Sunday, April 29, 2012

White violets and clashing kings: the Odda side of Deerhurst

The presence of two Saxon churches in close formation is one obvious reason to revere the parish of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire as a unique historic treasure, but it also lays claim to some other important Anglo-Saxon shenanigans.

Fourteen months of bitter violent fighting, repeated clashes and ravagings across England from Northumberland to Somerset, betrayals, defections, double crossings and fickle loyalties, amazingly came to a peaceful and unbloodied end in a meadow by the Severn.

These battles were the long struggle of the English Saxons, under the Kings Æthelred the Unready and his son Edmund Ironside, to fend off the invading forces of the Danish King Cnut (sometimes spelled Canute to avoid the risk of accidental anagrams), who came in 200 shining longships tipped with silver and gold, "the men of metal, menacing with golden face", terrorising and overwhelming every part of the country. After a vicious battle in Essex, King Edmund fled west, possibly hoping to find some support across the Welsh border, but Cnut caught up with him at the River Severn. And so it was at Deerhurst that the two kings met, in October 1016, and signed a truce. Cnut was to have all of England north of the Thames, but Edmund Ironside was to keep southern England, including London, for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, the rest of his life turned out to be only six weeks. His death at the end of November 1016 forfeited the rest of the English lands to Cnut. The circumstances of the young king's demise are lost to history, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes no mention of any suspicion of foul deeds, so presumably the cause was natural. Cnut consolidated his position by marrying King Æthelred's widow Emma the following year, while keeping his first wife Ælfgifu as a spare, and went on to help himself to Norway and a few bits of Sweden. He is most famous, of course, for getting his boots wet on a beach in Southampton.

Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane, from a 13th century manuscript: Chronica Maiora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi, 26, f. 160.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the truce between Edmund and Cnut took place on an eyot, or small river island near Deerhurst, called Ola's Island – Olney or Alney. (Confusingly, there is an Alney island a few miles downstream, but that almost certainly isn't it.) To this safe and secluded spot both kings were conveyed by fishing-boat. In his book Tewkesbury and Deerhurst, published over a century ago, Henri Massé cites the site as the place known locally as the Naight – and many other sources agree. The name is a clue, because the word "eyot" (pronounced the same as "eight") readily morphs into "naight". There is no obvious trace of this island at Deerhurst today. But it can still be found.

Follow me from the place where the road ends, by the gate of Odda's Chapel. A footpath leads over a tiny stream and across a flat plain, lightly moated on both sides, a short way to the bank of the River Severn. The first landmark you see in this featureless plain is not the steely Severn, but this magnificent holey oak tree (with the Malverns lined up behind).

This vast and ancient tree is hollow: if you're relatively small and supple you could get inside it and climb right through. It has survived countless floods, and its cavity is banked up with densely packed river silt. During a flood the river flows straight through the trunk. The tree is a marker of the ways, and has been so for centuries. It stands at the point where the moated path from the village joins another passing track which runs along the cusp of the river (innovatively named the Severn Way). Turn left along this path and through the gate, which leads alongside a patch of scrub and shortly to another gate. This opens out into a meadow with a stand of oak trees in the middle, on what is otherwise a flat expanse of floodplain. The outline of an earthwork, of uncertain date, can be faintly seen running alongside the riverbank, and a corresponding one cuts diagonally across the meadow, marking out a long sliver of land. This is the Naight – it was almost certainly on this sliver of meadow, in 1016, that the Saxon and Danish kings met.

It doesn't look much like an island today, but 1000 years ago this chunk of land was entirely surrounded by water and could only be accessed by boat. The Severn may now pass cleanly within straightish banks (aside from its tendency to erupt in flood) but in the past it was bigger and more sprawling. During the Saxon period it was wide enough to encompass much of what is now riverside meadow. Thus a miniature island was formed in what must have been a very large and formidable river. As the Severn shrunk away over time the eyot was left dry, although its outline was still cut out from the meadow by a little stream known as the Naight Brook. No longer requiring a boat, the brook was small enough to cross with a simple footbridge. In more recent years, the Naight Brook has dried up almost completely – and the delineation of the island is only faintly traced in the contours of the meadow.

