Syon House

Syon House

Syon House

The Percy Family came to Syon at the end of the sixteenth century, which by the standards of this ancient family is recent history. Henry de Percy, whose Norman ancestor came to England in about 1067, acquired Alnwick Castle in the wild border country north of Newcastle upon Tyne, In 1309. His descendant, another Henry, was created Earl of Northumberland in 1377. For over 250 years, the inhabitants of that county ‘knew no other Prince than a Percy’ , and from their battle scarred castle the Percies engaged in continuous warfare with the Scots. Their rivalry with the great Douglas family over the border was the inspiration of one of the oldest ballads in the English language ‘The battle of Chevy Chase’; and the legendary exploits of the young Harry Hotspur, the first Earls son, were immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry IV, part I.

The immense power the Percies built up in the North posed a threat to one King after another, but in the 16th century the their support for the Catholic cause led them into the the losing camp, and gradually eroded their strength. An attainder for high treason in 1537 was followed by the execution of the 7th Earl in 1572 after he had joined the rising of the North in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots and, as a result, his brother, the 8th Earl, was required to live in the South of England. He made his home at Petworth in Sussex, which the Percies had owned since 1150. His son, Henry began their long connection with Syon.

Henry Percy was born in 1564. At the age of 18 he was sent abroad to study, and was liberally supplied with money by his father who was living ‘like a rustike’ at Petworth. The 8th Earl was not left in peace for long, for he was dragged away from Petworth to begin a third term in the Tower of London in 1584.

Henry traveled for a time, and then settled in Paris where, after a hectic period of high living, he began to take an interest in mathematics and the occult sciences which were to become his principal concerns in life, and earn him the sobriquet by which he is generally known, ‘the Wizard Earl’.

These studies were interrupted in 1585 by the sudden death of his father in mysterious circumstances in the Tower (murder or suicide). Henry returned to England; he was 21, and totally unacquainted with business affairs. The Percy estates were spread across eight counties and were in a chaotic state. His mother with whom he was on bad terms made some predatory swoops on his possessions, and some of his servants took advantage of his ignorance. Earl Henry would recall this period in later years: ‘I was not worth a fire shovel, or a pair of tongs’.  

Henry Percy 9th Earl of Northumberland by Anthony an Dyk

Henry Percy 9th Earl of Northumberland by Anthony Van Dyck

The young Lord opened up Alnwick Castle, and lived there for a while to master the intricacies of estate management as well as employing his cousin Thomas Percy to manage the Northumberland Estate.

At the same time he continued to develop his interests in science, and to lay the foundations of a library. He also spent a few months abroad as a soldier in the Low Countries.


Queen Elizabeth I looked on the young man with favour, and she was instrumental in finding him a wife around whom it was impossible for the Catholic faction to rally. Thus in 1594 he came to marry into the Devereux family, a sensible move, for his bride, Lady Dorothy, was a sister of the Queens favourite, Robert, Earl of Essex. Unfortunately their marriage proved a most unhappy one and Northumberland warned his own son against making a marriage for worldly reasons.

Lady Dorothy however, brought one possession to her husband which was to bring him great joy, for from her previous husband, she acquired the lease of the Syon estate. And when this was confirmed by the Queen, Syon became their principal home. 

Lady Dorothy Percy

Lady Dorothy Percy

As Queen Elizabeth’s life grew to its close, Northumberland entered into correspondence with James VI of Scotland.

When the King entered London in triumph as James I of England, Northumberland rode at his right hand. In 1604 the King gave him Syon as a gift.


The history of Syon before 1594 is almost as turbulent in character as that of the Percy family. Syon, as its name implies, was originally a monastery, founded by Henry V (a Percy cousin) in 1415. The monks and nuns belonged to the Order of St Bridget and under succession of wise abbesses the community prospered until, at the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, it was one of the richest in the country. It was thus a ripe plum, which fell after much resistance into the royal lap, when Henry dissolved the monasteries in the late 1530’s.

