The village takes its name from the leper hospital for maidens founded in the 12th century. Bradley means a wide clearing or wood; Brad = Broad (OE) & Ley = clearing (OE). 1½ miles southwest of the village is the deserted medieval village, now farming hamlet, of Yarnfield. Formerly in the county of Somerset, Yarnfield was transferred to Wiltshire in 1895.
The earliest reference to the village is a Saxon land charter of 878, but the community’s origins can be traced back thousands of years. There are numerous tumuli including a Bronze Age barrow opened by Richard Colt Hoare in 1807. It contained a complete skeleton accompanied by numerous items, three of which are on display in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum at Devizes. Other finds include an Iron Age gold coin, Roman remains and a Saxon barrow.
Maiden Bradley was historically in the hundred of Mere in Wiltshire, while Yarnfield was within the Norton Ferris Hundred in Somerset.
The Priory in the medieval centuries
By the mid 11th century Bradley had become a large manor. The lord of the manor was Tostig Godwinson, brother of King Harold. The Domesday Survey assessed it at 4,000 acres (16 km2) worth £10 a year. The men numbered 6 villeins, 13 bordars and 4 slaves. In the early 12th century, the village came into the hands of steward to Henry II of England, Manasser Biset, who owned several manors. In 1154 he decided to found an asylum for girls suffering from leprosy, choosing a site where the present Priory ruins stand. A Proctor and his assistants ran the asylum. In 1189, the Bishop of Salisbury changed the asylum into an Augustinian Priory, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Lazarus. The Priory enjoyed Royal Protection, and prospered until the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
At some time in the mid 15th century the listed building housing the village stores was built by the Lambert family, wool merchants.
The Prior before the Dissolution was elected in 1505 and dispossessed in 1538. The land was awarded by the King to local landowner Thomas Seymour, the brother of the 1st Duke of Somerset, and the property has remained in the family ever since.
Plague during the English Civil War
In 1646 the village was struck by the plague and for 10 months no one was allowed to leave the village. As farming suffered and trading was impossible, the villagers relied on relief provided by neighbouring villages. A story of self-sacrifice as noble and romantic as that of Eyam. In 1671 smallpox broke out, prompting the cancellation of the October fair and market.
Around 1688 Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Baronet deserted his family home at Berry Pomeroy Castle in Devon and used the money derived from stripping that castle to fund improvements to a new house at Bradley that had been started by his father, the 3rd Baronet. A former exceptionally large mansion was completed here 1710 but was replaced in 1820 by today’s house which is an eighth of the original footprint.
Beating the bounds
Beating the bounds is recorded as practised each year here in the 18th century. All male residents attended and walked the whole parish boundary. For farmers and everyone able to exercise the usual rights of common on the common land this ensured that by sowing and reaping, taking the natural produce or grazing animals on other peoples’ land villagers would not commit aggravated trespass which remains a crime in England and Wales.
In 1780 there were three coaching inns in the village. Between 1750 and 1800, three turnpike roads ran through Bradley, to Frome, Wincanton and Bruton. In 1851 the population reached its peak at 619.
The village school was built in 1847 and paid for by the Duke of Somerset. It was enlarged in 1888 to take 130 children. The average attendance at this time was 100. The village hall was built in 1912 and given to the village by Lord Ernest St Maur (Somerset family name) in memory of his brother Lord Percy. During the First World War it was used as a military hospital. (See below: External links – Village Hall Website, for up-to-date information.)
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the village population fell to its lowest in at least 200 years; 328 in 1991 and 335 in 2001. Consequently, the school closed in 1969. The Duke of Somerset still lives at Bradley House. The family coat of arms is displayed at the Somerset Arms public house.