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English Church Architecture -



DEERHURST, St. Mary (SO 870 300)     (July 2013)

(Bedrock: Triassic Mercia Mudstone Group, Keuper Marl)


This is one of the most important Saxon churches in England - a status scarcely apparent to the visitor approaching from the south, where the windows are Decorated in the nave clerestory and tower bell-stage, and Perpendicular in the aisle.  Close up, the first indication of its antiquity is the herringbone work in the walls, which Sir Arthur Clapham considered to be a later Anglo-Saxon or early Norman method of laying stone (English Romanesque Architecture, Vol. 1, pub. Oxford University Press, 1934), but as soon as one rounds the building to the west, the tower betrays a host of complications (as shown in the photograph, left, taken from the southwest), suggesting it was raised in three or even four stages, the lowest of which may have been part of the original eighth or even late seventh century church, before it was largely enclosed within a tenth or eleventh century shell.  Indeed, the stages through which the building passed in arriving at its present form, have clearly been numerous and convoluted, and it is impossible to give more than an outline account of them here.  The wealth of literature on sale in the church discusses most aspects of the building's architectural and art history in detail, but the glossy and expensive guide by Arnold Porter (revised edition pub. 2002) is of no help whatever to anyone in search of a logically organized exposition.


In brief then, it seems that by the end of the eighth century, a cruciform building was standing on this site, whose elaborate plan already consisted of a crossing (now the present chancel), a nave, an apse (the remains of which are illustrated below, viewed from the north), and N. & S. transepts or porticus, with the further and not precisely contemporary additions of a small porticus each side of the N. transept (east and west), a single porticus adjoining the  S. transept (east side), and a rectangular adjunct, perhaps serving a domestic purpose, projecting westwards from the nave and divided into two cells by a wall running north/south.  (See Clapham again, but also Deerhurst Above and Below Ground, by Philip Rahtz, pub. The Friends of Deerhurst Church, 2001.)   Some of the upper portions of the walls of this minster may have been constructed of timber, and their later, piecemeal reconstruction in stone, is one of the complicating factors in the interpretation of the building's history.  However, one unifying element in the work so far, appears to be the complete absence of herringbone masonry.


Ninth and tenth century alterations to the church appear to have included, besides the replacement of some of the upper parts of the structure in stone, the heightening of the western adjunct to the nave - probably now used as a porch - to provide an upper storey, and the redevelopment of the semicircular apse into a grander (and taller), semi-polygonal (seven-sided) one (Philip Rahtz).  This was the time when herringbone work was introduced and to which much of the building's sculptural detail can probably be ascribed (but see below).  It was the period responsible for the famous, double-triangular window between the nave and upper storey of the porch (shown below, first in an overall view of the W. wall of the nave and then close up).


It was left for the eleventh century - either before or after the Conquest, or both - to sweep up the transepts and porticus into aisles running from the E. wall of the crossing to the W. wall of the porch, and to raise the porch by a further two stages to form a tower capped by a saddleback roof.  The arches cut through the S. wall of the nave in the course of these operations, retain the remains of piers on the side facing the aisle.  However, these probably represent yet another, mid to late Norman, phase of the work, when the dividing walls separating the individual porticus were demolished and the S. aisle at least, opened up from east to west.  The three existing arches between the nave and aisles on both sides, are probably of early thirteenth century date, albeit hardly of standard form.  The arches carry a flat chamfer and a wave, and although the two orders of shafts below are conventional enough, the decoration around their necks is very curious:  David Verey and/or Alan Brooks (in The Buildings of England) calls it "early stiff-leaf", but that is stretching a point to destruction.   (See the two photographs below, both taken from the southwest.)



Considered in general, however, sculptural decoration around the building is more important for its age than for any other merit it might possess and includes the font (below left), which is covered in incised double spirals set in squares and supported on a base that some commentators have considered to be of another provenance entirely.  The latter have included Sir Alfred Clapham, who also saw in the spiral patterns, a design "almost identical... [to that] on a pendant found in the Trewhiddle hoard.., fortunately... very closely dated, by the accompanying coins, to about the year 875" (ibid.).  Yet Richard Bailey, writing in Anglo-Saxon Sculptures at Deerhurst (pub. The Friends of Deerhurst Church, 2005) dated the same patterns between fifty and a hundred years earlier, precisely because they are not like the decoration on the carving in the Trewhiddle metalwork, and it is obviously futile for the amateur art historian to try to mediate in disputes of this kind.  Still more acute is the disagreement between the two men over the age of the beast heads found as label stops (not necessarily in situ) in various parts of the building.  (The example illustrated below right, can be seen on the inner face of the tower W. doorway.)  Clapham thought most of them were late Saxon work, perhaps even from the post-Danish period (1042-66), but Richard Bailey argues they could date back as far as c. 800.  He, of course, writes with the benefit of seven decades of modern research, yet if anything is certain, it is probably that this is not the last word.