Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Catherine Palmer, Abbess of Syon Abbey, RIP

Catherine Palmer, the last abbess of Syon Abbey, died in exile on December 19, 1576. She had confronted a Calvinist mob in Mechelin (today in Belgium) the month before. Since St. Richard Reynolds was martyred in 1535 and the house suppressed in 1539, Palmer had been one of the leaders of the surviving Bridgettine nuns from one of the richest and most scholarly religious houses in England, founded by King Henry V and destroyed by King Henry VIII. It was restored briefly during the reign of Queen Mary I but dissolved again and BHO recounts:

The community did not disperse after the Dissolution but, apparently in the hope that the schism was only a temporary matter, remained in groups until they could return to Syon. Abbess Jordan rented a farmhouse near Denham (Bucks.), and with her went nine of the community. (fn. 185) Another group, led by Catherine Palmer, went abroad, staying first at Antwerp and later at Termonde in Flanders until the restoration. (fn. 186) The accession of Queen Mary brought the fulfilment of their hopes. Naturally it took some time to gather together the scattered community, but some were enclosed by Cardinal Pole at Sheen in November 1556. (fn. 187) The official re-establishment of Syon was confirmed by the cardinal on 1 March 1557, (fn. 188) and in April letters patent were issued granting the site and more than 200 acres of land at Isleworth. (fn. 189) The community then consisted of 21 sisters and 3 brothers, with Catherine Palmer as abbess and John Green confessor-general. (fn. 190) A further grant of lands at Isleworth was made in January 1558. (fn. 191)

Meantime the work of refitting the buildings for monastic life had been going on, the cost being borne by Sir Francis Englefield who, through his wife, formerly Catherine Fettyplace, was related to two of the sisters. (fn. 192) The re-establishment was completed by the solemn enclosure of all who had rejoined by the Bishop of London, assisted by the Abbot of Westminster. (fn. 193) Both the queen and Cardinal Pole were rewarded for their favours by obits at the abbey. (fn. 194)

The community was not to remain long in enjoyment of its peaceful round. In May 1559 Parliament decreed the dissolution of the re-established monasteries, pensions being granted only to those religious willing to take the Oath of Supremacy. (fn. 195) Once again the community at Syon decided to continue its monastic life and it was arranged that the retiring Spanish ambassador, Feria, should take them and other religious abroad with him. (fn. 196) The community moved to Flanders, where it began a long exile in the Bridgettine house at Termonde. (fn. 197) Despite many difficulties and hazards it continued to exist in Flanders, France, and Portugal until its return to England in two groups, one in 1809 and the other in 1861, and it has been settled since 1925 at Marley, South Brent, Devon. (fn. 198)

Note that the house in Devon was finally closed in 2011. There were only three elderly nuns left and they could not maintain the convent. Before they had to close, the nuns published The Syon Breviary, an English translation of the Bridgettine Daily Office of Our Lady, which they continued to pray!

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