Tag Archives: History of Syon Abbey

Cataloguing the Syon Abbey Archive: Project Completed!

Annie with the archive

In November 2016, I began my new role as the project archivist working on the Syon Abbey archive, and immediately recognised that I faced a daunting but exciting task. The archive was large, complex, created over six centuries, and there was no discernible order into specific management groups. Nineteen months and 152 repackaged boxes (in addition to outsize material on shelves and in three plan chest drawers) later, the cataloguing project has been completed, allowing the archive to be more easily searched online and accessed in our reading room. You can view and browse the new archive catalogue here.

 

The archive has been arranged into 23 sections to reflect the different functions and activities of Syon Abbey, and to provide context for how the records were used. The sections are listed below with their reference numbers.

There have been many challenges through the course of this project, but there have been an equal number of (if not more) pleasures. With such a large archive, one would expect (as initially did I) that I would have a favourite section or one that I would particularly dislike, but this has simply not been the case. In each of the sections I have found records that have intrigued, moved, gripped or amused me; through each of them I have learnt what makes religious communities, and Syon Abbey in particular, unique, but also identified the many things we share in common; and while sorting through the material I’ve considered a multitude of different avenues of exciting research that could be – and I hope will be – pursued, now that the archive is more searchable and accessible. Nevertheless, I did want to share a very small selection of my favourite items with you, which you can view in the slideshow below.

 

As with all things, this project would have been much harder and less joyful if I had gone it alone. Fortunately, I am part of a wonderful team of colleagues who have supported me throughout, and I am very grateful for their kindness and expertise. A special thanks to Angela Mandrioli for her help in interpreting Latin documents and cataloguing papers relating to history and research; and to Sophie Morgan, our student volunteer, who did fantastic work in cataloguing the 100 community diaries and 155 vows at item level.

Volunteer Sophie Morgan with eight boxes containing the 100 community diaries she catalogued

So that just leaves me to say goodbye for now! I have so enjoyed working on this project, which has been my very first cataloguing project as a newly-qualified archivist. The skills I have developed (I can now proudly claim to be capable of making a four-flap folder), the new knowledge I have acquired, and the people I have met through it, have made this project very special to me and I will miss it greatly. However, I am pleased and excited to be continuing in my role as archivist at the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, where I will soon be embarking on a new project.

Photomontage of records in the Syon Abbey archive

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Syon Abbey archive (which I hope you are!), why not check out the new online catalogue, revisit previous blog posts about the Syon Abbey archive, or take a look at our tweets about the archive on Twitter. And don’t forget – in addition to the archive, we also look after the Syon Abbey manuscripts and printed books from the Syon Abbey library, as well as several other Syon Abbey related collections. For more information, please contact us at libspc@exeter.ac.uk.

I hope you enjoy your journey of discovery into Syon Abbey!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

 

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, Project Archivist