As soon as Edward VI came to the throne in 1547, his uncle, Edward, Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector, acquired the estate. He loved Syon, he built the house and made the garden. But he did not enjoy it himself for very long, for he was executed in 1552. In the following year, Syon was granted to John (Dudley), Duke of Northumberland, who was father in law of Lady Jane Grey. It was at Syon that Lady Jane gave her consent to the fateful plan to make her Queen and as a result of her decision she and her family died on the scaffold. Syon then reverted to the Crown in the person of Queen Mary who recalled the nuns from the Low Countries. They returned only  to find themselves expelled again as soon as Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne. Syon then fell into Percy hands, and has remained so ever since.


Syon House From The River. Canaletto

When Lord Northumberland took over Syon in 1594, he found the house much as the Lord Protector had left it. Dr G.R Batho, who has carried out extensive researches into the history of the Percy family and their estates, discovered a drawing of Syon of about 1600 in the margin of a family pedigree. This shows a house remarkably similar to the one we see today, a three storeyed, quadrangular building with angle turrets, round a central. open courtyard, faced with stone and battlement. The cloister presumably bears some relationship to the cloister of of the monastic building. Northumberland also found a remarkable garden, for the Lord Protector employed as his personal physician Dr William Turner, who founded at Syon one of the first botanical gardens in England. It is believed that he planted the mulberry trees which till flourish, and which had been introduced into England from Persia in the early 16th century. Turner’s book ‘The names of herbes’ was written at Syon, and dedicated to the Lord Protector. Lord Northumberland was also a gardener, and able to appreciate the legacy he acquired from Dr Turner in the way of rare plants.

Northumberland set about altering Syon in the last few years of the 16th century. Apart from the new stables, much of the work was renovation and the redecoration of the interior. We know, for instance, that he made the long gallery which is carried on a Renaissance arcade. Typically he adopted a scholarly approach, he read architectural treatises and made a tour of country houses. It is evident that he wished to entertain on a grander scale than he had been. This was largely due to his greatly improved financial position, for his efforts to put his estates in order had been successful. Virtually his entire income came from land. The only office of profit he ever held from the crown was the captaincy of the Gentlemen Pensioners in 1603-04 at a fee of £80 per annum. Northumberland was careful man, and his household at the beginning of the 17th century numbered about 70 servants which was a modest amount for a man of his rank at that time.

He lived in some style, never the less, and sent the Syon chef to take lessons from his opposite number in the French Embassy. An unknown contemporary quoted by Dr Batho claimed that Northumberland kept one of the best tables in the kingdom: ‘wherein I mean not only the diet of flesh and fish which answer to the stuff of our clothes: but I consider also the bread, wine, salads, oil, vinegar, fruit, sweetmeats, linen, plate, and lights which at the table account as the petty toys of our attire’.

We know much about the company he kept at Syon. Although he entertained King James on several occasions (one visit in 1603 cost Northumberland £364 in food and drink), he was not a courtier, and he quickly became disenchanted with the whims of that most capricious Monarch.

Northumberland preferred his independence, his laboratory , his garden and his ‘pypes of tobacco’, for he was hopelessly addicted to the weed. He enjoyed the company of intelligent men . He was the ‘favourer of all good learning, and Maecenas of learned men’. His accounts are full of payments to writers, geographers and scientists; he knew Shakespeare (and formed a collection of early quartos), Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, Edmund Spencer and the aged magus, Dr John Dee, who settled at nearby Mortlake.

Lord Algernon Percy

Lord Algernon Percy

His wife, Lady Dorothy, did not share his interests. She had adored her rash, handsome brother Essex who was executed; and she appears never to have cared greatly for the cautious, scholarly Northumberland. They both had violent tempers, and were formally separated no less than four times in the first five years of marriage. Lady Dorothy gave birth to two sons who died as infants, then daughters, and finally, in 1602, to a son and heir, Algernon. 

