By Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 182
THE PRIORY Church of St Mary the Virgin at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, is one of our very best and most complete Anglo-Saxon churches, ranking with Brixworth in importance. It was one Anglo-Saxon church that I’d actually heard of before I began to get seriously interested in them and I took my indulgent husband and children there years ago when we lived nearby in Worcestershire but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate how much of it was Anglo-Saxon. The beast heads on the chancel arch and inner west doorway, for example, are so perfect (and still have traces of paint on them) that I couldn’t believe they were that old!
The village of Deerhurst lies four miles south west of Tewkesbury on a spur above the river Severn. As it did in Anglo-Saxon times, the river presents a flood risk. Nowadays you drive through the flood gates to park beside Odda’s Chapel (of which more later); then, the boundary ditch of the monastery (the “Vallum monasterii “) probably doubled up as a flood defence. The river, however, must have been the reason for the development of the monastic settlement as it was the artery to the Bristol Channel and the wider World.
The name “Deerhurst” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “deor”, meaning deer, and “hyrst “, a wooded hillock. The village is tiny these days too small for a pub as a friendly local remarked to me when I visited last August and it is dominated by its large, wonderful church.
Bede may well have meant Deerhurst when he referred to a minster in Hwiccan territory, but the church’s documented history starts in 804 when it was given a substantial gift of land by Ealdorman Æthelric of the Hwicce, whose father, Æthelmund, was buried there in 802. Enriched by Æthelric’s gift, Deerhurst subsequently expanded and became one of the most important monasteries in the area, holding lands in the High Cotswolds, Bredon Hill (Worcs) and the Avon Valley, as well as 66 hides round the settlement of Deerhurst itself. St Alphege (953 1012), the Archbishop of Canterbury martyred by the Danes, was a monk here. The Treaty of Deerhurst, which divided England between Edmund Ironside and Cnut after the Battle of Assandun, was signed in 1016, showing that Deerhurst was a very important place by then. Later in the century the estate was owned by Earl Odda, but when he died in 1056 it reverted to the King, Edward the Confessor. Edward then gave it to his favourite abbey, St Denis in Paris. This hastened the decline in the fortunes of Deerhurst and by 1100 its pre-eminence had been overtaken by other local foundations such as Tewkesbury, Winchcombe and Evesham. In the 15th century King Henry VI confiscated its lands, as its revenues had been passing out of the country during the Hundred Years’ War, and it was given to Eton College. In 1440 it became a cell of Tewkesbury Abbey.
Many of Deerhurst’s Anglo-Saxon features were rediscovered during major restoration work in 1861-2 by the Rev George Butterworth. More recently, in 2006, a painted figure of a saint carrying a book was discovered in a stone panel high up on the east wall of the nave. It is probably 10th century in date and may be the oldest wall painting in any church in Great Britain. However, it is not really visible from ground level.
Although the present Anglo-Saxon fabric of St Mary the Virgin dates from the early 9th to the 11th centuries (with some earlier masonry in the nave), the church was founded in the 8th century, when tradition tells us that Ebba, daughter of King Eanfrith of the Hwicce, retired here after becoming a widow. But the site is even older. Rahtz (2000) describes five phases in its development. In the first phase it was possibly a Roman military site, with a later villa nearby. Pre-4th century cremation urns were found under the nave of the church in the 19th century, suggesting this was a pre-Christian sacred place. Other Roman finds have turned up in excavations, such as tile, mortar and crushed brick in the foundations of the west wall.
The first church, built in the 7th to 8th centuries as a minster in the territory of the Hwicce, was a basic rectangle consisting of a nave and chancel with a porch added to its west end.
In the 8th century, a semi-circular apse was added with flanking porticus, or side chapels, at either side of the east end. On the north side was a triple porticus, the central one of which had 2 storeys. The eastern one beyond it (now gone) was of one storey and the western one was an entry porticus (porticus ingressus). The south side had a similar arrangement, though possibly without an entry porticus.
The apogee of the church came in the late 8th to 10th centuries (Rahtz’ phase 4), following Æthelric’s grant, when the basic rectangle, already tall, was heightened. A 7-sided polygonal apse replaced the semi-circular one and it had blind arcades separated by strip work; each of the 7 arches being triangular with (probably) a sculpture of an archangel within it of which one remains (see below). The double-headed window, which appears in all the text books, was inserted into the west wall of the nave and lit a major second floor chamber in the porch / tower. Incidentally, one of the stones in this window contains a Roman Lewis hole! The fabulous beast heads date from this period too.
In phase 5, the 10th to 11th centuries, the porticus were extended the whole length of the church, even flanking the tower on the north side, but probably not the south. The porch / tower, whose construction spans all the phases of the church’s development, was raised to its present height possibly after 1066. There is a complex of different floor levels within the church, due to evolving functions in the growing Benedictine monastery. There are also 17 doorways! Putlog holes in the walls are left over from their construction only they are not holes. The wood was sawn off flush with the walls and lies in situ rather handy for radiocarbon dating!
