St. Mary's Church, Deerhurst
Founded circa AD 800
Deerhurst is a tiny little village, remarkable in that within it stand, not one, but two Saxon places of worship. First you approach the parish church of St. Mary in the centre of the village, a large towered building alongside a picturesque farmhouse. At first glance, it looks a typical medieval building with several windows added in the Tudor period. The church was part of a priory complex. There was a cloister to the south and the present farmhouse was part of the surrounding monastic buildings, probably the monks' dormitory. It is still actually joined to the church. The tower appears quite plain from a distance, but walk round to the main west door and examine it more closely. The church's ancient origins soon become obvious. Herringbone masonry, crude animal head busts and a high doorway opening into nowhere for relic display: Deerhurst is one of the finest remaining Saxon Churches in the country. If you walk all around the church to the eastern end, there is further evidence of Saxon work with the remains of a polygonal ninth century apse. It is adorned, on the south side, with a beautiful angel carving: the last of a series of decorative panels that demonstrate the quality of embellishments lavished on this important building.
Little is known of the history of the place. Architecturally, it appears to have been established in the late seventh century, but there are no records of its existence before 804. That year, Aethelric, son of Earl Aethelmund of Hwicce (a Saxon sub-kingdom covering this area) granted the priory a very large area of land and made known his desire to be buried there. It has been suggested that the priory was always the main church of the Hwicce and that there Kings were traditionally buried here. It was certainly the scene of important political events like the 1016 signing of the treaty between Kings Edmund Ironside and Canute which divided England in two.
It is the church itself which tells us most about the building's story. It started as a rectangular building with a western porch in the late seventh century. A circular apse and side chapels were added early the following century. In the 9th century the apse was rebuilt as a polygon and individual chapels extended all the way down both sides. The 10th century saw the western porch extended to form a tower and it is from here that you enter St. Mary's.
Inside, on the wall opposite, there is an early carving of the Virgin and Child with traces of its original paintwork still intact. It may have come from the ruined apse. As you move forward towards the nave, turn to examine the very fine wolf-head dripstone terminals either side of the doorway. They were very sensibly moved here from the outside wall in 1860 to protect them from the ravages of the British weather. There are further Saxon wolf-heads either side of the altar. In puritan times, this was placed centrally in the church, hence the survival of the unique pew arrangement at the eastern end of the building. The main features of the nave are the exceptional examples of Early English arcading with delightfully carved corbels and capitals, but turn again and look up at the western church wall for more Saxon details. The highest feature is a possible dedication stone. Below this sits what is said to be the "finest, most elaborate opening in any Saxon Church": certainly an excellent example of Saxon pointed windows. Then there is a bizarre triangular window next to a small Saxon doorway which opened onto a western gallery. The old Saxon building was largely based on two storeys. On the ground-floor is a good Saxon archway.
The north and south aisles house further treasures. The western window of the latter has what remains of the church's impressive array of old glass. St. Catherine is easily identified with her famous wheel. She dates from around 1300. Accompanying her is a mid 15th century depiction of St. Alphege, an 11th century monk from the priory who rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury and was martyred by the Danes. There are also arms of the De Clare Lords of Tewkesbury, kneeling members of the De Hautville family and 'Suns-in-Splendour' indicating the parish's Yorkist sympathies during the Wars of the Roses. In the north aisle is the superb ninth century font, rescued last century from a farmyard. It shows heavy Welsh influence being decorated mainly with so-called Celtic Trumpet Spirals. The Strickland memorial window nearby shows the family's turkey crest. An ancestor is said to have accompanied the Cabots to America and introduced the bird to Britain on their return. Further east are the handsome brasses of the Cassey family from Wightfield Manor. Sir John was Chief Lord of the Exchequer in the late 14th century, but it is the little dog at the feet of his wife which draws attention. It is obviously the depiction of a specific family pet, for he is named as 'Terri': the only example of a named animal on any memorial brass. The walls of the church in this area were stripped in 1973 to show the Saxon stonework. They give a fascinating insight into the building's original form, showing two of the doorways to the numerous side chapels or 'portici' and holes for the wooden Saxon scaffolding!
See also: Odda's Chapel
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