In 1675 a tree fell down in the orchard outside a half-timbered manor house and revealed an inscription stone embedded in its roots. The stone recorded - in Latin - the founding of a chapel by Odda in remembrance of his brother, Ælfric, who had died in 1053. Odda died in 1056, only a few months after the consecration of the chapel. It was originally thought that the stone referred to Deerhurst Church, but in the nineteenth century renovations to the house revealed the chapel, which had been incorporated into the later building.
|Even today, repairs are ongoing|
The dedication stone reads: Earl Odda ordered this royal hall to be built and dedicated in honour of the holy Trinity & for the soul of his brother Ælfric who died in this place. Bishop Ealdred dedicated it on 12 April. The fourteenth year of Edward, king of the English (1056)
|A replica of the dedication stone|
Odda and his brother both died at Deerhurst, but were buried at Pershore.
|Pershore Abbey today (public domain image)|
Talbot & Whiteman's book has this to say about Pershore: that the monks were ejected shortly after King Edgar's death in 975, probably by Ælfhere of Mercia. They were reinstated when Ælfhere died. His grandson was Earl Odda, who founded the Saxon chapel at Deerhurst in memory of his brother, and who was a benefactor of Pershore.
Wait, what? A grandson of Ælfhere? But I've written a whole novel about the grandfather without once mentioning the existence of this progeny. Had I made a terrible mistake?
John Leland (the 16th century antiquarian) suggested that Odda was ‘Elfer’s (Ælfhere) son’. Son? This was even worse!
So, grandson, or son? Well, as I'd always believed, neither.
Ælfhere, who was probably around twenty in 956, died at a date which makes it unlikely that he was Odda’s father. (Odda first appears in the records in 1013) So was he his grandfather?
The two men certainly had landholdings in the same area of Mercia, and both were seemingly connected to the West Saxon royal house.
There also seems to be some shared link to Pershore. Annals recorded by Leland seem to assume that because Odda restored lands which had been allegedly seized by Ælfhere that there must have been some family connection.
But Ann Williams has suggested that Odda was more likely to have been related to Æthelweard, ealdorman of the Western shires (also known as Æthelweard the Chronicler - and in this capacity he informed us that he was descended from King Æthelred I, Alfred the Great’s brother).
The presumed connection to Ælfhere seems to stem partly from the association with a man named Godwine, who appears on a charter from 1014, along with Odda. This Godwine may well have been a nephew of Ælfhere’s.
Does this confirm the idea that Odda was related to Ælfhere? Another charter attestation shows Odda preceded on the list by a man named Ælfgar mæw, a man associated with monasteries at Tewkesbury (nearby) and Cranborne (not so near, in Dorset). The Tewkesbury chronicle recorded that he, and his father, Æthelweard, were related to the royal house of Wessex. If this is the same Æthelweard as the man who was ealdorman of the Western shires, then some conclusion may be drawn from the fact that in 1051, after the ealdordom had passed through the hands of the powerful Godwin family, it was then given to Odda, as if there were some family connection.
Pershore, too, had associations with Ealdorman Æthelweard, where Odda was remembered as a benefactor, and where he and his brother were buried.
The precise nature of their relationship to Æthelweard is not clear, but the suggestion of kinship seems more plausible than that Odda was a son or grandson of Ælfhere’s.
Ælfhere was succeeded as ealdorman of Mercia by a man named Ælfric cild who was probably his brother-in-law, rather than a son.
None of this is provable beyond all doubt, but it seems that I was right, after all, not to have a character named Odda in the novel.
Still, that’s not to say that the chapel is not of interest to me. Anglo-Saxon buildings are rare enough, and this one, though only a shell, is a site worth visiting.
According to John Blair, the precinct of the minster of Deerhurst was divided, with the northern half being retained by the monastic community and the southern half becoming the earl’s residence. The chapel was built a small distance from the church and, although it is unusual in that the dedication stone exists, the building is very typical of its age, showing similarities with many parish churches of that time with what Blair calls ‘overlap’ details.
Deerhurst Church contains many fine examples of Anglo-Saxon carvings, walls and windows, and the atmosphere inside it is calm, peaceful and conducive to contemplation, for this is a building which has been used continuously for worship for more than a millennium. Odda’s chapel is equally quiet, but in an almost eerie way, for it stands empty, showing not the same signs of continuous use, but as a stark and rare reminder of how these buildings looked, and it spoke in its own way of the passing of time. If only more of these buildings had survived.
My novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of the life and career of Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia
Gloucestershire People and History - Richard Sale
The Heart of England - Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman
Land, power and politics: the family of Odda of Deerhurst - Ann Williams
The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society - John Blair
Princeps Merciorum gentis: The Family, Career and Connections of Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia, 956-83 - Ann Williams
All photographs unless otherwise stated taken by and copyright of the author.
What was I doing there? Well, I’d been up at the church, taking photos of the Anglo-Saxon architecture for my new book about the history of Mercia. Odda himself doesn’t feature in the book because, whilst he clearly had associations and lands within Mercia, his area of jurisdiction was in Wessex. And, for most of the book, Wessex is the ‘enemy’...
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