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The Oldest Door

Monday, 8th August 2005

The Oldest Door

The oldest door in Britain was identified and dated for the first time at Westminster Abbey, in August 2005.

It is the only surviving Anglo Saxon door in this country, dating back to the time of Edward the Confessor, the Abbeys founder, who was born 1,000 years ago this same year.

This oak door opens from the Abbey Cloisters into to the octagonal Chapter House outer vestibule, where monks met every day for prayers back in the thirteenth century and Parliament temporarily resided in the fourteenth century, before they transferred to the Palace of Westminster. After having been a repository for government records from the 1540s, it was restored in Victorian times by Sir Gilbert Scott.

The dating

The first detailed archaeological study of the door has now taken place, coupled with scientific dating of the timber by a process known as dendrochronology. The latter was carried out by Daniel Miles and Dr Martin Bridge of Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory.

The door is made of five vertical oak planks, held together with three horizontal battens, or ledges, and iron straps. Most unusually, the battens are recessed into the planks, so that the door is flush on both faces. Normally, medieval doors have a flat front face and a back which has projecting ledges and braces. The construction of the Westminster door is unique, and shows that it was intended to communicate between two spaces of equal importance.

The boards were cut from a single tree and the visible rings on them represent growth during the years from AD 924 to 1030. Because the bark and some of the sapwood was trimmed away when the planks were made into a door, the exact year of felling cannot be determined, but it can be calculated as falling within the period 1032-1064. A date in the 1050s for the manufacture of the door is most likely.

Explains Daniel Miles:

In this way, not only is this the oldest door in Britain, but it is the only one assignable to the Anglo-Saxon period. We can therefore say, confidently, that this was a major door belonging to the great Abbey constructed by Edward the Confessor, King of England, 1042-1065.
The ring-pattern displayed by the timber indicates that the tree grew in eastern England, and almost certainly came from the extensive woodland owned by the Abbey, possibly in Essex.

The door now measures 6½ ft high by 4 ft wide, but has been cut down. Almost certainly the top was originally round-arched, and the door would have measured 9 ft high by 4½ ft wide. After the planks were fitted together, at least one and probably both faces were covered with animal hides, which were tacked on to the planks. The hides were taken from cows and added to provide a smooth surface for decoration. Then the ornamental iron hinges and decorative straps with curled ends were fixed, using large-headed nails and clench-bolts.

Only one of the original iron straps survives today (with skin trapped underneath it), but the outlines of the lost elements have been recovered by studying the fixing-holes and other scars remaining on one face of the door. Except for the paint, its original appearance can thus be reconstructed with confidence. Hitherto, such doors have only been known from drawings in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and from later Norman derivatives.

Says Mr Miles:

From its size, and its double-sided form, it is clear that this was one of the major doors of the Saxon Abbey. Its re-use here, in c. 1250, in the Vestibule of King Henry IIIs magnificent Chapter House, can't have been accidental. Henry greatly revered Edward the Confessor, rebuilding the Abbey church and creating a sumptuous shrine in his honour. No expense was spared, and thus the adaptation and re-use of this ancient door must have been a symbolic act to preserve in-use a ritually important element of the Saxon Abbey. Potentially, it was the door to the Confessors own Chapter House.

History and construction

It has long been obvious that the battered and insignificant-looking wooden door leading from the Chapter House Vestibule into a small chamber within the east cloister range of Westminster Abbey must be ancient, but its true age has hitherto eluded discovery. In the 19th century it was noticed that there were fragments of hide adhering to the door, and a legend grew up suggesting that these were human. It was supposed that somebody in the Middle Ages had been caught committing sacrilege in the Abbey, had been flayed and his skin nailed to the door as a deterrent to other would-be felons. A specific link was suggested to a robbery that is known to have taken place in the adjoining treasury, in 1303.

I feel very privileged to work here. I take so much pride in working for a beautiful place like the Abbey, it’s unique.

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Alex - Abbey Marshal

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