Saturday, March 03, 2007

Deerhurst: Priory Church of St. Mary the Virgin

The Priory Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. The building at right was part of the monastic complex; it and the church form two sides of what would have been the cloisters.

About three miles south of Tewkesbury lies the tiny village of Deerhurst. In Tewkesbury, the abbey was full of tourists, and Tewkesbury itself is a busy tourist town with traffic constantly flowing down the main street. Clara and I had Deerhurst to ourselves, and I could almost feel that I was being transported to another age. There were no other cars in Deerhurst, which lies at the end of a single-lane road, and its quiet and seclusion added to its atmosphere of antiquity. The church in Deerhurst dates back to the eighth century; in other words, it's Saxon, built before the Norman Conquest. In Saxon times, Deerhurst was an important monastery. It was here that St. Alphege (martyred 1012) began his monastic career, although he found his fellow monks at Deerhurst too lax in their observance of their vows. St. Alphege went on to become Bishop of Winchester, and ended his life as Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the early eleventh century, England was oveerrun with Danes. In 1012, the Danes raided Canterbury and took Archbishop Alphege captive. When he refused to pay a huge ransom for his release from the cathedral's funds, he was killed with an axe. Four years later, the Danish King Cnute and the English King Edmund Ironside had reached a standoff, so they met at Deerhurst to negotiate a division of the kingdom between them.

The Saxon Church

A Saxon carving of the Virgin and Child over the front door.

A Saxon carving inside the front door.

The view toward the chancel. Notice the two filled-in Saxon windows flanking the later (Tudor) window. The arch behind the altar once opened into a (now ruined) apse.

The view back toward the front door. Notice the pointed Saxon double window.

The finest surviving Anglo-Saxon baptismal font.

Medieval Treasures

In the middle of the eleventh century, The Deerhust priory became attached to the Abbey of St. Denis in France, and most of its revenues went to the mother abbey. During the Hundred Years War, this association with France caused Deerhurst to be labeled an "alien house," and Henry VI confiscated its wealth. Nevertheless, the church still contains two remarkable medieval survivals: a fourteenth-century stained glass window depicting Sts. Catherine and Alphege, and some superb medieval brasses of Sir John Cassey and his wife, Dame Alice (ca. 1400). Brass rubbing is still permitted, upon approval. The photographs below are high-quality, and can be clicked for an enlargement and more detail. Unfortunately, the stained glass does not appear to be in very good condition.

Detail of the fourteenth-century glass: St. Catherine with her wheel.

The Cassey Brass. At Dame Alice's feet is a dog, bearing the inscription "Terri;" this is a very rare example of a named pet from medieval times.

Odda's Chapel, Deerhurst.

Deerhurst is unusual in that it has two Saxon churches. The second is a small chapel, known as Odda's Chapel, built by a Saxon earl in 1056. A dedication stone found nearby (now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) says, in Latin: "Earl Odda ordered this royal hall to be built and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity and for the soul of his brother Aelfric, who died in this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it on 12 April. The fourteenth year of Edward, King of the English." The chapel was discovered in the nineteenth century under the Elizabethan plaster of the attached house.

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