Original castle gates and doors: A Survey
By Peter Burton
The Castle Studies Group Journal, No. 24 (2010-11)
Introduction: The majority of medieval buildings still standing today will have been altered, repaired, modernised and generally changed many times throughout their lifetime. It is remarkable therefore that some medieval buildings still contain the original wooden doors or gates that were fitted when the buildings were constructed.
This survey will attempt to summarise the surviving medieval gates in fortified buildings throughout the UK and Ireland. I should state from the outset that this is only a provisional summary as many castle doors and portcullises are of unspecified date either because no accurate dating evidence can be obtained for them or, in some cases, the thorough investigation into what might appear to be original doors hasn’t yet begun.
The visual appearance of remaining wooden doors in situ can be deceptive as the effects of weathering on timber (usually oak in the case of castle gates, but not exclusively) are highly variable. Medieval doors may not appear to be original because their condition today is remarkably fresh and well preserved and conversely, knarled and ravaged timber doors may give the impression of antiquity yet may be relatively recent being constructed using ancient techniques or exposed to severe environmental conditions.
A good case to illustrate this is the Anglo-Saxon door leading to the Pyx Chamber in Westminster Abbey, only confirmed as such in recent times. This internal door was so well preserved and still in daily use, that no attention was given to its age until a dendrochronology survey (a method of estimating age of timber by matching tree-ring growth patterns to those of known age)was undertaken by Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory throughout the Abbey timberwork under English Heritage guardianship. This survey revealed the date of the timber used to make this door to be A.D. 1050 and contemporary with the Abbey construction by Edward the Confessor, although reshaped for use in a later (13th century) door opening.
Our survey will consider timber gates, doors and portcullis grilles that are still performing their original function with a brief overview of construction methods.