When the great calamity of Northumberland’s life occurred, Lady Dorothy however proved a tower of strength. On 4 November 1605, a distant cousin, Thomas Percy, dined at Syon. He was the rapacious agent for the families Northern estates and a committed Catholic. The story lingers in the Percy family of how a visitor called in the middle of dinner that night, and rode away with Thomas Percy. The visitor was supposed to be Guy Fawkes and, on the following day, their plot to blow up the houses of Parliament was discovered. Thomas Percy was killed, but the news that he had dined the previous night at Syon soon leaked out. It was a rotten stroke of luck. Northumberland was arrested; he protested to the council that his interests lay far from political conspiracy: ‘Examine but my humours,’ he said ‘in buildings, gardenings, and private expenses these two years past’. He was tried by the Court of Star Chamber and despite his obvious innocence, was sentenced to a fine of £30,000 and imprisoned for life. He appealed in vain, for he was unable to raise the money and he spent the following 16 years in the Tower.

Northumberland took with him into captivity a large number of books, retorts, crucibles, alembics, zodiacal charts and globes’, also a selection of his favourite pipes. Food, good wine, and quantities of tobacco were sent to him regularly, and baskets of fruit were dispatched from his orchards at Syon. Sir Walter Raleigh and other kindred spirits were fellow prisoners, and there were also visitors, and he had living with him 3 wise men, scientists known as the ‘Three Magi’ who assisted him with his experiments. He played chess and draughts, and an early version of kriegspiel, for one item in his accounts is for 300 model soldiers and other necessary equipment.

Lady Dorothy behaved with great courage. She divined accurately that Lord Salisbury was at the root of her husbands downfall, and she proceeded in full sail to Whitehall ‘to give the Ferrett a nipp’. But it was fruitless, for the terrified Salisbury merely gave orders that she was never to be admitted to his presence ever again, and Queen Anne’s effort to influence the King in Northumberland’s favour came to nothing.

Northumberland continued to manage all his affairs from the Tower. Building continued at Syon under the able clerk of works, Christopher Ingram. Ingram sent all the plans and accounts to his master and, when necessary, samples of stone were sent to the Tower for approval. The accounts for 1607-13 show that Northumberland spent £1,903 15s 8d on the house, which included the cost of a new suite of rooms for Lady Dorothy with a bathroom. He groused about this particular expense in a letter to Lord Knollys in 1608, ‘It costes me $400 this laste year paste in building of Bathing Houses, cabinettes, and o’ther thinges. Shee had a fancy to, which this 15 yeare before she neuer miste nor wanting’. Lady Dorothy appears to have been far in advance of most of her contemporaries, for bathrooms were rare in English houses at that time and John Aubrey thought that the two ‘Bathing-roomes’ which he saw at Francis Bacon’s worthy of mention. There may have been at Syon the remains of a monastic water supply, for monasteries were generally well organised in this respect and there would have been no shortage of water.

The gardens at Syon were were in the hands of Anthony Menvell who was a gardener there before the Northumberlands arrived, and head gardener for many years. the household accounts show that in the year 1590-91 his wages were £1 10s per annum, and had risen to £6 10s by 1606, at which figure they stuck until 1616.

However hard Northumberland tried to restrict his staff – and he had cut the numbers to 40 after his imprisonment – the household began to grow larger, until the 1620’s he employed 80 servants at a cost of £400-£500. The tendency, however, was for households to shrink, and by the middle of the 17th century most large establishments managed to run effectively with no more than 30 to 50 servants. Northumberland was ruthless where his tenants were concerned, but he appears to have treated his staff with consideration. He also respected for them as he told his son, ‘I have them more reasonable than either wife, brother or friend; you must not expect to find gods of them for knowledge, nor saints for life.’ Some of them remained with him for years. Christopher Ingram, for instance, the Clerk of the works, worked for him from 1599 until his death in 1628. John Vaughan was a groom for at least 18 years. John Greyme or Grymes, who is first mentioned in the Syon household accounts as a porter in 1607, was still with him in 1628 but by then as a waiter earning £5 a year. Andrew Barton, on the other hand, the mole catcher, who earned £2 13s 4d, drops out of sight after 2 years.

