Friday, July 31, 2009

Bradenstoke Priory/Abbey, Wiltshire, England

-->In September 2006, on a vacation trip to England, my last stop on September 20 was in the tiny village of Bradenstoke, which you really have to be looking for, to find. It only has one road in, and the same road back out after you turn around! Houses, churches, post office, and school – all front in a compact manner on the single road. The architecture spans several styles over the centuries from medieval to Tudor to the 18th century thatched houses.

Bradenstoke’s name is from “Stoche,” a settlement, and Brayton Forest. What I observed was a very long ridge with a flat area behind it, and no forest in sight, vast tracts of farmland in cultivation, with trees for windbreaks. The flat area to the south of Bradenstoke, which had been part of the priory property, became RAF Lyneham airfield in the 1920s (or 1930s?).

I stopped at what looked like an ancient stone church (St. Mary’s, built in 1866) in the center of the village, and the gate was open but the church was locked. I heard someone knocking on an upper-storey window, and looked around to see an old man gesturing at me. I walked around to his front door, which was a post office and general store, and he appeared with the keys to the church. But this was a Victorian-built church, made to look medieval, so it would not have held my ancestors’ remains. The store owner invited me in to his shop, which was closed that afternoon. His name, no kidding, was John Smith. The only plainer name could have been John Doe, I suppose.

Mr. Smith lives and works in a building that had low, bowed ceilings, with rough oak timbers across the ceiling. It looked very old, and he said that it had been appraised by a historical architect as being built roughly 1350-1380, not like those (sniff!) new buildings down the street which were Tudor half-timbered.

"The time of King Edward III," I said. He was incredulous that I would know that, as he’d just clipped a newspaper article last April (five months ago) which said that Edward III lived in the mid-14th century, the same time as his building was put up, what a coincidence.
Artist conception of  Bradenstoke.

I was trying to get Mr. Smith to talk about the priory/abbey down the road, but he talked a continuous stream about the village, particularly what a huge coincidence that he should look out his window at the time I was rattling the lock on the church door, considering that his store wasn’t open, as he is semi-retired and this was his half-day, and that little girl on the bike always wanted to get into his store for 20p worth of sweets, and he wanted to keep the lights off so people wouldn’t try to come in on his half-day and buy groceries, so could we use window light to look at his 1820s poster of an auction that included his building. Then he mentioned that the abbey was taken apart by that American newsman, you know the one (William Randolph Hearst, I guessed, and he nodded vigorously), and the stones shipped to California…. I should talk to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who acted high and mighty and better than other people, but maybe they’d let me see the abbey bits left on their land… Et cetera.

That was my cue to exit Mr. Smith’s presence. By now, it was a bit after 5 pm, so I was worried that it was awfully late to be seeing the site and driving all the way back to Gloucester, where I was staying with my friend. I drove another half-mile down the road and turned in at a farm that had a number of very old stone buildings on it. I parked in the gravel driveway and walked around to the entrance door of the house, and knocked about four different times, but no answer. I walked back to my car, and a Toyota Land Cruiser had parked behind me. “Are you
Mr. Thomas?” I asked the driver. He said yes, and I said I’d move my car so he could get in, that I’d just been knocking on his door.

I explained that my ancestors, Edward of Salisbury and others, had granted the land to found the abbey, and at least one had been buried in the church here. These are the other ancestors I’ve learned were buried at Bradenstoke:
...Walter/Gauthier d’Evreux (de Ewrus) fitzEdward, sheriff of Salisbury, 1100-1147. In 1142, he was the founder of the Augustinian priory of Clack, also known as Bradenstoke Priory or Bradenstoke Abbey. Walter took the habit of a canon in 1147, the year he died.
...Patrick de Chaworth/Chaources, b. 1052, father of Sybil de Chaworth
...Sybil de Chaworth, wife of Walter de Salisbury FitzEdward (buried near the choir)
...Edward d'Evreux of Salisbury, 1060-1130 (buried near the choir)
...(Possibly) Maud FitzHubert, wife of Edward d’Evreux of Salisbury
...(Possibly) Philippa d’Evreux, mother of Edward d’Evreux of Salisbury
...Adela/Elia de Talvas, wife of Patrick, earl of Salisbury (he was buried in Abbey St Hilaire, Poitou after being killed in ambush of Eleanor of Aquitaine). Adela was daughter of Count of Ponthieu.
...John FitzGilbert Marshal, father of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. See article by Elizabeth Chadwick on John Marshal HERE.
...Sibilla de Salisbury, wife of John FitzGilbert Marshal, and mother of William Marshal
Mr. Thomas was not at all high and mighty, but instead took me around to see where the church had been, the abbot’s quarters, the entrance to the undercroft of the priory hall, and a tower. Many of the church stones had been taken away long ago to be used to build houses, farms, walls, etc., in the village. Mr. Thomas’s house and farm buildings were rebuilt from abbey stones, too, in an interesting patchwork.

