Britain’s Oldest Door: Gruesome Relic of Westminster Abbey

Britain’s Oldest Door: Westminster Abbey’s Door Speculated to be Covered in Human Skin

Britain’s Oldest Door: A Westminster Abbey Relic with a Gruesome History

Doors, whether made of wood or metal, have been essential elements of buildings throughout history. Despite the organic nature of wood, some ancient wooden doors have managed to endure the test of time. One such remarkable door is located at Westminster Abbey, known as ‘Britain’s oldest door,’ with a grim twist – it is rumored to have been covered in human skin!

The Origins of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey with a procession of Knights of the Bath, by Canaletto, 1749
Westminster Abbey with a procession of Knights of the Bath, by Canaletto, 1749

Westminster Abbey’s history traces back to its humble beginnings as a small Benedictine monastery, founded by King Edgar and Saint Dunstan around 960 AD. However, it was during the reign of King Edward the Confessor in the 11th century AD that the monastery underwent significant expansion and renovation. A grand stone church was erected in honor of Saint Peter, distinguishing it from Saint Paul’s Cathedral as the ‘west minster.’

The Transformation in the 13th Century

In the middle of the 13th century AD, King Henry III decided to rebuild Westminster Abbey in the fashionable Gothic architectural style prevalent in Europe at that time. Consequently, much of the original structure built by Edward the Confessor was replaced. Today, only remnants of the 11th-century monastery, such as parts of the undercroft and cloisters, still stand as a testament to its past.

Unlocking the Age: Dendrochronology and Britain’s Oldest Door

Within Westminster Abbey, a simple wooden door separates the cloisters from the outer vestibule of the chapter house. In 2005, an archaeological study sought to determine the age of this door. Using the technique of dendrochronology, Daniel Miles and Dr. Martin Bridge from Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory embarked on the task.

Britain’s Oldest Door. From Edward the Confessors Abbey in the 1050s. Wooden door with historical significance and dendrochronology analysis
Britain’s Oldest Door. From Edward the Confessors Abbey in the 1050s. (slocumjoseph/ CC BY NC 2.0 )

Dendrochronology relies on analyzing tree rings to ascertain the age of wooden objects. The Westminster Abbey door, constructed from five vertical oak planks held together by three horizontal battens and iron straps, was found to originate from a single tree. The tree rings on the planks indicated growth between 924 AD and 1030 AD. While the exact felling date remains elusive due to the trimming of bark and sapwood during the door’s construction, it is estimated that the tree was cut down between 1032 AD and 1064 AD. This suggests that the gate itself was crafted during the 1050s.

Exploring Another Anglo-Saxon Door

Westminster Abbey’s Anglo-Saxon door.
Westminster Abbey’s Anglo-Saxon door. (defnoops/ imgur)

Although the oak door at Westminster Abbey is often regarded as the sole surviving Anglo-Saxon door in the UK, there exists another possibility. In the village of Hadstock, Essex, the church of St. Botolph houses a north door dating back to the late Saxon period. The tree rings on this door indicate growth between 663 and 1022 AD, with the tree likely felled after 1034 AD, possibly between 1040 AD and 1070 AD.

Zurich’s Ancient Door: Europe’s Oldest

While the doors at Westminster Abbey and Hadstock Church date to the 11th century AD, they are not the oldest in Europe. In Zurich, Switzerland, archaeologists uncovered a wooden gate dating back to the Neolithic period. Discovered during the construction of an underground car park for the city’s opera house in 2010, this ancient door’s dendrochronological analysis points to the end of the 4th millennium BC, making it one of Europe’s oldest doors.

Zurich’s Neolithic door is one of the oldest doors in Europe.
Zurich’s Neolithic door is one of the oldest doors in Europe.

This door once belonged to a wooden stilt house in a Neolithic village, providing shelter against the harsh climate and cold winds of Lake Zurich. Unlike its British counterparts, the Swiss door is now more delicate, requiring special treatment to prevent disintegration once removed from the ground.

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