As soon as Algernon was old enough he went to live with his father in the Tower, so that his education could be supervised by the ‘Three Magi’. At the same time, Northumberland took up a book he had begun to compile for his eldest son and then abandoned when the child died. This is full of the worldly wisdom Northumberland had acquired over the years, with hints on how to handle subjects as varied as servants, women and foreign travel. He did not mince his words about the female sex. ‘Wives are commonly great scratchers after their husbands deaths, if things be loose,’ he wrote with feeling, and thoughts no doubt of his own mother; whereas it is his wife he had in mind when he grumbled, ‘And the cry is always not what is modest for them to doe, but “sutche and sutche doeth this” not what is fitt for them and their children to weare …. but “sutche and sutche weare this and that”.’ Lord Northumberland himself preferred the eternal quest for the philosophers’ stone.

In a vain attempt to secure his release, Northumberland went so far as to offer his beloved Syon to the King in part payment of the fine, but the King predictably refused to take back what had been, after all his gift.

Finally, in 1621, Northumberland was released. He went from the Tower to Syon for 10 days, and then on to Penshurst to see his favourite daughter Dorothy. He was at first required to stay at Petworth, but this restriction was lifted and he chose to remain there and make the occasional visit to Syon.

His wife died in 1619. He spent the summer of 1632 with Dorothy at Penshurst and with his Sidney grandchildren, Philip, Algernon, little Dorothy (‘Sacharissa’), and the others. He returned to Petworth in the Autumn, and in November he died. His only son Algernon had committed an unforgivable sin and married the daughter of his old enemy Salisbury, but the enormous marriage portion Lord Salisbury had to pay – £12,000, the equivalent of one and a half years of gross landed income – must have given him some satisfaction.

Algernon, 10th Earl of Northumberland, refused to side with the King during the Civil War, and remained aloof from party intrigue. He had found favour with King Charles who had bestowed on him the Garter and high ranks of Lord Admiral and Captain General and Governor of the Army (It is as Lord High Admiral that he is portrayed by Van Dyck in the magnificent portrait at Alnwick.) Although he was stripped or his ranks, he remained active in public life, for he believed to the last in the power of negotiation. For a time, the Royal children, the Duke of Glouster and the Princess Elizabeth were lodged with him at Syon and were near enough to Hampton Court for visits from their father. The painting of Charles I and his son by Sir Peter Lely which hangs in the red drawing-room at Syon was commissioned by Northumberland and painted there. After the death of the King, he dispatched the Royal children to his sister Dorothy at Penshurst and withdrew from public life.

The 10th earl loved Syon and enriched the gardens, for he had a passion for rare and exotic plants. he also made alterations and repairs to the house. He was a discriminating collector of works of art and he purchased many paintings which surface during the years of the civil war; the great painting of Titian of the Vendramin family now in the National Gallery was once in his collection. Through his second wife he was able acquire a mansion near Charring Cross which was renamed Northumberland House and became the town house of the earls and dukes of Northumberland until the 19th century. Algernon died in 1668.

His son Josecline survived by a mere 2 years, and with his death the direct male line of the great Percy family apparently died out (see the Peerage section as there were several tail male Percies in existence). The 11th Earls widow married Ralph Montagu of Boughton, and his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Percy, became at the age of 3 the most considerable heiress in England.

Lady Elizabeth’s grandmother set about to look for a suitable husband. Her eye lit on the sickly Lord Ogle who was married to Elizabeth when she was only 12. He died shortly afterwards, and the profligate Thomas Thynne of Longleat was produced, but he was murdered in his coach in Pall Mall shortly after their marriage by a disappointed suitor, Count Konigsmark. Lady Elizabeth’s 3rd and final marriage was to Charles, 6th Duke of Somerset.

The ‘Proud Duke’ as he was called, made some alterations to Syon, and planted the avenue of lime trees which frame the main approach to the house, but his principal efforts were directed towards Petworth House. Lady Elizabeth never cared for Syon; she described it as a ‘hobble-de-hoy place neither town nor country’.

The Dukes eldest son and his wife, Lord and Lady Hertford had two children, Lord beauchamp and Lady Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth was given Syon by her father in 1748, and she and her husband, Sir Hugh Smithson, commissioned Robert Adam to transform the interior of the house into the neo-classical palace we know today.

