IT was an act of shameful architectural barbarism perpetrated by a bullish, browbeating American tycoon who, to borrow a line from Oscar Wilde – so clever with such phrases - was a man who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

It was a sad, some would say tragic day, when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the United States, cast an avaricious eye across the Atlantic Ocean onto a sleepy, rural backwater near Swindon.

We can safely assume that the infamous plutocrat who inspired Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane, had little if any pangs of guilt when he decided to rip the heart out of the unique heritage of tiny Bradenstoke by dismantling its medieval priory and tithe barn.

As well as owning various luxurious abodes in his homeland, the megalomaniac had acquired a castle in Wales (as you do) and was keen to improve, refurbish and expand the pile which, he was advised, required matching stone of similar age.

Scouring the land, his agents came across the requisite materials some 85 miles away in Bradenstoke, near Lyneham, where a rather splendid, well preserved former Augustinian priory stood.

All the priory’s owner needed was his palms greased……

As the brash creator of the world’s largest newspaper and magazine empire, Hearst was not the sort of character who went about his business in a quiet, unassuming, tippy-toe sort of way.

His was a voice that liked to be heard and with a king-sized ego to match. It was once said of William Randolph Hearst that he made as little noise as a man with a wooden leg on a tin roof.

But it was with the utmost secrecy 86 years ago that a small band of local men, under the guidance of Hearst’s agents, furtively took to pieces structures that had dominated the landscape for the best part of 800 years.

Not even those engaged in this nefarious task – and you could hardly blame a gang of rural labourers for missing the chance to earn a few extra bob – were aware of their paymaster’s identity until the dirty deed was all but done.

We can only imagine the horror, outrage and sheer disbelief of villagers whose families had for generations lived within sight of Bradenstoke’s 12th Century priory when the tarpaulin erected over the complex was removed to reveal its skeletal remains.

All that was left was a tower, a single arch and the vaulted undercroft (the supporting structure.) Anyone looking for the west wing, the banqueting hall, the prior’s lodgings and the 14th Century “noble tithe barn” were staring into thin air…

Word of the violation quickly found its way to Parliament where MPs were justifiably enraged over this crass molestation of England’s heritage – and by a Californian multi-millionaire at that.

Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald reluctantly conceded that the demolition had reached such a stage that halting it was pointless.

But by then many tonnes of stones and timber that had been meticulously fashioned and erected by skilled medieval masons and carpenters had been carted off to Wales.

Today, it is impossible to imagine such an outrage of this scale. It seems incredible that Hearst wasn’t ordered to re-erect the priory stone-by-stone. But mechanisms for protecting our heritage didn’t exist in the 1920s.

It is now 90 years since Hearst flicked through a copy of Country Life, saw some photographs of medieval St Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan and decided to buy it – thus perpetrating the fate four years later of Bradenstoke Priory.

Founded in 1142, the priory was much favoured by Plantagenet kings; Richard I aided its bid to break away from the Abbot of Cirencester’s clutches to become a priory in its own right.

King John was a frequent visitor while Henry III stopped by in 1235. Medieval military hero, Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376), Scourge of the French Nobility, was once its patron.

By the 14th Century Bradenstoke Priory oozed wealth with lands in ten counties.

All was going swimmingly until Henry VIII’s 16th Century Dissolution of the Monasteries when the monks were booted out and it fell into private hands.

In the 17th Century, the priory was described by antiquary’ John Aubrey as “very well built, with good strong ribs” and “the stateliest cellar in Wiltshire.”

While parts of the complex had been dismantled for materials, the priory was still in decent shape when it was sold it to Hearst in 1929.

Its surreptitious demolition took place with the aid of local labourers including Charlie Edwards, Bill Uzzell, Jacko Burden, Ernest and Harvey King and an old fella called Franklin.

Bert Edwards, and Bill and Ted Burchell drove truck-loads of dusty, heavy duty medieval masonry and sturdy oak beams to St Donat’s.

Two elderly bachelor brothers Isaac and Enoch White, “cabinet makers and rough carpenters” by trade, removed timber roofing from the priory and barn.

Incensed at Hearst’s vandalism, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings launched a poster campaign in the London Underground showing two views of the priory with the caption: “Bradenstoke, Wiltshire. Before and after demolition, for the sake of old materials.”

While Bradenstoke folk never forgave the mogul’s blasphemy, the controversy slowly faded into history until half-a-century later in 1981 when Doug Chalk, of Dauntsey related the priory’s fate to Country Life.

Doug’s piece was acknowledged by the college that continues to now reside at St Donat’s, pointing out that its fireplace, windows, refectory and other parts of the castle – including its great hall - all came from Bradenstoke.

He was even invited down to see it…

But a mystery persisted. There was no sign at St Donat’s of Bradenstoke’s historic tithe barn with its hand-honed oak beams that had sturdily stood the test of time – before Heart’s intervention - since the 1370s.

Where could it be? 

SHOCK, delight, relief – it was a veritable bombshell that hit Bradenstoke in 1998 when it emerged that its once magnificent tithe barn had turned-up more than 5,000 miles away.
Contained in 109 crates, the barn’s wooden beams and stones had indeed been hefted to South Wales in 1929.
But heritage villain Hearst then shipped them to San Simeon, California, where they remained in crates for 30 years before his family sold/gave them to flamboyant hotelier Alex Madonna in 1959.
Madonna sought to re-create the ancient English barn as a wedding chapel but his plans were scuppered because it wasn’t earthquake proof (those 14th Century artisans weren’t so clever after all).
Madonna, who died in 2004, said in 1998: “This beautiful structure is older than America.”
Bradenstoke, meanwhile launched a campaign to recover the barn and Madonna considered selling it back to them. “I do feel sorry for the village,” he said.
But it would cost a fortune just to ship it all back…
Remaining under wraps, the barn is now owned by Alex’s son John who has written a book about it entitled – without any apparent irony – Bradenstoke’s Inimitable History.
You can watch a clip on the internet of these huge crates being shifted around by fork-lift trucks:
Madonna eventually hopes to rebuild the 640 year-old structure on a Californian hillside but concedes its future still “hangs by a string”.

  • HANNAH Skull was one of the last people to reside at Bradenstoke Priory, having lived there for around six years during the 1920s when her father was farm manager.
    She told the Adver in 1998 when she was 88: “The priory was really beautiful. I remember running around it. 
    “My friends from school always wanted to come and stay.”
    Mrs Skull, who died the following year, was a fervent supporter of the campaign to bring back the tithe barn. “I do resent what Mr Hearst did and I doubt if I shall see the barn again in my lifetime but I hope others get the chance.”
    Today owners Mark and Vicki Thomas are involved in a Countryside Stewardship Scheme enabling them to protect and encourage the wildlife associated with the ruins and to preserve the historic remains.