St Mary's Church in the village of Deerhurst, nine miles north of Gloucester on the River Severn, is a fascinating mix of English architectural styles ranging from Saxon to Tudor. The Saxon details are especially rare and notable.
The spiral-carved font is one of the oldest in England; other notable details include ancient Saxon sculptures, two fine brasses, Early English capitals, and some medieval stained glass. Deerhurst is also home to Odda's Chapel, an English Heritage monument.
History of the Church of St Mary
The Anglo-Saxons founded a mission in Deerhurst in the late 7th century, on their way north along the river from Gloucester to Tewkesbury and Worcester. This date is based on archaeology; the first historical mention of the priory is not until 804.
In 804, Aethelric, son of Earl Aethelmund of Hwicce (a Saxon sub-kingdom covering this area) granted St Mary's Priory a great deal of land and requested burial there. It is possible St Mary's Priory was the main church of the Hwicce and their kings were all buried here.
Whether this is the case or not, it was at least the scene of important political events, including the 1016 treaty between the kings Edmund Ironside and Canute that divided England in two.
The original 7th-century church was a simple rectangular structure with a west porch. A round apse and side chapels were added in the 8th century, and in the 9th century the apse was rebuilt and chapels extended the entire length of the church. The tower was erected in the 10th century.
Additions and modifications were made to the minster in nearly every subsequent period of English architecture, but very little was demolished in the process. The result is an interesting patchwork effect that, as Simon Jenkins put it, "is a delight to the detective."
What to See at the Church of St Mary
On approaching the church, on a gravel lane that leads past an adjacent farmhouse, it is the newer parts that are first visible. The clerestory is Perpendicular Gothic and the aisle windows are Tudor. But a closer look reveals a church with a rather unusual shape, resulting from the tall narrow Saxon nave that forms its core.
Walk around to the back of the church to the east end, where the foundations of a 9th-century apse are clearly visible. There was originally a cloister to the south of the building and the adjoining farmhouse once formed part of the monastic buildings.
Helpful signs direct you to a hidden treasure back here: a 10th-century Saxon carving of an angel high on the south wall of the ruined apse. This is the only survivor of a full series of decorated panels around the outside of the apse.
The west front features the 10th-century Saxon tower in the center, a tall narrow structure of rubble masonry squeezed between the later side aisles. On the interior wall of the tower, don't miss (as I sadly did) the 8th-century Saxon sculpture of the Madonna and Child. The flat surface of the abstract figure was once brightly painted.
On the other side of the doorway are a pair of wolf-head dripstone terminals, moved here from the exterior in 1860. There are further Saxon wolf-heads on either side of the altar.
Inside, the walls have been whitewashed but numerous Saxon features have been left exposed. In all, there are at least 30 Saxon doorways, windows and other openings in the building. The most interesting are those in the west wall of the nave: a double triangular opening is said to represent the eyes of God; and a small doorway that leads to nowhere was used to expose relics. The Saxon chancel arch has been preserved in the east wall.
The Normans knocked out the nave walls to form side aisles, but the present arcades are Early English. They have a fine collection of capitals, carved with designs from stiff-leaf to arabesque. A couple of them include a face looking out from among the foliage.
The north aisle is home to the 9th-century font, carved from golden stone and decorated in a unique trumpet-spiral design showing strong Welsh influences. This is reputedly one of the oldest surviving fonts in England.
At the front of the north aisle are two ancient brasses, one depicting St Anne teaching the young Virgin Mary to read and the other dedicated to Sir John Cassey and his wife. Mrs Cassey's dog lies at her feet, labeled with the name Terri. This is the only known brass to include a named pet. The walls around the brasses were stripped in 1974 to reveal the original Saxon stonework, which includes two doorways to side chapels.
The south aisle west window has some medieval stained glass, including a beautiful and much-reproduced depiction of St. Catherine of Alexandria holding her wheel under a Gothic canopy (c.1300). Next to her is a c.1450 depiction of St Alphege, an 11th century monk from the priory who became Archbishop of Canterbury and was martyred by the Danes.
Deerhurst's other Saxon building, Odda's Chapel, is just down the lane from the church.
By car:From the A28 between Gloucester and Tewkesbury, turn onto the B4213 and follow the signs for Deerhurst and Odda's Chapel. The church is on the right as you approach the gate to Odda's Chapel.
By bus: From Tewkesbury, take the #351 bus to Gloucester (Mon-Sat) or the #41 to Cheltenham (Sun), both of which stop within a mile of Deerhurst.
On foot: Deerhurst is just two miles from Tewkesbury along footpaths across fields and along the Severn River.
Quick Facts on the Church of St Mary
|Names:||Church of St Mary · Deerhurst Church · Deerhurst Parish Church · St Mary's Priory · The Church of St Mary|
|Categories:||churches; Grade I listed buildings; England's Thousand Best Churches: Four Stars|
|Styles:||Gothic; Normans; Anglo-Saxon Era|
|Dates:||7th, 10th, 13th centuries|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.968000° N, 2.190000° W|
|Hours:||Open daily, year-round|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of St Mary|
- Personal visit (October 15, 2007).
- Simon Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches (Penguin Books, 2000), 211.
- The Rough Guide to England 7 (May 2006), 376.
- Deerhurst - St Mary's Priory - Gloucestershire County Council
- Deerhurst: A Village with Two Saxon Churches! - Britannia
Map of the Church of St Mary, Deerhurst
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Church of St Mary. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.