The buildings that William Randolph Hearst had taken apart in the 1920s were the guest house and a tithe barn, taken first to Castell St. Donat’s in Wales, then the barn was shipped to San Simeon, California. There’s a tall jetty from the Pacific beach there, where Hearst received his cargos of treasures and sent them up the hill by railroad.

I visited San Simeon in January 2009, but could find no reference in its bookshop for anything Bradenstoke.

As I learned recently, the tithe barn was never rebuilt by Hearst. It stayed in wooden crates in a warehouse at Hearst Castle until 1960, when it was purchased by a hotelier and his company, Alex Madonna Construction of San Luis Obispo. The intent was to build it on his hotel property as a wedding chapel, but he was not given a construction permit because of safety concerns in earthquake country. The San Andreas Fault throws off some big ones every few years. There’s a short video of the Bradenstoke tithe barn crates at a central California warehouse. The workmen open a crate to reveal a long, rough-hewn oak beam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80PHqu9fH9Q Video posted July 2008.

Anyway, Mr. Thomas was very friendly and helpful, and as nice as could be. After feeding his dogs their supper, he
showed me the area of his paddock where the church had stood, and we could deduce where the choir and altar would have been, which is where my ancestors would have been buried. He pointed to a tunnel-like stone structure which was the undercroft of the abbot’s house/guest house (the upper building was bought and carried away by Hearst). The superstructure may also be known as the King’s House, built by Henry II. (Not sure of that, so don’t quote me.)

Then, picking our way through sheep dung, he took me through a wooden gate and down the hill just a bit to a gate tower covered in green vines and foliage.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas keep about 50 sheep (for sale as meat, as there’s no value for wool these days, he said), two cattle, some horses, and three dogs. (I think I also saw a peacock.) They work elsewhere during the day and do the extra farm chores on the weekend.
Mr. Thomas said that over the last hundreds of years, most of the abbey’s land remained in one large piece until the Second World War, when about 1500 acres were taken for the RAF Lyneham base close by. Many planes were taking off and landing while I was there. I don’t know if they were bombers or cargo planes. They didn’t look sleek and fast, so maybe the latter.

It had taken me hours to get to Bradenstoke on all the twisty-turny A and B roads from
Gloucester to Malmesbury to Bradenstoke, so I decided to take motorways home, even if they were miles out of the way. I don’t relish driving 30 mph on dark, winding roads for hours. It was still a long drive, but at least it was safer.

The photos shown here were taken by the blog author.
Source articles and further information:
http://www.lynehamvillage.com/info/towns/bradenstoke.html Informative article on Bradenstoke village history, includes photo of interior of the undercroft.


  1. What lovely pics, Christy! I'd never even heard of Bradenstoke before, at least that I can remember, but it looks well worth a visit.

  2. Thanks, Alianore. I wish Blogger were more image-friendly. What a pain to arrange the pix in that composition box; and the preview still doesn't resemble the final.

    Bradenstoke was a pretty place. It's all private land, and there is NOTHING left of the original except that gate tower and the undercroft. I got in without an invitation, on the grace and hospitality of the owner when I turned up with nothing but a little knowledge and an American accent. (blush)

    Author Elizabeth Chadwick is interested in Bradenstoke as it relates to William Marshall's parents. When her book is published, there will be a spike in visits: hey, maybe the village will need a roundabout or traffic signal!

    I have a tiny bit more to add to the article (its demise in the Dissolution), as well as some links for further information on Bradenstoke.

  3. Blogger's a real pain when you do a photo post, isn't it? It was driving me mad today.

    Good to hear that an American accent got you into Bradenstoke! (If I ever go there, maybe I'll have to try and fake one, if my bog-standard English accent isn't enough...;)

  4. Thanks for this wonderful article and photos. John FitzGilbert and Sybilla are also my ancestors - 26th great grandparents, so it is very meaningful to see where they are buried. I would love to see it myself sometime.