Elizabeth Smithson nee Seymour.

Elizabeth Smithson nee Seymour.

When Sir Hugh Smithson married Lady Elizabeth – Lady Betty (aka Carrots due to her red hair) as she was known – in 1740, she was not an heiress, for her brother was still alive. Sir Hugh was a Yorkshire baronet of great charm and ability, who was interested from an early age in the arts and money. Her parents, who were devoted to her, agreed to the match, though Sir Hugh’s antecedents did not satisfy her grandfather the ‘Proud Duke’.

Sir Hugh was the 4th Baronet. His family had been haberdashers in the City of London who had migrated to Yorkshire with their money, bought the estate of Stanwick in 1638, and proceeded to marry with the northern Catholic Aristocracy. After her marriage with Sir Hugh, Lady Betty settled down to life among the Yorkshire gentry. The sudden death of her brother Lord Beauchamp in 1744 from smallpox on his Grand Tour, transformed Lady Betty into a great heiress, although her crafty grandfather made certain that the ancient Percy estates in Sussex, Yorkshire and Cumberland should go to his Wyndham grandchildren and not to the Smithsons 🙁

Sir Hugh Smithson was the ideal person to rectify the Percy estates.

Sir Hugh Smithson AKA Hugh Percy!

He was most astute – (Gainsborough captured this quality on canvas with great skill) – and he managed to make improvements with the result that their revenues rose from £8000 in 1749 to £25,000 in 1765 and £50,000 in 1778. The ‘Wizard Earl’ had tried to exploit the coal reserves on his estates in Northumberland without much success, but Sir Hugh succeeded where his predecessor had failed with a dramatic impact on the family fortunes.

One of the earliest glimpses we have of Sir Hugh is just after his marriage when when he set out with Lady Betty to visit an ancient Smithson cousin in Tottenham (of whom we had great expectations). Sir Hugh we are told wore ‘a lead colour and silver stuff coat embroidered with silver, and a waistcoat of parements of white silk, embroidered with silver and colours’. He was later a glorious figure at court, and reckoned to be the most handsome man of his time. George III liked him, he became Lord Chamberlaine to Queen Charlotte, and Lady betty was not only a Lady of The Bedchamber to the Queen but also a great personal friend.

Their success was a source of great envy at court. Sir Hugh’s adoption of the name ‘Percy’ had been ridiculed, but he could not be ignored. He received the Order of The Garter in 1763 was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland where he astonished the Irish with the magnificence of his establishment. In 1766 he was created Duke of Northumberland which was an extraordinary advance in life, for no Dukedom had been created in England for half a century. His dress and his style of living became more ostentatious. George Selwyn described him at a dinner as ‘nothing but fur and diamonds … he looked as if he was to represent the bear star’!

He and Lady Betty were devoted to each other. She sailed through the drawing rooms of of the period. Horace Walpole described her as ‘a jovial heap of contradictions … her person was more vulgar than than anything but her conversations … which was larded indiscriminately with stories of her ancestors and footmen … She was mischievous under the appearance of frankness: generous and friendly without delicacy or sentiment’.

Northumberland House By Canaletto. It was demolished and the Lion atop was adopted at Syon

Northumberland House By Canaletto. It was demolished and the Lion atop was adopted at Syon

The Duke entrusted the transformation of the three great Percy houses, Alnwick, Northumberland House and Syon to Robert Adam. The Duke was aided and abetted in all his artistic plans by Lady Betty whose knowledge of Country Houses and craftsmen in England and the continent was serious and considerable.

Adam began work at Syon in 1762 and finished about 7 years later. he did not have a free hand. His brief was to model and redecorate the interiors , not to rebuild. Thus he had to grapple with the problems of of varying floor levels (between the great hall and the anteroom for instance) and the decoration of of the ancient long gallery 136 feet in length. Adam conjured out of Syon House a great hall, the anteroom, and a suite of 3 magnificent state rooms, the dining room, red drawing room and long gallery and created in each radical contrasts in mood and colour. In the long gallery he avoided a tunnel like effect by means of a complicated pattern on the ceiling and also decorative devices on the walls opposite the windows – classical columns, bookcases, chimney pieces, and a series of portrait medallions. The richness of the decoration is enhanced by furniture, much of which was designed by Adam, and by paintings and works of art.

