The history of the Bridgettine Order in the UK is at one and the same time old and new. New, because with the founding of the new branch by Blessed Mother Elisabeth Hesselblad on 8 September 1911, England, and recently Wales, has seen since 1931 the establishment of three houses of Bridgettine Sisters - first at Iver Heath, then Maryvale and, in 2008, Holywell. Old, because even today the ancient Order still exists in England at Syon Abbey as the older 'sister' of the new branch, with an unbroken lineage dating to the early 1400's.
It was always Blessed Elisabeth's desire to revive the spirt of the ancient Order with her new foundations, bringing the spirit of Saint Bridget of Sweden to engage apostolically with the modern world. As part of this task Blessed Elisabeth spent time in the UK, visiting and staying at Syon Abbey, in Devon, founded first near London in 1415, from where she also received a copy of the original Rule and Constitutions of the ancient Order. She stayed there twice, learning from and being inspired by her sister nuns and especially by the Lady Abbess who gave her blessing to Elisabeth to follow God's calling to whatever He willed her to do for the Bridgetine Order.
The first trace of the Order in the UK can in fact be shown to be from a little earlier than 1415. It is known that Henry, Lord FitzHugh, Constable of England and Chamberlain to King Henry V, had visited the monastery of Vadstena in Sweden in 1406. He had travelled to Sweden to accompany the daughter of King Henry IV, Phillipa, who was betrothed to the King of Sweden, Eric XIII of Pomerania. Whilst in Sweden he was sufficiently impressed by what he had seen at Vadstena to volunteer to help with a similar foundation in England. He promised a gift of a manor at Cherry Hinton, Cambridge. Although the foundation did not occur here, two Bridgittine brothers (for the monastery also had a 'double' section for males) came to England in 1408 to prepare for the eventual Syon foundation a few years later in 1415.
'The Monastery of St. Saviour and St. Bridget of Syon' was a royal foundation, and the only Bridgettine Abbey to be established in England before the Reformation. It was originally built by King Henry V in 1415 on a site in Twickenham opposite his own royal palace at Shene (Richmond), but rebuilt at Isleworth on the banks of the River Thames on the site of an earlier Celestine monastery, first coming into use as a monastery in 1431. Today a newer house on the site, called Syon House, belongs to the Duke of Northumberland. In 2003 excavations were carried out and it was discovered that the abbey church may have been considerably bigger than even Westminster Abbey and would have been an amazing sight from the river. It was a monastery that combined strict observance and practices, modelled on the rule of Saint Augustine and as adapted by Saint Bridget. It was also a centre of learning, the library having contained about 1,400 texts. The foundation consisted of two communities to form a 'double' monastery, in one sixty sisters, in the other thirteen priests, four deacons and eight lay brothers. The monastery flourished until its dissolution by King Henry VIII in 1539. Four years earlier, on 4 May 1535, the 'confessor general' of the Abbey, St. Richard Reynolds, "the Angel of Syon", was brutally executed at Tyburn for not accepting the King's supremacy over the Church in England in place of the Holy Father in Rome. A plaque commemorating him is found today on the wall of one of Syon House's outbuildings. The body of this Bridgettine martyr and canonised saint was placed on the abbey gateway, of which the metre-high carved pinnacle still survives today. This, and the iron cross that once stood on top of the abbey church, are now in the possession of the few remaining enclosed nuns that derive from this first old community who were exiled in the 16thcentury.
The nuns returned to England in 1861 and have lived at South Brent in Devon since 1925. Prior to 1861 the exiled community were established in Lisbon, and before that in Flanders and Rouen. Today the nuns, under Mother Abbess Anne-Maria are the only religious community in the UK which has continuously existed from before the Reformation.
The Catholic church at Isleworth, barely a few hundred metres away from the old Syon Abbey, is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows and St Bridget of Sweden. Happily, devotion to Saint Bridget, the Mother of the whole Bridgettine Order, old and new, is found today where it first flourished almost 600 years ago.