I was initially drawn to the spot by its magnetism. Three great oak trees. One fallen, its whorled and grained trunk now barkless and hollow. Within its cavern the cellular pockets of wild bees,  harbingers of faery in old myth. The middle tree shattered black down its core, lightning split, headless, but spiking fresh wands all around. The other tree immaculate, stately. The wind began to blow when I put my hand on the trunk of the middle tree, shaking its branches. The ground is different here – it stands slightly proud of the field, and the lusher plant life gives away the presence of water, which wells up around your feet as you pass. If the ground is spongy underfoot you've found the Naight Brook.

A look at some old maps, such as the Ordnance Survey of 1884, shows a line of trees running along the bank of the Naight Brook for its entire length. Although the positions of trees on Victorian maps can't always be taken too literally, it does seem likely that the two surviving and one deceased oaks are the sole remainders of this tree avenue, with the great holey oak two fields away also being part of the same line. They are doing better than the Naight Brook, which is basically nonexistent. It was still being shown on maps up to the 1970s, but the patches of damp grass are the only hint that it was ever there. Plus perhaps one other clue.

What is this stone wall doing here? Well I don't know, is the honest answer. But it has an arched channel running underneath it which tunnels through the earth for several feet and emerges half way down the river bank (photo below). It's largely blocked up with earth now and completely dry, but it appears to have been designed for water to flow through. Again, study of old maps shows that its site coincides with the outflow of the Naight Brook into the River Severn, so it's probably fair to assume that it was built to contain the outflow. The maps also indicate that there was a footbridge over the brook here, or very near by. So my best guess is that this chunk of strangely isolated stonework is the last remaining portion of the bridge.

The disused and partially obscured conduit where the Naight Brook once discharged into the Severn.

A map of the Naight (more or less to scale).

The proximity of Deerhurst to the River Severn is a mixed blessing. Everyone in North Gloucestershire will remember forever the floods of July 2007 but the residents of Deerhurst went through a horrendous ordeal – which can be seen in pictures on their Floodblog. Their neighbourly spirit and stoic humour is a credit to them. There was also a devastating flood in 1947, and no doubt on many previous occasions in past centuries. The Severn is not a friendly river, and occasionally it becomes a monster.

It's perhaps something of a liability, then, that right on the edge of the vulnerable low-lying floodplain stands one of England's precious Saxon architectural relics: Odda's Chapel.

Forty years after the signing of the English-Danish treaty on the Naight, a local ealdorman, Earl Odda, built a modest chapel on his lands at Deerhurst within view of the priory (see my previous article for more details about the Saxon priory). Cnut's 20 year reign had ended in the depositing of another English king on the throne: Edward the Confessor. Odda's timing might be seen as a little unfortunate, because by the time he built his chapel, in 1056, there were only another ten years to go before the Norman Conquest and the ending of Saxon rule forever. Not that Odda himself lived to see it: he died only four months after completing his chapel. After 1066, the invading Normans became obsessive-compulsive church builders and were all too keen to replace the older English structures with their own edifices. It wasn't very long before Odda's humble little chapel disappeared.

Many centuries later, in 1675, an intriguing engraved stone was turned up in the orchard of Abbot's Court, a medieval house in Deerhurst.

A replica of the dedication stone found in the orchard (the original is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). The inscription translates as: "Duke Odda ordered this royal hall to be built and dedicated to the honour of the Holy Trinity for the soul of his brother Ælfric which was taken up from this place. Bishop Ealdred it was who dedicated the same on the 12th April in the 14th year of the reign of Edward, King of the English". A second (mutilated) stone is set above.

Written in Latin, in generous roman-uncial letters, it appeared to be the dedication stone for a chapel of the Holy Trinity which Odda had built for the soul of his deceased brother Ælfric; it was dated April 1056.

The stone was taken by some as evidence that a chapel had once stood somewhere near the spot, as there is some mention of one in the shambolic Tewkesbury Chronicle of the post-1066 period. It was more widely assumed though that the stone belonged to one of the chapels of the priory church, which was only a short distance away and did undergo some extension in the 11th century. If there had ever been any other chapel building, it was thought, it must have been destroyed long ago.

However, Odda's Chapel wasn't destroyed. It was subsumed.