So, approaching the village from the Tewkesbury direction, the church stands out, in the flatlands of the Severn Vale. Its height is remarkable and, as you get nearer, you can see the original roof line as a scar on the tower, showing that once the walls and roof were even higher.
Walking up the path to the church, and deciding to view the outside first, the tower attracts the eye. It is 21m (70ft) tall and it is all Anglo-Saxon apart from its 14th century belfry. It started out as an 8th century porch then grew as the church expanded! Standing at the west door, you see an Anglo-Saxon arch with a 14th century doorway within it. A 9th century monster head (or prokrossos) looms above the arch. Higher up the wall is another doorway, with another monster head, much eroded, above that. This doorway, now blocked, would have led to an external balcony from which the priest could maybe have displayed holy relics for the faithful to see without being able to touch them. Different phases in construction of the tower can be discerned by changes in the stonework, including layers of herringbone masonry.
Continuing along the church’s north side, you come to the foundations of the apse. The arch leading to it from the chancel, although intact, is filled in and has become an outside wall. Some of the masonry of the apse survives on its south side and high up on this is the Deerhurst Angel. This famous carving, perhaps originally one of seven, has enormous staring eyes with stylised wings and hair, which are suggestive of Celtic influence. The present day farmhouse was probably the refectory of the monastery and its lawn the cloister garth.
Returning to the west door and entering, you see immediately, over the inner doorway, a carving of the Virgin Mary. It looks modern in its simplicity, but it is not. It is 9th century. Originally painted, she holds a shield in front of her, on which would have been an image of the Christ Child. Jesus is here being depicted as a child in the womb, rather than a babe in arms; this unusual iconography has origins in the eastern Mediterranean.
Go through this doorway, then look back at its arch. You now see two incredible beast heads, one each side of the hood moulding. They still have traces of paint on them and their eyes and nostrils may have contained coloured glass. They are also 9th century, but look too perfect to be that old!
Go through the next arch, which is also Anglo-Saxon, then you are in the nave. Look back at the west wall and you see one of the most celebrated sights surviving from Anglo-Saxon times. At ground level is the doorway you’ve just come through, with a glimpse of the beast label stops we’ve just looked at beyond. On the next level are two corbels, which would have supported the former western gallery, with a blocked doorway, which would have led into it and small triangular windows (one on this wall and one each on the south and north walls of the nave) which would have provided light for it. Up a level again and you see the 9th century double-headed window, beyond which would have been the bell chamber. This window is possibly the most well-known Anglo-Saxon window of all. Above the window is a large rectangular stone, which was is likely to have been a dedication stone.
The nave is 18m (60ft) long and 6.4m (21ft) wide, with walls only 0.76m (30ins) thick. Its walls were pierced by 6 arches in about 1200 and clerestory windows in around 1500, when the roof was lowered, but originally it was accessed via doorways from the porticus.
The present chancel was originally the crossing between the nave and the apse. Behind the altar is the massive, now blocked, arch to the apse which we noted from the outside. The arch has beast head label stops, still carrying traces of paint, like their fellows over the inner porch doorway. Corbels at first floor level and blocked doorways on the east wall show that there was an eastern gallery in this church as well as a western one. Flat-headed doorways on the north and south walls of the chancel gave access to porticus. The upper, roundheaded windows in the same walls were openings from the upper floors of the two central porticus from which folk could observe the Mass at the high altar. These upper floors were originally built of timber, later replaced by stone. The triangular doorway into the north porticus incorporates a reused grave cover.
In the north porticus (now the eastern end of the north aisle), square niches in the walls were aumbry cupboards for storing sacramental goods. The now blocked flat-headed door led to the (ruined) north east porticus. There is also a rather good medieval brass on the floor.
Finally, we mustn’t forget the font, which is the finest Anglo-Saxon font in existence. Originally possibly part of a cross shaft subsequently hollowed out, it is carved from a piece of oolitic limestone and dates to around 800. It is exquisitely decorated with spiral, vine scroll and animal motifs.
As if an exceptional church is not enough, a short stroll away is Odda’s Chapel. It deserves an article to itself, but, briefly, it was built by Earl Odda in 1056 (we know this because its dedication stone survives) in memory of his brother, Ælfric. Only rediscovered in the 19th century (it is still attached to a farmhouse), it is an Anglo-Saxon time capsule.
There is so much to see at Deerhurst believe it or not, I’ve tried to be brief! It is such an amazing place. If you only ever visit just one Anglo-Saxon church, let it be this one. It is open every day.
Edmondson, D. Anglo-Saxon England in 100 Places. Amberley. Stroud. 2014
Hooke, D. The Anglo-Saxon Landscape of North Gloucestershire. 7th Deerhurst Lecture. Friends of Deerhurst Church. 1990
Points, G. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Church Architecture and Anglo-Scandinavian Stone Sculpture. Rihtspell Publishing. 2015
Porter, A. The Priory Church of St Mary the Virgin at Deerhurst. R J L Smith and Associates. Much Wenlock. 2002
Rahtz, P. Deerhurst Above and Below Ground. Deerhurst Lecture 2000. Friends of Deerhurst Church. 2001
Taylor, H.M. Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Vol lll. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1978