Thursday, 5 March 2015

Deerhurst Saxon Priory - now St. Mary's Parish Church


St. Mary's Deerhurst is unique in that it still retains much of its Anglo-Saxon origins making it an exceptional survival. The founding date is 800 AD, but building work is thought to have begun much earlier. First impressions of St.Mary's are deceptive as most of the original Anglo-Saxon church, apart from the tower, is hidden behind the clerestory perpendicular windows which sit above a long row of Tudor aisle windows.
Alongside the church sits Priory Farmhouse which occupies some of the domestic buildings that were once part of the medieval priory. The Saxon apse at the back of the church and to the side of the farmhouse is ruined, and excavation work carried out in that area has revealed Roman pottery indicating a high status Roman building. It, therefore, seems logical that the church was built on top of the Roman building and that bits of it were incorporated into the church.
River Severn indicated by black arrow
Some 1400 years ago Saxon's sailed up the River Severn which makes its way through these meadows, and founded a mission on this very spot. Others continued on up the river to Tewkesbury and Worcester. The name Tewkesbury comes from Theoc, a Saxon who founded a hermitage there in the C7th. In Worcester the Saxons took over an old Roman settlement by a ford in the River Severn. The Saxons called a Roman settlement a ceaster. They called this one Weogoran ceaster, meaning people of the winding river, eventually the name became Worcester. Worcester has one of our great cathedrals and Tewkesbury has a magnificent Abbey with the finest romanesque tower in the country.
This is all that remains of the ruined apse, but behind the wall to the left is what is known as 'The Deerhurst Angel' a celebrated piece of Anglo-Saxon sculpture
The details in the head and wings of the angel are very similar to figures depicted in the Book of Cerne, a Mercurian manuscript circa 830 held in Cambridge University Library
On entering the church porch it pays to look up above the secondary entry door into the church
This limestone carving of the Virgin and Child is C9th. The central section with a shield carried by the Virgin would have contained a painted image of the Christ child. To my eye this has a contemporary feel about it reminding me of Eric Gill's work. I love the Virgin's tiny feet clinging to the ledge for support. 
This font is as rare as 'hen's teeth'. It is the finest Saxon font in existence dating from the C9th, and was carved from a single block of limestone.
In 1653 when the front was 800 years old it was discarded, and disappeared for 200 years. It was rediscovered in 1843 on a local farm where it was being used as a drinking trough for cattle. The base was also rediscovered some 26 years later when it was found at a local Inn. The two parts were then happily married back together again where they now sit in the Baptistry. The spiral pattern is not just decorative but was designed to give protection from the devil, who it was thought was only capable of moving in straight lines. This iconography is widespread in several cultures - Celts, Norse and the early Christians.
On either side of the door leading into the church are two Saxon beasts. Local legend has it that they are representations of a mythical beast known as the 'Deerhurst Dragon'. If you look closely you can still see the remains of their original paintwork
The interior of the church is very light and bright mainly because most of the windows are plain glass. The blocked Saxon arch is the same arch that can be seen outside in the ruined apse
This is a section of stained glass from the only decorated window. It is C15th medieval glass and shows St. Alphege who was born in 953 and who began his monastic life in Deerhurst, where he is reputed to have found the regime too lax. He moved away to live near Bristol and became Abbot of Bath and then Bishop of Winchester. Later, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he was captured and ransomed by the Danes, but forbade the ransom and was killed in 1012. The church honoured the millennium of his martyrdom by creating a small chapel within the church below this window.
The West wall of the Saxon tower showing numerous Saxon features - the Normans knocked out the nave walls to form side aisles, the present arcading is Early English 
I know of only one other church that has these unique Saxon triangular double opening windows
The North-West corner of the nave, formerly a side chapel, showing typical Anglo-Saxon herringbone masonry. The blocked doorway led to the apse
Details in the Early English Gothic arches

40 comments:

  1. What a wonderful place. I will go and see it if I am down Gloucestershire way. I particularly really love the font. It seems like a wonderful place to cycle on a summer day, to have a picnic in the churchyard.

