes academics, archivists, students and others interested in the history of women religious. This year the conference took place in June at the University College Dublin and the theme was: ‘Sources: Archival, Oral, Visual, Material, Digital’. I gained new knowledge and insight into current research from the fascinating series of papers, which has proved invaluable in understanding the context of the records I have been cataloguing. The conference also impressed me with the sheer variety of research interests and the different ways in which archives have been used and interpreted by those engaged in the study of women religious. I therefore left Dublin feeling inspired and excited to continue cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive, to ensure the archive is as usable as possible for future research and innovation.

You can visit the website of H-WRBI here.

The O’Brien Centre for Science at the University College Dublin, where the conference took place.

What the Abbey Cat Saw

Whilst creating a box list of some unlisted boxes in the archive in December 2016, I came across a pamphlet with the rather delightful title ‘What the Abbey Cat Saw’. I was pleased to have another opportunity to look at it in May this year, when I catalogued it as part of the section ‘Syon Abbey publications and printed matter’. This pamphlet was published in 1957 and written by Abbess Mary Magdalen Nevin. Written from the perspective of Punch, the Abbey cat, it describes daily life at Syon Abbey, providing insight into the structure of a Syon nun’s day and the different personalities within the community, as well recounting some humorous incidents involving the cat! You can find the pamphlet in our catalogue here.

 

Finding a fragment!

In August 2017, I catalogued the financial records in the archive, including a large number of account books. Within one account book I was startled to discover a fragment of parchment that appeared to be from a medieval manuscript! There was significant fire damage to the fragment; however, it was still legible and had a lovely decorated initial in blue and red ink. In addition to the Syon Abbey archive, the University of Exeter’s Special Collections also looks after Syon Abbey’s medieval and modern manuscript collection. Within this collection (reference EUL MS 262) is a folder containing fragments of manuscripts that were found c 1990 in the attic of Syon Abbey in South Brent, Devon. Upon looking through the folder, I was thrilled to find a fragment that corresponded to the newly discovered fragment in script, decoration, and fire damage. The newly discovered fragment has now been removed from the account book (a slip of acid-free paper marks the page from where it was removed) and has been placed with the other fragments in EUL MS 262/fragments. The discovery of this fragment and the reunification with its other half was a very exciting moment. It just goes to show that exciting things can be found in the most unexpected of places – especially in archives!

Detail from a newly-discovered manuscript fragment in EUL MS 262/fragments.

Looking ahead to the next eight months…

Over the next eight months until the project completion at the end of March 2018, I will continue cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive and making the description of the records available for you via our online catalogue. I also hope to carry on promoting the archive in a variety of ways, including via this blog, on Twitter, through an exhibition, and at conferences next year. At the end of the project I hope to leave behind an archive that is much easier to search and use, as well as some new highlights to share with you!

 

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive

 

 

Exploring daily life in the twentieth century at Syon Abbey

What was life like for the community at Syon Abbey in the twentieth century? What did the nuns and sisters do during the day? And did major world events have an impact on life in this enclosed community? These questions and more can now be explored through recently-catalogued material in the Syon Abbey archive.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Community Diaries

A valuable archival resource for exploring daily life at Syon Abbey are the 101 diaries, kept by the community between 1890 and 2004. These diaries provide details relating to spiritual matters, such as prayer, feast days, and religious ceremonies, but also offer greater insight into the intricacies of day-to-day life in a religious community. These include references to: recreation; visitors to the Abbey; growing crops and raising livestock; construction and repairs to buildings; correspondence sent and received; and observations about the weather. The diaries also reveal that the Syon nuns were aware of national and international news outside of the enclosure, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the death of Joseph Stalin. Furthermore, the diaries indicate that global events, such as the First and Second World War, did have an impact on the community. For example, the diarist writes much about the Belgian refugees living in the local town of Chudleigh between 1914 and 1916, as well as the American soldiers who in the 1940s were encamped on land belonging to Syon Abbey. Finally, the diaries also bring to light the personalities and interactions within the community through several light-hearted as well as heartfelt entries.

The community diaries can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Syon Abbey Community Diaries (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5)

Diary 1947-1950 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5/47) The entry for the 26 April 1947 reads: ‘1st annivers:[ary] of Lady Abbess Consecration – day opened with a chimney on fire in Presbytery – sung mass – tea & happy recreation.’

The Book of Customs

Another useful document for gaining insight into the daily routine at Syon Abbey is the so-called ‘Book of Customs’ or ‘Customs Book’, which provides guidelines on community life, both spiritual and secular. It includes instructions on conduct in the choir, where and when silence should be kept, and how often different types of laundry may be washed. The Book of Customs also contains details of the duties of the different offices the nuns could hold, such as those of the cellaress (responsible for food and drink), the sacristan (responsible for church furnishings), and the infirmarian (who nursed the sick). There are a number of manuscript copies of the ‘Book of Customs’ in the archive, transcribed into notebooks and dating from the late nineteenth century to approximately the mid-twentieth century. Several notebooks contain handwritten amendments, indicating that the Book of Customs was revised regularly.