  5. Thank you for the compliments, Marilyn (cousin). Glad I could give you a virtual tour, at least.

    Please be sure to see the guest post in this blog (April 2011, I think) written by historical fiction author Elizabeth Chadwick, on John Marshall and his anvil. And don't forget to read her book. --This has been an unpaid, sincere endorsement of Chadwick's books, by the way. :)

  6. Thank you so much for making my evening (well night actually its 11.34 pm) as I read your article it brought back such memories for me and the characters that live in Bradenstoke. You see I used to live in the village after a lvoely family the "skull" family owned it and before it was modernised at no 89, the ORIGINAL post office. I stil have the original phone from the house from when it was a post office. John smith was there then and as mucha a character as I see he still is, though I thought he was going to sell it years ago.. just goes to show :-)

    anyway, my friends still own the "new tudor houses" up the road and it was a shame you didnt get to meet them becuase they would have welcomed you with open arms , as they did me and lots fo other people to the village. I am also pleased you got to walk the abbey and see it for yourself. I have written a story about the walk up the village so if you are interested please do let me know

    all the best and thanks for the trip down memory lane but I must now to my bed !!

    patricia pye

  7. Hi Christy....It's me again. I have a question I have been meaning to ask you, esp as I am hoping to go to Bradenstoke Abbey ruins within the next few years. The Salisburys and the Marshals are my ancestors, too, as I think I have mentioned a few times :-).

    With the stones of the abbey being reused elsewhere, do you know what happened to the tombs/graves/remains of our ancestors? Are they under the ground there or were they reburied somewhere else? I hope they were respected. Its sad to see that very often graves of our ancestors are not.(respected).

    Are you planning to ever go back? I wonder if a bus would go there. It would not be easy for me to drive, being used to the American system of roadways. It could be disatrous !

    I just read somewhere that the RAF Lyneham airfield is scheduled to be closed in 2012, and that other improvements may be made to the abbey area by either the English Historical Society or the Wiltshire one. (I forgot which one it was). And I hope efforts to get the tithe barn back are successful. Bradenstoke, or at least England, is where it should be after all.

    Thanks for this great website.
    Best wishes,
    Your cousin Marilyn :-)

  8. Thanks, Marilyn. Keep in mind that the ruins are entirely on a private-property farm. I had no idea when I arrived there. It would be well to inquire with the property owners to make an appointment to meet them.

    Any above-ground tombs are entirely gone. They may have been destroyed in the Dissolution. If the people were buried beneath the church floor (now a back yard), they could still be there. Wouldn't it be cool if the archaeologists used sound technology to take a look under the soil? If there were any effigies, perhaps they ended up mortared into a wall of the farmhouse or outbuildings, or transported to a parish church in fragments.

    I don't see any possibility of returning to the UK while there's an economic depression on. Very sad, because I love the UK.

  9. I lived in Bradenstoke 1975 to 1986. I was very interested in the history of Bradenstoke during my stay there in the village.
    A couple of facts that may or may not have been mentioned in this Blog:
    I regularly use to walk my dogs around the Abbey grounds and there was a grassy mound type hill close by and my dogs would not walk over this grassy mound. I mentioned this a couple of times to people in the Pub (The Jolly Trooper, now closed down and a private house) and they too had the same experience with their dogs. Strange or what?
    The Village stores is now up for auction ( 15 May 2013 ) I knew John Smith, the owner, very well when I lived in Bradenstoke and I use to go to the Pub with him, usually in another village. He always told me that they would have to carry him out of the Stores in a box to the graveyard across the road so, is this the time? Have not seen him for years and years. The previous owner is buried across from the stores and John use to say "I can see him every morning when I am having a shave"......lol
    I have not been back to Bradenstoke for years and I understand it has changed greatly since I was there.

    1. Thank you for the update and factoids, Anonymous! Interesting thought about the dogs avoiding the mound.

      I found a Wiki photo of the store exterior taken from the churchyard. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_from_Bradenstoke_churchyard_-_geograph.org.uk_-_790989.jpg

    2. Thanks for this article Christy. My early years were spent living with my Gran at The Banks - now classed as Lyneham, but originally Bradenstoke. The Banks are the houses on the main road before you turn in towards Bradenstoke. My father still lives there although sadly we are not in communication. My ancestors have been on that land for around 150 years.

      Your writings brought some memories back.

      I have a little snippet and that was that my Gran had a big "lean-too" built onto the side of the house.
      It had a huge door on it which I remember and I was told it was from the priory and probably around 800 years old. My father renovated the house in the 1980's. The doors were in a poor state and I'm not sure whether he realized what they might have been but he burnt them as useless scrap.

      The reason I found your blog was because I was researching my family tree and found that I have ancestors in Bradenstoke going back at least 200 years. My Great (x3) Grandmothers brother, Job Hatharell (aka Hadriel and various other spellings!) was sentenced to Life in 1831 for writing a "Threatening Letter", he was sent to a penal colony in Australia. He was released after 8 years but stayed over there. There is also a document suggesting there was a court case surrounding the death of his 3rd wife and their child in Australia. I haven't been able to find anymore info yet.

      If anyone has info on Job Hatharell's crime, I'd love to hear from them.

      I would also love to read your account of the walk through the village or to hear from anyone who remembers my Grandparents (Albert & Martha Matthews) or anyone else that I might be related to still living in Bradenstoke or any history about the village.

      Chris (mr.mcgoo (at) gmail.com)


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