The West London Stately Home Where A King Exploded

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 30 months ago

Last Updated 23 December 2021

The West London Stately Home Where A King Exploded
Photo: Simon & His Camera

West London's not short of a stately home or two, but have you ever been to Syon House and Park? It's owned by the Duke of Northumberland, whose northern pile Alnwick Castle stood in for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. Syon doesn't have any wizarding heritage, but it's a pretty interesting place with a plethora of royal connections and gardens landscaped by Capability Brown. Read on to find out more.

Henry VIII exploded there

Photo: Simon & His Camera

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his body lay in state in Whitehall for a few days before being transferred to Windsor. On route to Windsor, the funeral cortege stopped overnight at Syon House.

There are a couple of rumours as to what happened to the royal corpse overnight; one is that his coffin opened and the body was part mauled by dogs. Another is that his body, as dead bodies do, exploded due to the build up of gases. But the more realistic explanation is that the coffin, for whatever reason, began to leak blood and bodily fluids. The workmen who were called upon to reseal the coffin before it continued its public journey, witnessed dogs licking up the blood that had dripped onto the floor.

Perhaps it was some sort of revenge from beyond the grave — Henry VIII's fifth wife Catherine Howard was imprisoned at Syon for five months before being executed at the Tower of London in 1542. Add to that the fact that he himself was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries — including the one that once stood at Syon Park.

It's been in films

The heavenly dome of the Great Conservatory. Photo: Simon & His Camera

Yeah, yeah, where hasn't these days? But how many London filming locations can say they've stood in for Heaven? Actual Heaven? The Great Conservatory at Syon Park (more on which later) was the setting for Heaven in 1967 film Bedazzled.

Winnie the Pooh and friends used to live there

Photo: Matt Brown

The grounds used to be home to mini replicas of the homes of some of the Hundred Acre Wood's residents. Sadly, they're no longer there (we checked with Syon House back in 2016).

King Charles I's children lived there

Photo: Simon & His Camera

During the English Civil War, life was turbulent — to say the least — for the royal family. From 1642, Charles I's children Elizabeth and Henry (then aged seven and two) were placed under the care of parliament, which, it seems, involved shifting them about in the care of various noblemen.

At one point, they were under the care of the Duke of Northumberland, who looked after them at Syon House. From 1647, Charles I was moved to Hampton Court Palace, and was able to visit his children at nearby Syon regularly, until he fled to Carisbrooke Castle in November 1647.

Crystal Palace

The Great Conservatory. Photo: Matt Brown

The Great Conservatory is an elegant, domed affair, built in 1826 and designed by architect Charles Fowler. It was built to house the Duke of Northumberland's tropical plants, and was described as "the most beautiful garden building in Britain" in the London Illustrated News in 1968.

Clearly Joseph Paxton agreed. He was the chap responsible for designing the Crystal Palace, and apparently took much of his inspiration from Syon's Great Conservatory. The conservatory at Chatsworth was his practice run for getting London's legendary glass structure just right.

Several of the plants still thriving in Syon's Great Conservatory today arrived from North America as long ago as the eighteenth century.

The offensive lion

Photo: David Bridges

Syon House's 'Lion' Gate is widely recognised. The row of arches, topped off with a lion, are nearly 270 years old. The lion was restored in 2009. The lion's tail is an unusual one, sticking straight out rather than hanging naturally as it did in the original drawings:

The lion originally stood on top of Northumberland House on Strand. But the most interesting thing about this fierce feline is the suggestion that it spent 125 years with its  rear end pointed towards Clarence House as an insult after the Duke of Northumberland fell out with the Prince of Wales.

It was used as a hospital in the first world war

Photo: Simon & His Camera

Specifically, the Riding School building became a military hospital, known as Syon House Auxiliary Hospital from 1916-1919. At its peak it had 35 beds, and was staffed by volunteers. Today the building is part of the on-site garden centre.

It was almost a sewage works

In the 1930s, there were plans for the estate to be seized and a sewage treatment works to be built on the site. Unsurprisingly, the then Duke of Northumberland — along with plenty of locals — wasn't keen on the idea and campaigned to put a stop to it.

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Instead, Mogden Sewage Works in Isleworth was built, although the Duke of Northumberland's river still had to be diverted to flow through it.

There were also discussions in 1939 about taking over the grounds of Syon Park and nearby Osterley Park to build trenches to function as Anderson shelters. They would protect local residents from the effects of the war, but for whatever reason, it never happened.

Body dumped

On 28 January 1948, the Syon Park estate made national headlines for all the wrong reasons when the body of 25 year old Sylvia Styles of Brentford was found dumped there. She had been strangled. In newspaper reports about the murder, the estate was described by locals as "a favoured meeting spot for couples". Some friends and family claimed that she didn't know any men, while an aunt claimed that she had seen her with an unknown man a couple of times prior to her death. Either way, the murder was never solved.

The secret tunnel

Syon House sits on the site of what was once an abbey — remains of the abbey have been found in the grounds. Nothing unusual about that, except that it was one of the wealthiest nunneries in the country — no surprise, being so close to royal residence Hampton Court Palace.

What is interesting, is the unsubstantiated suggestion that the monks of Sheen had a secret tunnel linking to the nunnery at Syon. If such a tunnel did exist, it's unlikely that it remains today.

Queen Victoria's former bedroom

One of the rooms in Syon House is called Princess Victoria's Bedroom. That princess later became queen. The 3rd Duchess at Syon Park became Princess Victoria's governess, and the future queen and her mother stayed at Syon House many times over a six year period. The beds they used are still in the rooms today.

The false bookshelf

Inside the Long Gallery. Photo: Tommy Johannson

The House's Long Gallery is lined by a bookshelf on the right — or is it? What appears as a bookshelf is actually a door leading out onto the south lawn.

Never been to Syon House or Syon Park? It's usually open part-time from March until October, check the website for details and prices. The garden centre on site is open all year round, and we recommend making time for Syon Park's Enchanted Woodland, which takes place for a few weekends before Christmas each year — kiddies will love it.

The Enchanted Woodland. Photo: Venesha Thompson