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DEERHURST, St. Mary  (SO 870 300),

GLOUCESTERSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Triassic Mercia Mudstone Group, Keuper Marl.)

 

Gloucestershire's most important Saxon church and a highly confusing one at that.  Reader beware!

 

This is one of the most important Saxon churches in England - a status scarcely apparent to the visitor approaching from the south, where nave clerestory and tower bell-openings are Decorated, and the aisle windows, Perpendicular.  Close to, however, the first indication of the building's true antiquity is provided by 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: Before the Conquest, Oxford,  Oxford University Press, 1934, p. 107), and 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 (The Priory Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Deerhurst, Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates, 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 seems to have been standing on this site, whose elaborate plan already consisted of a central space or pseudo-crossing (in the position of the present chancel), a nave, an apse (the remains of which are illustrated below, viewed from the north), and N. & S. 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 Philip Rahtz, Deerhurst Above and Below Ground, 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 to this date, appears to be the complete absence of herringbone masonry.

 

Ninth and tenth century alterations to the church seem subsequently 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, the redevelopment of the semicircular apse into a grander (and taller), semi-polygonal (seven-sided) one (Philip Rahtz), and the erection of more porticus, abutting each other north and south of the apse and nave, but chiefly on the north side.  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 motley collection of 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 three arches cut through the N. & S. walls of the nave in the course of these operations, reveal the remains of earlier piers on the sides facing the aisle.  In the form today they are probably early thirteenth century in date, though 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 volume of The Buildings of England for the Vale of Gloucester and the Forest of Dean, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002,  ) calls it 'early stiff-leaf', but that is stretching the definition to the point 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 which Sir Alfred Clapham considered 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., p. 129), and Richard Bailey, writing in Anglo-Saxon Sculptures at Deerhurst (The Friends of Deerhurst Church, 2005, p. 20) dated three quarters of a century earlier, precisely because it is not like the decoration on the carving in the Trewhiddle metalwork.  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), while Richard Bailey argues they could date back as far as c. 800.  He, of course, writes with the benefit of seven further decades of modern archaeological research, yet if anything is reasonably certain, it is probably that this is not the last word.