Since 1989, when the Syon community decided to relocate from Marley House itself to new accommodation created from a courtyard of former farm buildings on the estate, the nuns have been entrusting their manuscript and printed books to the keeping of the University of Exeter, where they are held in Special Collections. Further details may be found at: http://library.exeter. ac.uk/special.
In 1989–90, as part of the preparations for that move, the community's collection of printed books was catalogued by Marion Glasscoe and Claire Johnson. The books were arranged in sixteen classes, as follows: A Early books, B Bibles, C Liturgy, D Saints’ lives, E Theology, F History, G Swedish, H Fiction, J Poetry, K Drama, L Non-fiction, M Reference, N Marian literature, O Art, P Periodicals, R Children's literature. Among the materials associated with this catalogue is a file listing the books kept by each sister in her cell for personal use during the year 1989–90. The catalogue and its associated papers are now EUL MS 265.
In September 1990, more than 1,100 books printed before 1850 (classmark A in the classification described above) were deposited with the University. The earliest dated volume is a 1513 edition of Jerome's letters printed by Nicolaus de Benedictis at Lyon (Syon Abbey 1513/JER/X). All but a few of the books post-date Syon's exile, and they are a rich resource for the study of counter-reformation and later Catholic print culture. Many volumes, like the Borromeo testament noted in our introduction, have been inscribed or annotated, and in some cases supplemented with handwritten material, by their Bridgettine readers. These books are included in the Exeter University Library catalogue with the classmark Syon Abbey.
At the same time, the University received thirty-five notebooks containing the handwritten notes of John Rory Fletcher, whose work on Syon's history is discussed in the essay in this volume by Ann Hutchison. Some consist of lists and brief notes on Syon gathered from a wide range of published and unpublished sources; others are chapters of the detailed history of Syon that Fletcher wrote during the 1930s and 1940s, but which is available in print in the form only of the popular history he produced early in his work on the abbey in 1933, and in the partial serialisation published in the Poor Souls’ Friend from 1957 (see above pp. 247–8).
We know, feel and have experienced for more than seventy years the full hardships of this our exile; of which our many afflictions, sorrows, and tears are true witnesses and, with our injuries, sufferings and dangers on land and at seas, true testimony of how much we have had to suffer; finally the aching loss of our native land, families and mother tongue, as well as our extreme poverty in foreign lands and kingdoms, declare and make evident the burdens and great difficulties we have experienced and carried on our shoulders.
The heartfelt words of Prioress Barbara Wiseman and the Bridgettine sisters in Lisbon to the Spanish Infanta might have been written by any of the exiled English nuns during the seventeenth century. As members of a religious minority which was not permitted officially to practise its faith, hundreds of women left their homeland to join expatriate religious communities abroad. The exodus began in the aftermath of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries when groups of Bridgettines, Dominicans, Poor Clares and possibly nuns of other orders travelled abroad to continue their pious vocation in continental cloisters. Likewise, individuals determined to maintain their vows settled in foreign houses. The numbers of English Catholics desiring a monastic life for themselves or their female kin were so high that by the late sixteenth century the first post-Reformation abbey was established for Benedictines in Brussels. An English Poor Clare convent was founded at St Omer in 1608, and in 1609 the English women resident in the Flemish cloister of Augustinian canonesses in Louvain departed to form their own community. By the end of the seventeenth century, there were twenty-two contemplative English convents which had survived the vicissitudes of exile and poverty described by the Bridgettine nuns eighty years earlier. Twenty-one were located within a relatively small part of north-western Europe, in the Low Countries and in France, while the Bridgettines resided to the south in Lisbon.
The history of the English Bridgettines is thus closely connected with that of the other expatriate cloisters, yet it is also distinct. Unlike the other post-Reformation religious houses which had tenuous links with the pre-dissolution monastic orders, the Bridgettine nuns could claim direct continuity with pre-Reformation Syon Abbey in Isleworth.
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