St Mary’s Priory Church

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This timeless old church, surrounded by a few attractive stone houses, is set in the depths of the Gloucestershire countryside by the banks of the River Severn. The first sight of the tower appearing above the tree tops is typically English. Visit and you realise it is one of the best Anglo-Saxon churches in the country.

It has a long and illustrious history. There has been a church here since at least 800 and possibly as early as 600AD. It became an important monastic settlement and the Anglo-Saxon kings Æthelric and Æthelmund were probably buried here.

In the second half of the 10thC St Alphege began his ecclesiastical career here. He became archbishop of Canterbury and was martyred by Danes in 1012. In 1016, King Cnut of Denmark and King Edmund Ironside met at Deerhurst, made peace and divided England between them. In the C11th, Earl Odda one of the most powerful of Edward the Confessor’s noblemen lived here. From then on, there is a remarkable lack of information about the later history of the church.

Much of the building dates from the first half of the C9th. The tower and porch were rebuilt in the C10th and this is regarded as one of the finest and best buildings to have survived from before the Norman Conquest. Side aisles were added in the C12th. The belfry was added in the C14th. The apse was demolished in 1540 when the flat east end was added. The large square windows are later. The roof has been heightened at some stage and clerestory windows added. The church was restored in the 19th and 20th centuries when the pews and pulpit were added. Plaster was stripped off the walls to reveal the stonework.

It is worth walking round the outside of the church first. The nave is tall and very narrow, typical of Saxon naves. Remains of Saxon herringbone work can be seen in the walls. At the east end are the remains of the foundations of the Saxon apse. Signs point up to the Deerhurst angel, a C9th Saxon carving high on the east wall of the church.

The C14th farmhouse attached to the church was originally part of the monastic buildings, possibly the monk’s dormitory.

Entry is through the west door with a grotesque head carved above the arch. Next to it on the south aisle is a small wooden C19th door, which looks as if it should be a lot older and gives access to the tower. The heavy wooden door into the church has decorative wrought iron hinges.

The inner door into the church is in memory of two men from the village who died in Flanders in WW1. Above is a remarkably modern looking carving of the Madonna and Child which is in fact C7th, with simple flowing lines. Originally it would have been painted.

After entering the church, turn round to admire the two rather nice carved animal heads on either side of the door. These are C9th and would originally have been outside the church. They were placed here in 1860 to protect them from the effects of the weather.

High on the west wall is a blocked doorway which would have led into the gallery. Above are two small pointed Saxon windows with pillars on either side. They have been described as the "finest, most elaborate opening in any Saxon Church”. It is assumed they let light into an upper room in the tower.

A Saxon arch leads into the nave. This is tall and narrow and flooded with light from the plain glass windows in side aisles and clerestory. Low cylindrical pillars with a narrow band of carving support pointed arches separating nave and side aisles. The wood beam roof was restored in the C19th and is supported on stone carved corbels. Pews are C19th and have carved side panels and fronts. The massive wooden pulpit has carved panels with birds and plants including reed mace (bullrush to the Victorians) olives, briars, wheat, lilies, figs…

At the east end is a blind, round Saxon arch which would have led into the now demolished apse. Inside it is a painted panel with the Ten Commandments. Above the arch is a simple wooden cross and a square window with stained glass. The choir stalls go round the back of the altar – a left over from the Puritans in the Commonwealth, when the altar was brought forward into the church. The table altar is Jacobean with a carved top and bulbous legs.

At the end of the south aisle is the organ. The north aisle has a small chapel at the east end. There are aumbry cupboards in the walls and a small altar rail. Against the wall is an old tomb chest with a foliate cross on the top. There are old tomb slabs on the floor as well as the Cassey brass. Sir John was Baron of the Exchequer and died in 1400. Beside him is his wife, Dame Alice, with her pet dog Terri at her feet. This is the only known example of a named animal on a medieval brass.

At the back of the north aisle is a most unusual Saxon font with base and bowl covered with spiral carvings. This was rescued from a farmyard in the C19th and brought here. Above is a C19th stained glass window with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Round the walls are benches with carved panel backs.

The west window in the south aisle contains C13th stained glass. On the left is St Katherine holding the wheel that broke her, set under a small ogee arch. On her right, is St Alphege with a halo and giving a blessing. Above and below each are small panels with praying figures. At the centre top is a coat of arms of the de Clares.

This is a marvellous church and we found its simplicity and age left a strong impression on us. It is very definitely worth finding.

The church is open every day. There is ramped access into the church. There is some on road parking by the lych gate. Alternatively, continue to the end of the road where there is a small privately owned parking area. This is charged at 50p for up to 2 hours or £1 if longer. There are footpaths along the River Severn. It is opposite the tiny St Odda’s Chapel Separate review). Although not as impressive as St Mary’s it is worth a quick look.

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