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    1. A perfect place for you to visit with your bike Jenny - quiet roads and not too hilly. There are also some lovely walks from the spot along the river bank and also across the meadows.

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  2. Hello Rosemary,

    It certainly lifts the spirits to see such an ancient church so beautifully preserved with such a wealth of carving. Although essentially quite plain, there are so many wonderful details upon which to feast the eye. As you say, the carving of the Virgin and Child could be contemporary, reminiscent indeed of Eric Gill's work so many centuries later.

    And, it is set in the most glorious countryside. Could there be any scene more English?

    Thank you for introducing us to this ancient place of worship, about which we knew nothing. It is an absolute must for a visit should we find ourselves ever in the vicinity.

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    1. Dear Jane and Lance - I learnt about Deerhurst when we first moved here nineteen years ago, and it has taken me all this time to visit. Having found it, I shall definitely return, as there are some lovely walks in the area. I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing Deerhurst and would now like to go there yourselves if in the area.

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  3. I love all the little details you find, and how you connect all you know to other places around the country. Imagine being the person who found the font on the farm. Like finding treasure.

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    1. Thank you Katharine - you must have guessed that I like the little details especially if they bring the history to life for me. Our house is built on what was a Roman camp and I originally I had dreams of digging up some Roman treasures until I discovered that the ground beneath our feet was almost solid oolitic limestone.

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  4. Dear Rosemary,
    I so enjoy reading these posts. Parts of English history I don't know about.
    The church indeed is very very special. Showing architecture of the different eras, so very interesting . The Virgin and child is beautiful .. I would imagine some roman ruins could be well beneath the church.!
    The church of St. Mary's is in a beautiful field and is well kept.
    Most enjoyable.. thank you.
    valx

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    1. Dear Val - Thank you very much for your very kind comment, and I am so pleased that you enjoyed these two posts. These two Saxon buildings live in a very quiet pretty spot, and the area must almost be the same as it has been for the past 1500 years.

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  5. So lovely to see Rosemary. Good that's is been preserved all these years and great that's it's being used.
    Regards,
    Margaret

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    1. It is fortunate that there is a local community that takes an interest in these buildings which helps them to continue to be used.

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  6. What a wonderful church - I must admit I have seen nothing like it before - I love the simplicity of it and the uniqueness of it too - you have pointed out some beautiful features - a really interesting post Rosemary - thank you.

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    1. Thank you Elaine - it was an exploration for me too as it was my first visit. I really enjoyed discovering all the details and especially finding the angel hidden on the wall outside.

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  7. Dear Rosemary,

    Now that you've mentioned the herringbone pattern, I also see it in theimages of the outside. I am glad that the interior has been left with plain white walls — they really accentuate the Saxon architectural details beautifully. I keep going back and staring at the eyes of the Deerhurst Dragons, and those darkened snouts. I wonder if it was good luck to touch them?

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    1. Dear Mark - This is the legend of the Deerhurst dragon.
      The dragon was covered in impenetrable scales and fed on livestock. It killed villagers with its deadly breath. It was finally slain by a local labourer, the exotically named John Smith.
      John set out a trough of milk for the dragon who greedily drank the lot. After its meal, the creature stretched out to sleep. Whilst sleeping, the dragon ruffled up its scales in the manner of a bird fluffing its feathers. Seeing his chance John took up an axe and struck between the beast’s scales, hacking off the monster’s head.
      Whether there is any luck connected with touching the dragons snout I am not too sure, but I expect that people over the centuries must think there is.

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  8. So magnificent! I love the baptismal font and the beasts especially.

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    1. It is quite difficult to grasp just how old these pieces are.

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  9. Hello Rosemary, Naturally, my favorite details here are the Deerhurst dragons, which do look a lot like boars to me. Interesting how so many of the strayed fragments remained local--today, discarded or re-purposed pieces would have been distributed around the world, with much less chance of their being reclaimed.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - the same thought crossed through mind too. It is only in recent history that the world has become so small. The dragons must have looked very different when they still had their paintwork, but the carved details are very good considering how old they are.

