This week’s church: Odda’s Chapel, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

I’ve been doing more work on the chapter about Odda’s Chapel. Deerhurst lies in floodplain fields on the banks of the River Severn.

There are two Saxon churches here. One is St Mary’s, a former monastic church, but the one I’ve been thinking about this week is a simple little building, a private chapel – Odda’s Chapel – which was lost and then found.

Interior of the chapel.

We know from the dedication plaque who built it and why. The inscription reads:

Odda, dux, ordered this royal hall to be constructed and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity for the soul of his brother Ælfric which left the body in 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.

The dedication plaque records that the chapel was built in 1056

That date translates to 12 April, 1056. The king mentioned is Edward the Confessor. Duke Odda was a nobleman who later became a monk and died later the same year. But his brother, Aelfric died in 1053.

What’s amazing is that this simple chapel, was lost for centuries. In the seventeenth century it was covered by a timber-framed building and disappeared into the fabric of a ‘rambling picturesque farmhouse’ called Abbots Court. It was an Elizabethan chapel conversion. They used the nave for a kitchen, and put a floor in the chancel and used it as a bedroom.

It was only rediscovered in the late nineteenth century. They removed the surrounding fabric to reveal a perfect Saxon chapel, tall, dark, narrow-windowed. Stepping into it feels like going back in time. It feels as though the past has merely been hibernating, waiting for someone to cross the threshold and wake it from its slumber.

Writing some fifty years after the chapel was built, the chronicler John of Worcester described Odda as ‘a lover of churches, restorer of the poor, defender of widows and orphans, helper of the oppressed, guardian of chastity’. That’s not a bad way to be remembered. And memory is what this place is about. Odda built it because he didn’t want his dead brother to be forgotten.

We all do things to try to keep the memory of loved ones alive. Mostly it’s futile. A few generations on and the names are forgotten. One day I will be nothing more than a name in a library catalogue. A list of unread books, I expect.

But sometimes someone manages to cheat the system. Odda did it. His chapel was hidden in plain sight for centuries. And then it was revealed. And so we remember him. And his brother.

Sort of gives you hope, really.

Almost all of us will be forgotten.

But not Odda. And not his brother.

Nick Page @nickpage