St Mary's Priory Church, also known as Deerhurst Priory, is amongst the top ten oldest churches in the UK, dating at least back to the start of the ninth century, and probably to the seventh century, and is one of the best preserved and least changed buildings from pre-Norman times. The priory is still a working church, serving the little village of Deerhurst, a peaceful place beside the River Severn, four miles by road south of Tewkesbury. The village is doubly remarkable in that it contains a second well preserved Saxon religious building just a few hundred feet away - Odda's Chapel, though this is a plain structure, not so interesting to look at. The church however is elegant and quite ornate, containing many fine, original architectural features.
The early Saxon church was a simple rectangular building with a high ceiling; two aisles were added soon after 1200, and a tower in the next century, plus a seven-sided apse on the east side (later removed), and the structure is little changed since. Pre-Norman detail features include over a dozen stone carvings, several wall panels, a grave cover, a font, and a pair of triangular windows, while the church also has several stained glass windows, some medieval, and a memorial funerary brass from 1400, unique in that the name of a pet is recorded in addition to the people (Sir John and Dame Alice Cassey).
Deerhurst is reached by an undesignated road off the B4213, close to the A38. A side street leads to Odda's Chapel (maintained by English Heritage), beside a small parking place where a fee is charged, and just before the end is another (free) parking area for visitors to the church; from here a paved path crosses the atmospheric graveyard, where faded headstones mingle with ancient trees, to the main church entrance, on the west side. The churchyard continues around the north side of the building, while land to the south and east is private, site of a farmhouse. The church is unlocked during daylight hours, and usually unattended; there is no fee for entry.
Deerhurst was an important settlement in the Saxon kingdom of Hwicce, and it seems likely that a church had existed at the site since the end of the sixth century, though the first definite reference is in 804, when the establishment was granted additional lands. Hwiccean ealdormen Aethelric and his father Aethelmund (killed 802) are amongst the contemporary dignitaries buried here. The nave dates from around this time, as did the apse to the east, removed in 1540 when this section was remodelled. Around 1057 the church became part of a Catholic priory, associated with Tewkesbury Abbey, and the farmhouse to the east, dating from the 14th century, was originally one of the subsidiary monastic buildings, probably the monk's dormitory. The adjacent walled garden (private) occupies the site of the cloisters. Aside from the approximate date of the various later additions (tower, aisles, belfry, etc) not so much is known about the post-Saxon history of the priory, but it escaped any damage during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, and has reminded in uninterrupted use as a parish church ever since.
The front of the church is centred on the tall, narrow tower, flanked by the two aisles, noticeably different in masonry style. A small, slightly elevated door at the side of the south aisle was added recently, in the 19th century, to provide an alternative access to the tower. A path leads to the rear of the building, to the site of the apse, recognisable from the foundation stones, plus a short section of full-height wall, at the top of which is a weathered stone carving from the ninth century, known as the Deerhurst Angel. Only a low hedge separates this area from the private courtyard of the adjacent farmhouse. The north aisle is lined by its original arched windows, while the south aisle is illuminated by more recent square windows. Entrance is via an arched door at the foot of the 14th century tower, beneath a projecting sculpture of an animal.
The front door opens to a porch at the base of the tower, decorated with several ancient carvings including two animal heads (originally exterior features), and a sculpture of Madonna and Child, believed to be from the ninth century. A side door leads to a staircase accessing a first floor chapel, not open to the public. A Saxon arch divides the porch from the main church interior; the Saxon nave (heightened in medieval times) and the 13th century aisles. The south aisle contains an organ at the east end and a partly stained glass window to the west; the coloured sections are from the 14th and 15th centuries. The north aisle contains a rare, ninth century stone font decorated with spirals and scrolls, beneath a recent stained glass window commemorating geologist and naturalist Hugh Edwin Strickland (at the west end), plus another relatively recent coloured window along the side; the remaining windows are clear. The east end of the north aisle is the site of a small chapel, holding several memorials including the funerary brasses. The plaster and whitewash that covers all walls have been removed here, revealing the original stonework. The far end of the nave incorporates a blind arch that once opened to the apse, and now frames the altar, while the near end, adjoining the tower, has a number of historical features. Near the top is a faded, rectangular foundation stone, while just below are a pair of small window openings with triangular tops above ornate capitals and grooved pilasters - one of the best-preserved Saxon windows in the country. Below is a smaller, simpler triangular window - one of several across the upper walls - and a blocked door that was once connected to an elevated gallery.