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  10. What an incredible church with so many amazing details. The angel is incredibly beautiful I think, and those triangular windows are so unusual aren't they!! Wow! xx

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    1. I agree about the angel Amy, and how wonderful to think that it is about 1200 years old

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  11. I enjoyed my visit and reading your post about this interesting place, the weather was kind to you.

    All the best Jan

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    1. Thanks Jan - I must admit that the morning was so lovely that we just dropped everything, made a picnic and went out to make the most of the day.

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  12. A fascinating church with interesting early treasures, now on my "must see" list! St Alphege is a familiar name - my school classroom once looked out on St Alphege Road and I must admit I daydreamed about his strange name & who he might be when lessons were boring!

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    1. I had never heard of St. Alphege before Nilly, let alone the fact that he was an early English Archbishop of Canterbury and a martyr too .

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    1. Thank you, I appreciate your comment

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  14. What a wonderful place to explore Rosemary. On my brief visits to England I was mainly aware of Tudor/gothic history, and don't remember anything from the Saxon era. It amazes me to think these things are still there in situ to be admired, and I absolutely love the Virgin and Child with the sweet little feet, the font (an incredibly lucky story of survival), the dragons, and the very unusual Saxon triangular double window. Another one to go on the list if we ever go back to the UK. Thank you for sharing it all.

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    1. Most of very our old parish churches have Saxon foundations and bits of from that era still remain in many of them, but it is very unusual to still find almost the complete church, so Odd's chapel and the Priory are quite special. The invaders, known by historians as Anglo-Saxons were a mixture of Saxon, Angles, and Jutes. They were people from north Germany, northern Holland, and Denmark. My personal opinion is that their creative and artist stone sculpture is still prevalent today in Scandinavian design.

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  15. Amazing how well preserved all this is . A beautiful step back in time thanks to your photos. Wish you a nice weekend.

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    1. Thank you Jane - it is a very fortunate survival.

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  16. Dear Rosemary, the Anglo-Saxon sculptures and buildings are very impressing - I always feel they go right to the heart, as that Angel. Love it!
    And of course the lovely snowdrops on the peacefull cemetry. The last photo of the church looks like the prototype of an English church that every BBC drama shows. And: thank you for teaching me something about Worcester (afterI learned years ago how to pronounce it :-)

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    1. Dear Britta - Glad you can pronounce Worcester Britta - I suspect that the many idiosyncratic peculiarities in English hold many pitfalls for the language student. I remember being in Madeira when our guide pointed out a Christmas street nativity scene - she said 'look it has goats and sheeps in it.' Her remark was logical of course, I wonder why we do not have sheeps?

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  17. Interesting and really great pictures Rosemary! A tour in history...
    Love,
    Titti

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    1. I enjoyed discovering the history on our lovely day out Titti - I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing the pictures.

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  18. You get to know the history of their country. It's appreciated. Great opisłaś church and very interesting pictures dodałaś. Regards.

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    1. Thanks Giga - Lovely to hear from you

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  19. Hello again, Rosemary. Nice to know such a fascinating church is well preserved. The countryside is also beautiful. Spiral pattern is seen on the bell-shaped bronze vessels of ancient times starting in 2 to 3rd century in my country and seem to have magico-religious meaning. The possible reason behind the spiral pattern (evil’s only moving straight) in your culture is interesting.

    Yoko

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    1. The patterns also remind me of Japanese gravel gardens which often have similar spirals raked into them

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    2. Another glorious church to add to my must-visit list, Rosemary. I love the austere simplicity of its light-filled interior and the wonderful Saxon details. Looking at the ancient stonework in the NW corner of the nave, it seems highly likely that some of those stones were reused from the Roman building which first stood on the site.

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    3. I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing this lovely Saxon church Perpetua, and I am sure that you are right about reusing the stone from the Roman building, much like Wroxeter which we visited last year.

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