Ancient village church door at Easton Maudit, Bedfordshire, England
Functional, practical, at times ornately decorated, and in a number of instances extremely ancient, the village church door can, like the churchyard cross, the baptismal font and the fragments of medieval paintings that may have survived on the interior wall of a church, provide a clue to the history and antiquity of an English village church.
With the exception of a small priest’s door, the English parish church usually had two wood doors, one on the west side while the other faced south. Both doors were used for different purposes.
From medieval times onwards, the west door was used mainly for ceremonial functions while the south door was the one through which parishioners entered the church. The presence of a mass/scratch dial (many of which still exist) is a quick indicator as to which door is which. It was on the south door that all public notices were displayed, a custom that still survives to this day.
In England, many ancient wood doors have survived the passing centuries, with a number of them dating back as far as Saxon times. A fine example of a Saxon door, considered by many to be the finest in the country, can be seen in the church of Hadstock in Essex.
Saxon doors were solid, soundly constructed and built to last. Made from solid planks of oak, the boards were placed vertically on the outside and horizontally inside and secured with heavy iron ‘clout’ nails.
Medieval village church doors on the other hand were routinely made by interlinking vertical planks bound with horizontal ledges on the inside. Large, decorated metal hinges known as ‘strap-hinges’, were added on the outside adding a touch of splendour. Well- preserved examples of this type of door can be seen at Little Hormhead in Hertfordshire and at Old Woking in Surrey. While the 12th century door at Maiden Newton in Dorset is believed to be the oldest medieval door in England.
By the 14th century, the design of church doors had changed considerably owing to the poor quality of the decorative ironwork. This resulted in the introduction of carved wooden mouldings and cover beads that covered the joints between the planks. The use of ‘clout’ nails was usurped by glue and less substantial nails.
The late 17th century saw church door design change once more. Gone were the stout oak planks of the previous centuries, to be replaced with what is now regarded as the ‘classical’ six-panelled door with conspicuous mouldings. This form of wood door was often hung in pairs with each door measuring 6ft high (1.8m) and 3ft (0.9m) wide.
It goes without saying that throughout the centuries, church doors will have been repaired many times. It should also be borne in mind therefore that many of the locks and latches may not be the original door furniture.
A number of ancient door latches may still retain a ‘witch’s mark’(an X-shaped cross, known as a saltire, within a rectangle). It was believed in medieval times that by etching this particular mark into the metalwork of the latch, it would prevent a witch from entering the church. Also during medieval times it was feared that if a witch should gain entry to a church, she would steal some of the holy-water in the font in order to cast evil spells against members of the village community.
Whatever the age or design of a village church door, be it Saxon, Medieval or 17th century, one can only imagine the events that it has witnessed throughout its long life, and the stories it could tell.
For more information and useful links about the history of the English Village Church, please visit the English Parish Churches website.
‘English Parish Churches’(uk website).
Further articles in the ‘Exploring the English Church’ series by Charles Moorhen