Deerhurst, Gloucester – Odda’s Chapel and St Mary the Virgin

Deerhurst is a small hamlet just into Gloucestershire, and has two fascinating churches which we visited on Sunday 26 May. Odda’s Chapel SO 870299 is an English Heritage site – https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/oddas-chapel/. There is evidence of Roman and Saxon occupation in the vicinity, and the parish church is part of a C7 Abbey. The existence of this chapel was unknown until 1865 when it was discovered by the Reverend George Butterworth. He gets his picture on the EH display board, and I love the idea that when he meets St Peter this will be the first thing on the list. There was an entry in the medieval chronicle of Tewkesbury Abbey which described a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity that stood opposite the gateway to Deerhurst Priory.

They also had Odda’s Stone, found in 1675. It said ‘Earl Odda had this Royal Hall built and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity for the soul of his brother Aelfric, which left the body in this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it the second of the Ides of April in the fourteenth year of the reign of Edward, King of the English.’ The original is in Oxford.

Earl Odda was related to Edward the Confessor. For a short time he was responsible for the government of an area of SW England. His brother, Aelfric, in whose memory the building was erected, had died here three years earlier. The chapel went out of use in the C13.

I said hello to a lovely squirrel as I walked to the Priory church of St Mary the Virgin. It is many years since I have been here. Two useful websites, http://www.apperley-deerhurst.co.uk/deerhurst-church.html# and https://deerhurstfriends.co.uk/, and a very good guidebook.

You walk up the path, approaching the church from the south, through the floodgates, with Priory Farmhouse on your left. Their garden was looking lovely.

This is an ancient religious site – the oldest masonry dates to about 700. Tradition has it that Eanfrith, a Hwiccian king, had a daughter Ebba who was a Christian – you can read more about them at www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsBritain/EnglandHwicce.htm (we’re in the mid-600s). A century or so later we are (to quite the guide) “on much firmer ground with the family of Aethelmund and his son Aethelric, ealdormen of the Hwicce.” Aethelmund was killed at the Battle of Kempsford in 802. At some point in his youth Aethelric had been to Rome and was impressed by the great churches he saw – “I want my own beside the Severn”. Either Aethelric or his father may have been the representative of King Offa at the Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne in 800. Just think about that for a moment – a group of people planning a Coronation remembered to invite some chap from Wales, the letter arrived, and someone was sent. How about I retire and go and retrace the journey? It is probable that both Aethelmund and Aethelric are buried at Deerhurst.

Alphege, c953 to 1012, was professed monk at Deerhurst, then went to be a hermit at Weston, near Bath. He then became Abbot of Bath, Bishop of Winchester in 984, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006. He was killed by the Danes in 1012 – the first Martyr of Canterbury. Four years later the Treaty of Deerhurst made peace between English and Dane (and said how much tribute the English should pay to Cnut’s army. In 1017 Cnut (Canute) became King of all England. Edward the Confessor gave Deerhurst to his favourite foundation, the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. By 1100 the pre-eminence of Deerhurst had been overtaken by Evesham, Tewkesbury and other nearby abbeys. English Kings were not too pleased that the revenues from Deerhurst were going to the French, and Henry VI confiscated the lands and gave them to his new foundation of Eton College. In 1440 it became a simple cell of Tewkesbury Abbey.

Priory Farmhouse was the east wing of the medieval cloister, and you enter the church through the west door. The tower is pre-Norman (though there are several building stages and a C14 opening at the bell stage), and the west door is C14 (though you can see traces of the Saxon arch).

When you enter the light, high church, your eyes are drawn to the left, to the amazing Saxon font. It is the finest Saxon font is existence says the guide, and I don’t think I’d argue with that (though the pedestal of the one in Rothbury gives it a run for its money). It was discovered about 120 years ago being used as a drinking trough in a local farm. It was brought back to the church and reunited with its stem which bears the same pattern.

There is something amazing about an Incumbents Board that goes back almost a thousand years.

This is a church which would give an architectural history shivers down the spine – I love that some of the Saxon masonry is still visible. There is an amazing sense of continuity – no doubt the world of Conquest and tyrants and Black Death and Dissolution seemed just as godless as the world of Brexit and Boris.

There will also come a time when plastic chairs are no more.

Say hello to these Saxon faces. Originally they were on the outside of the door, and at some time were covered in plaster. There is a drawing of the church with two strange knobs either side of the door. During the C19 they were de-plastered, and moved inside.

I went outside where you can see the shape of the apse (this is what Ponteland would have had), and high on the wall is the Deerhurst angel. Nice to know he/she/it is looking down on us.

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