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.