THE GREAT DOORS OF Durham Cathedral

Our cathedral guides are so passionate and dedicated to their roles that they’re often motivated to discover more about their favourite parts of the cathedral in their spare time. Here, Frank Cain delves into the history of the splendid cathedral doors, and unpicks the research on their origin.

The sandstone outcrop on the peninsular on which the cathedral stands, determined the length of the cathedral and meant that any eastwards extension involved difficulties, hence the early attempts at building a lady chapel proved problematic.  When the 9 Altars section was added they realized it necessitated digging deeper to get solid foundations – hence the steps down into it now. Building the Galilee chapel on the west proved difficult but it also necessitated in blocking the then main entrance. The knock on effect was to elevate the importance of the north and south doors, with Hugh de Puiset (Bishop of Durham 1125-95) given the credit for their ironwork – perhaps to highlight their new importance?

Pictured: The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Dean of Durham, blessing the entrance to the cathedral as it reopened for private prayer on 22 June 2020

There was circumstantial evidence of age of these doors:

  1. There was no trace of an earlier door.
  2. The south (monk’s) door is adorned with intricately wrought iron strapwork which has been seen as a fine example of Romanesque art.
  3. The bronze sanctuary door-knocker was recognized as being Romanesque and when it was removed in 1970s it was noted that there was no evidence of an earlier attachment, suggesting that it was still affixed in its original position on an original door.
  4. The doors were constructed out of substantial oak planks. Very large oaks became rare in England by the 16th century, and this timber therefore implies a substantial tree with a commensurately early date.
  5. The construction of the door was of a type suggested as dating to the late 12th century. It is suggested that originally no nails where needed in its jointed construction. They were simply jointed. “Free” tenons (not attached to planks) were inserted into grooves in the vertical planking and dovetail joints (commonly used today by carpenters) were used horizontally on the back.
Pictured: the sanctuary ring on Durham. Cathedral’s north door

Durham Cathedral has had an eventful historical past. During the Reformation in the sixteenth century and also during the wars of the three kingdoms (sometimes known as English Civil War), fixtures were destroyed and damaged. During the imprisonment of 3000 Scots captured at the battle of Dunbar in 1650, wooden fixtures and fittings in the cathedral are believed to have been lost to the fires of the Scottish prisoners. Chris Caple, author of “The Durham Cathedral Doors” notes that central planks of north door were damaged and ripped off, exposing a tenon joint, and suggests that this was perhaps done during the Civil War period.

In the 19th Century the upper part of north door was altered several times, ending in the 1980’s when the upper third curved section was fixed forming a tympanum (a semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance). These alterations allowed greater study of the doors. It is suggested that originally no nails were needed in its jointed construction. There are now iron cramps on the north door, which were inserted later. “Free” tenons were inserted into grooves in the planks and the planks were bound together with horizontal sections of wood (semi circular in X-section) attached by dove-tails to each plank. On the front of the north door, smaller raised vertical mouldings of wood were added to cover the long vertical jointing between the planks. This would have had the effect of making the door more waterproof.

The south (monk’s) door is covered with iron strap-work, painted red and nailed onto the door. Jane Geddes (Author of “The Twelfth Century Metalwork at Durham Cathedral”) suggests that because of the design and decoration of the scrolls and the decorative form (parallels of which may be found in the Auvergne), this was probably from the late 12th century and may have replaced thinner, plainer earlier 12th century strap-work.  This strapwork undoubtedly improved the rigidity of the door. David Brown, in his article “Durham Cathedral” suggests that it appears to have been made originally for an even larger door and has been cut down to fit the south door.

Pictured: the intricate strap-work on the cathedral’s south door

The presence of occasional iron nailshanks in the north door and traces of raised patterns in the doors surface indicates that it too was originally covered in iron strapwork and that this was subsequently removed. R. W. Billings, author of the 1843 book “Architectural Illustrations and Description of the Cathedral Church at Durham” indicated that north door had similar iron work. Now only three short pieces of thin iron bar are present beneath the raised edge moulding on the west side of the west leaf of the north door and these may be remains of the original strap-work or derive from later strengthening work on the door. The strap-work may have been removed as early as the Reformation as part of the general suppression of ecclesiastic ornament. However, it could also have been removed as late as the 1780s when the north doorway was remodelled.

The only vertical moulding which was sampled was identified as ‘pinus’ (pine). Oak was the major wood used for constructional purposes such as doors, floors, roofs etc in the medieval period and thus is the wood to be expected for constructional use of the main cathedral doors. The use of pine for the beading is perhaps less expected. Pine was rarely used in the early and late middle ages, since it was scarce in England. By the late middle ages timber was imported from Scandinavia, the Baltic and upland Britain and thus woods such as pine imported from these areas became more commonly used. Pine planking started appearing in London in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The carpentry work undertaken in 1980s on the upper sections of the north door allowed the opportunity to have the sections through the planks at either end of each leaf of the door planed, polished and photographed. The initial results from the survey at Belfast University indicated that most of the planks from the north door were probably from the same tree but as sapwood had been removed it was difficult to determine the felling date of the source tree. When the south door was looked at, most of the planks were of the same age and similarity as the north door planks, indicating they came from same tree.

Pictured: the south door as pictured from the Cloister

Samples from both doors were subjected to radio carbon dating (9mm by 17MM) in the 1990s at Oxford University. Different figures resulted, but as there was a plus or minus 60-70 years there was a consensus that the dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating indicates that both the north and south doors of Durham Cathedral are of 12th century origin and construction. The best estimated fell date for the tree from which they were made, allowing 15 – 50 years for the sapwood growth, that Oxford could provide was AD 1109-1144.

By Frank Cain, Volunteer Cathedral Guide



Chris. Caple “THE DURHAM CATHEDRAL DOORS” Deposited in Durham Research Online. 7 February 2016

Geddes, Jane. 1980. “The Twelfth Century Metalwork at Durham Cathedral”, in Medieval Art and Architecture at Durham Cathedral.

Billings, R.W. 1843. “Architectural Illustrations and Description of the Cathedral Church at Durham”. London: T & W Boone

David Brown “Durham Cathedral”


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