Deerhurst and the Making of England by Toby Purser
Every year I make a pilgrimage to one of my favourite historical places. This is Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, a remote settlement nestled near the banks of the River Severn on the wide meadows and plains in between Tewkesbury and Gloucester. It’s a wonderful spot for many reasons, chiefly because this tiny hamlet (population 900, mostly in the village of Apperley) contains not one but two pre-Conquest ecclesiastical buildings. The main church of St Mary’s was a Benedictine abbey built in the 8th-10th centuries and is one of very few complete pre-Conquest churches to survive the cultural and ethnic onslaught of the Norman regime. It is a stone building of complexity and beauty that reveals the world we have lost when the English churches were demolished to make way for the new order after 1066, including the greatest cathedrals and abbeys at Canterbury and Winchester.
The survival of the abbey church perhaps owes its fortune to its remote location, but that location is also a reason for great historical significance rather than simple obscurity, for in late 1016, Kings Cnut and Edmund met near this spot to agree a peace treaty. Ever since the 990s, the Danes had plundered, pillaged, and ravaged the English coastal lands, finally launching a full-scale invasion in 1014, forcing King Æthelred ‘the unræd’ to flee to Normandy. On Æthelred’s death his son Edmund assumed the throne but was defeated roundly at the battle of Ashington (Essex) in 1016 and soon afterwards met Cnut to make peace at Olney Island, near Deerhurst. The spot was chosen since it was close to the borders with Wales as well between old Mercia and Wessex, but the river setting was crucial, since rivers often formed a significant element of neutral ground between warring parties and borders between kingdoms. The first coronation of an English king, Æthelstan, occurred at Kingston-upon-Thames, the border between Mercia and Wessex, in 924; six kings pledged King Edgar allegiance on the Rover Dee in 973 and in 1041, Edward, later ‘the Confessor,’ landed at Hurst Head, a long shingle spit of land between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, where the ‘thegns of England’ gathered to hear him swear to uphold the laws of England. Most famously, King John was forced to confirm the great charter in June 1215, at Runnymede (‘runieg’ meaning counsel island, and ‘mede,’ meadow), the two armed camps facing one another.
Perhaps Deerhurst was significant for more than just its low-lying meadows and neutral ground for the Benedictine abbey had produced a monk, Alphege, or Ælfheah, who went on to become archbishop of Canterbury. Alphege was captured by the Danes in a raid on Canterbury in 1011 and held prisoner for seven months, refusing ransom until in April he was murdered by the Danes. Was this why Cnut agreed to meet Edmund near Deerhurst at Olney Island, not only for its neutral setting but because it offered a means of penance for the killing of Alphege?
At Olney Island, Edmund and Cnut agreed, remarkably, to partition England rather along the lines of the Danelaw in the 890s, thus dividing the kingdom established by Æthelstan in the 920s. This was extraordinary, and sources suggest that Cnut was a sub-king since the ‘regnum’ remained with Edmund. The partition indicates that the unification of the ancient kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia during the early tenth century was seen as temporary, and that the kingdom of England was far from established. However, the partition never happened, since Edmund’s death months later left the way open for Cnut to claim the kingdom whole and ensured the unity of England once again.
The second pre-Conquest ecclesiastical building at Deerhurst is a small chapel around 250 yards away from the former abbey of St Mary’s. This is called Odda’s Chapel, and astonishingly was lost to history for centuries following the Dissolution, since a farmhouse was built adjoining it, the nave of the chapel converted to a kitchen and a first floor inserted. In the late 17th century, an inscription stone (now in the Ashmolean, Oxford) was found nearby, dated to 1056, stating that ‘Earl Odda ordered this royal hall to be built and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity for the soul of his brother Ælfric, taken up from this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it the second of the Ides of April in the fourteenth year of the reign of Edward, King of the English.’ Again, the survival and discovery of such a unique building gives us a glimpse of the pre-Conquest world, in this case the power and patronage of a local lord who was related to King Edward. It always amazes me how such a remote spot in Gloucestershire, far from the corridors of power in Westminster and Winchester could encapsulate an entire world of early English history and is a reminder of how localism, social origins and networks play such an important role in the wider, national picture.
Finally, one last reason why Deerhurst has a special place in my heart. Odda’s chapel was uncovered by the local rector, Reverend George Butterworth in 1865, who deduced its existence from the stone inscription and a medieval chronicle of Tewkesbury Abbey. Butterworth’s grandson, also George Butterworth, was one of the most promising young composers of his generation when he was killed on the Somme in 1916. One the Butterworth’s most famous pieces, the elegiac ‘Banks of Green Willow’ is exactly the landscape around Odda’s Chapel and St Mary’s church at Deerhurst, where the willows proliferate along the banks of the Severn, and I like to think that George Butterworth was inspired to write this piece when visiting his grandfather.
Thus, the echoes of war and sacrifice reverberate down the centuries, from the murdered Alphege, the penitential peace-making between Edmund and Cnut, a chapel lost to time and found again, down to the ‘Banks of Green Willow’ a piece of music that captures the pre-war pastoral scene of England in all its serene beauty as it stood once again on the brink of horror. It could be said that the history of all England is contained within those pastures by the Severn at Deerhurst where today passersby go peacefully and freely about their walks undisturbed by such a tumultuous past.
Toby Purser's book The Making of England is available for purchase now.