Thomas Percy Bishop Of Dromore. Said he traced his pedigree to Percies of Worcester.

Thomas Percy Bishop Of Dromore. Said he traced his pedigree to Percies of Worcester.

Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore (a presumed proper Percy cousin and Chaplain to Duke Hugh at Alnwick), wrote ‘Syon House, which was old, ruinous and inconvenient, His Grace has finally improved; and fitting it up, and finishing it, after the most perfect models of Greece and Rome, hath formed a Villa, which for taste and elegance is scarce to be paralleled in Europe”.

The parties that the Duke and Duchess gave at Syon were sumptuous. Mrs Delany described one given in 1768 for the King of Denmark, Guests thronged the state rooms, and a large marquee was put up in the courtyard and illuminated by 4000 lamps. The Duke commented airily, according to Mrs Delany, that ‘he had two hundred lamplighters for the purpose’.

The Duke was a botanical expert, and turned his attention to the garden at Syon. He commissioned Capability Brown to sweep away the old garden and to landscape the grounds. The view from the windows in the state rooms is now of grass stretching down to the water meadows, through which the river Thames meanders. Beyond are the glorious gardens of Kew.

James Smithson. Illegitimate Son of Sir Hugh Smithson.

James Smithson. Illegitimate Son of Sir Hugh Smithson.

James Smithson the illegitimate son of Duke Hugh left over £100,000 in his will to the USA, to found The Smithsonian Institution in Washington ‘for the increase and diffusion of knowledge’.

Lady Betty died in 1776, followed by the Duke in 1786. Syon was inherited by their son, Hugh, who was a soldier after whom the famous Northumberland Fusiliers, is named. Walpole says he was ‘totally devoid of ostentation, most simple and retiring in his habits’, although his life expanded after he succeeded. His second wife had a menagerie at Syon which included gazelles, a collection of gold and silver pheasants and black swans, later joined by some grey Barbary monkeys given to her son. The 2nd duke is said to have built the Pavilion Boat House as a surprise to his Duchess.

Hugh Percy 2nd Duke of Northumberland.

Hugh Percy 2nd Duke of Northumberland.

The 3rd Duke succeeded in 1817. He made many alterations to Syon; he recased all the exterior walls with Bath stone and put in sash windows throughout the house. He added the conservatory after designs by Charles Fowler and filled it with a celebrated collection of tropical trees and flowers. When Prince Puckler Muskau visited Syon in the 3rd Dukes time, he noted that ‘In the vast pleasure ground twelve men are daily mowing from 5 to 9 o’clock.

The 3rd Duke attended the coronation of Charles X of France as George IV’s ambassador extraordinary and bore the whole cost himself of the whole undertaking; he is said to have placed even the the Czar’s ministers in the shadow by the magnificence of his display.

Hugh Percy third Duke of Northumberland.

Hugh Percy third Duke of Northumberland.

His parties at Syon were legendary. He would entertain 700-1000 people at a time. To accommodate them ‘Edgingtons’ made him a vast Marquee large enough to hold 600 guests which was placed near the kitchens. The Duke had a dinner service specially made as he had previously had to make do with hired sets of many patterns. After the dinner, the marquee was cleared and made ready for dancing. The river played a part in the festivities. Displays of fireworks on the south and east lawns were answered by rockets from the steamboats, and from the opposite bank of the Thames. The displays were designed by Mr Darby the pyrotechnist of Vauxhall at an average cost of £120.

The 3rd Duke was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1829 – 30 and died in 1847. He was succeeded by his brother who spent most of his time at Alnwick. After the demolition of Northumberland House in 1847 Syon became the family’s London house. The straight tailed lion atop Northumberland House was relocated at Syon on the riverside of the house. But for over 150 years the principal residence of the Percies has been at Alnwick.

Syon is a fantastic place to visit. Here is a link to the web site. Syon House and Park

Charles Percy. ‘Esperance en Dieu’