The truth finally came out in 1885. The timber-framed medieval house whose orchard had yielded the consecration stone turned out to have entirely encased the Saxon chapel: swallowed it whole. A portion of half-timbered house had been built at one end, and then extended to swallow up the entirety of the little church. Its small chancel at the east end had been divided into two floors, with leaded-light windows installed; the upper storey fitted with a fireplace and chimney and used as a bedroom. The somewhat larger nave had been pressed into service as a kitchen. The whole structure was plastered over on the outside so that, to all external appearances, it was just a common or garden medieval farmhouse.

Once this discovery had been made, a process of reclaiming the chapel got underway, and what emerged was a 46ft long two-part building with a typically Saxon horseshoe arch in the middle. Confirmation of its provenance came in the form of a second engraved stone, found within the chimney stack. Unfortunately this stone had been re-used as a window head, and a big slice chiselled out of it which makes the inscription undecipherable, but there is enough left of it to confirm the building's status as a chapel. In its transmutation into a domestic dwelling some damage had been done to the structure of the chapel: a wall missing and a doorway lost. And the scars can still be seen in the west wall where a very large kitchen fireplace had been punched through. But all things considered, the building is remarkably intact.

Nave of Odda's Chapel, now restored to its original form after a long and humble career as a kitchen.

Details of the life of Odda are few, not surprisingly for someone who lived so long ago. He was probably born some time around 990, and may have been a kinsman of Edward the Confessor. He was awarded much of the land confiscated from the disgraced Earl Godwin, only to be made to give it back when Godwin came back into favour. He is known to have been an extremely generous benefactor of Pershore Abbey, helping to re-establish it after it had been destroyed by fire and abandoned by its monks. If the chronicler John of Worcester is to be believed, he was also a kindly benefactor to the community and a generous champion for the poor and oppressed. He took holy orders towards the end of his life and when he died on 31st August 1056 he was buried in Pershore Abbey.

If Odda was related to Edward the Confessor then that would also make him a kinsman of Edmund Ironside. In her book The World Before Domesday, Ann Williams suggests the possibility that Odda may already have been in possession of Deerhurst in 1016, which would put him right at the heart of the Edmund-Cnut negotiations. This can only be speculated, but it's an intriguing thought.

I associate Earl Odda with white violets. Why? Because the ground outside his chapel is packed with them. Viola odorata, sweet violets. If you have a look at the closely mown lawn on the south side in early spring they are a beautiful sight – and scent, if you feel like grovelling about on your hands and knees to snuffle at them. White sweet violets are not uncommon in the English countryside but it intrigues me that they are so abundant at Odda's Chapel when the Priory churchyard just a few yards away is blooming with the more conventional purple Dog violet.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) in the grounds of Odda's Chapel.

Odda's Chapel was consecrated by Bishop Ealdread of Worcester on 12th April 1056. Such a precise dating for an Anglo-Saxon monument is rare, but the survival of the consecration stone gives us this information. The feel of the chapel is quite beautiful, especially in the nave, where I always find my stomach doing a loop-the-loop as soon as I walk through the door. It's small and humble but has a deep aura of sanctity.

Although the chancel is now well lit, there's no trace of any window from the Saxon period, so if there was one it was probably very small. Maybe Odda preferred the sense of mystery created by candlelight. The nave is also dimly lit, having only two small windows, high in the wall.

The photo above shows the alterations to the chancel. The ceiling timbers, leaded windows, and upstairs chimney breast and fireplace are all interlopers, part of the transformation into a domestic dwelling. Not all of it dates from the medieval conversion: the leaded windows are Tudor, and you can also see a small stone bracket in the corner of the downstairs wall which dates from the 13th century (suggesting, perhaps, that the chapel was still in use at that time). The upstairs bit was used as a bedroom from the medieval period onwards, and you can only wonder what strange dreams its occupants may have had. Henri Massé (writing in 1900) makes mention of a ladder allowing access to the upstairs section, but this is long gone, and it's no longer possible to go up there.

Gilbert, Edward, A Guide to the Priory Church and Saxon Chapel, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (privately printed, 1956, revised 1977).
Massé, H.J.L.J., The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury, with Some Account of the Priory Church of Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (London, Bell & Sons, 1900).
Swanton, Michael (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Routledge, 1998).
Williams, Ann, The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy, 900-1066 (London, Continuum, 2008).