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Britain's Oldest Door

Britain's oldest door can be found in Westminster Abbey, in the passage leading to the Chapter House.

The oldest door was dated for the first time in 2005 by the process known as dendrochronology. A detailed study of the wooden door, which can been seen in the vestibule leading to the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey, showed that the wood was felled after 1032 AD and that the door was constructed sometime in the 1050s. This was during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, who built the Norman Abbey which was consecrated in 1065.

Door Anglo Saxon Westminster Abbey Copyright

Britain's oldest door

That makes it not only the oldest in the UK but also the only one assignable to the Anglo Saxon period. The ring-pattern of the timber indicates that the tree grew in eastern England, most probably coming from the extensive woodland owned by the Abbey in this area, and possibly from Essex.

The door is made of five vertical oak planks held together with three horizontal battens and iron straps. Most unusually the battens are recessed into the planks so that the door is flush on both sides. Normally medieval doors have a flat front and the back has projecting ledges and braces. The construction of this door is unique and shows that it was intended to communicate between spaces of equal importance in the Abbey. But its original position is not known. The boards are from a single tree and rings on them show growth during the years from AD 924 to 1030. As the bark was trimmed when the planks were made into a door it means the exact year of felling cannot be known.

The door has been cut down and now measures 6.5 feet high and 4 feet wide and leads into a small narrow room. The top was almost certainly round-arched and would have been around 9 feet high originally. After the planks were fitted together probably both faces were covered with cow hide, added to provide a smooth surface for decoration (no trace of painting remains). Then the ornamental iron hinges and decorative straps were fixed. Only one of the original straps survives today with hide trapped underneath it (on the inner face of the door).

Door Anglo Saxon Inner 300 Westminster Abbey Copyright

Inner face of the oldest door

The door was obviously retained when Henry III rebuilt the Abbey and Chapter House from 1245 but cut down to be put in a new position. In the 19th century the fragments of cow hide were first noted and a legend grew up that this skin was human. It was supposed that someone had been caught committing sacrilege or robbery in the church and had been flayed and his skin nailed to this door as a deterrent to others.