Material relating to customs can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Book of Customs (Ref: EUL MS 389/RUL/4)

Minutes of the Chapter and the Council

The minute books of the Chapter (all the sisters in solemn vows, as well as the sisters in temporary vows who had been professed for three full years) and the Council (a small group of advisors to the abbess) shed light on a broad range of matters regarding the management of Syon Abbey. The Conventual Chapter generally discussed and voted on matters such as the election of abbesses and councillors, new admissions to the Order, and any sister wishing to make her vows. The Council would meet with the abbess to discuss issues on a wide variety of administrative matters relating, for example, the appointment of staff, revisions to the constitutions, and the management of the estate. The minute books of both the Chapter and the Council provide fascinating insight into the day-to-day administrative challenges of managing a monastery in the twentieth century.

The Minutes of the Chapter can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Minutes of the Council can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets”, 1898-1907 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2)

On a personal note…

As an archivist with little knowledge of religious orders and women religious prior to embarking on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, these records were invaluable in gaining an understanding of the community and the day-to-day operation of a monastery. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive

Introducing the Syon Abbey Archive

Hello everyone, and a very warm welcome to this blog.

My name is Annie and I joined the team in November 2016 as the project archivist for the Syon Abbey Archive.

Syon Abbey was a monastic house of the Order of our Most Holy Saviour (also known as the Bridgettines), and the only English community of religious to have existed without interruption since before the Reformation. The house was founded directly from the Mother House in Vadstena in Sweden in 1415, and the community followed the Rule of St Bridget of Sweden. This enclosed Bridgettine community – comprising both monks and nuns and governed by an abbess – was renowned for its dedication to reading, meditation and contemplation. In the course of Syon Abbey’s almost 600-year history, the community faced great upheaval and demonstrated remarkable strength. In the wake of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the community split into smaller groups and continued their religious practice, with some remaining in England whilst others sought refuge abroad. Although Syon Abbey was restored in England under the Catholic rule of Mary I, following the accession of Elizabeth I and the return to Protestantism, the community went into exile. The community then spent over half a century wandering through the Low Countries and France, experiencing, at times, extreme poverty and hunger, and along the way encountering rioters, war, and even pirates. The community eventually found a new home in Lisbon, Portugal in 1594 and remained there until 1861, at which time the sisters (the last brother of Syon Abbey having died in 1695) were able to return to England, initially residing in Spetisbury, Dorset. Following a further relocation in 1887 to Chudleigh, Devon, the community finally settled in South Brent, Devon in 1925. 86 years later, in 2011, on account of the decline in numbers and age of the remaining community, the decision was made to close Syon Abbey.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Of course, the archive – deposited for safekeeping with the University’s Special Collections in 2011 – has many more fascinating stories to tell from Syon Abbey’s extraordinary history than have been briefly summarised above. It currently spans around 114 boxes and comprises material from the 16th to the early 21st century, although the majority of records date from the 19th and 20th century. The archive is large and complex, containing a range of different records relating to daily life; worship; religious rule; the management of land, property and finances; relations with other religious communities; and much, much more. Once catalogued, the archive has the potential to be a rich and powerful resource, particularly for anyone interested in the history of women religious, ecclesiastical history, and women’s studies.

When I arrived, my first priority was to look at different material from the Syon Abbey archive and to learn as much as possible about the community and its history. This understanding then enabled me to draft out a hierarchical structure for the archive that reflects the main functions and activities of the community and provides context for how the records were originally used. Although an original order can be identified in several of the boxes in the archive – for example, some related papers have been kept together in chronological order – in other boxes the records are a little more jumbled up. Consequently, the arrangement of the archive that has existed up to now has meant that it would be difficult for both users (you!) and the archivist (me!) to find the information we are looking for within the archive and to understand how one record relates to another. My job as archivist on this project, therefore, is to arrange and describe the archive in a way that will make the records easier for you to search, find, understand and use.

Over the next year I will be re-boxing, cataloguing and promoting the archive, with an aim to make it more discoverable and accessible, and to encourage its use in teaching, learning, research and innovation. By the end of March 2018, the archive should be catalogued to at least file level, and be searchable using the online catalogue. I hope you will join me on this exciting journey as I share my progress, as well as highlights from the archive, with you via this blog and on Twitter @UoEHeritageColl.

Talk to you again soon!

Click here for more information on the Syon Abbey archive and other related collections.

Click here to search the University of Exeter’s archival collections via the online catalogue.

 

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive