Since time beyond memory, children and tourists have been shown the doors of some Essex Churches, and told the story of the Danish Pirate who caught pillaging the church, was flayed alive, and had his skin nailed to the church door where it lies to this day underneath the ironwork. Unsurprisingly, it is a
piece of local history that tends to stay in the mind when the finer points of church architecture are long forgotten.
It is hard to forget the idea that Danes once suffered such a terrible punishment as a warning to all who might approach churches with unhallowed and evil intentions, as a terrible memento of the villains who dared to raise their sacrilegious hands against the house of God, and as a ghastly memorial of ecclesiastical vengeance
Several Essex churches have the story of a Danes' skin. Usually the story goes that a Danish pirate decided to sack the church and was caught red-handed. An outraged mob then turned on the Dane and flayed him, skinning him and nailing the skin to the church door as a warning to anyone with the temerity to consider such a wicked act ever again.
There were certainly harsh punishments for such an act. By the laws of Alfred the robbing of a church was punishable not only by fine, but the guilty hand, unless redeemed, was also to be struck off. It was certainly believed that punishment of flaying was actually inflicted in certain cases on foreign pillagers of churches. ("Notes on Danes' Skins," Saga Book of the Viking Club, vol. v (1906-07), pp. 221 ff.)
On St Brice's Day (13 November) 1002 there was a mass killing of Danes, ordered by the English King Ethelred. In this case, it was not in revenge for pillage, but a reaction to the news that there was a Danish conspiracy to assassinate him.
The legend of the Danes skin is an old one, and applies to several churches and cathedrals in the South East. The first time we see it is in Pepys Diary
"Then to Rochester, and there saw the Cathedrall, which is now fitting for use, and the organ then a-tuning. Then away thence, observing the great doors of the church, which, they say, was covered with the skins of the Danes. 1 and also had much mirth at a tomb, on which was “Come sweet Jesu,” and I read “Come sweet Mall,” &c., at which Captain Pett and I had good laughter. "
Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 10 April 1661
in 1789 Sir Harry Englefield, wrote to the Society of Antiquaries about the curious popular tale preserved in the village of Hadstock, Essex, that the door of the church had been covered with the skin of a Danish pirate, who had plundered the church. The wooden door of Hadstock church is thought to date back to Saxon times, and like many church doors would have been covered in leather. In 1791 a small piece of what looked like leather was found under the iron fittings of the door. It ended up in the Saffron Walden Museum, where analysis suggested it was human skin. Hadstoch Church may be Cnut's minster, consecrated in 1016, and the door is the oldest in Essex.A similar legend was recorded at East Thurrock
The north doors of Worcester cathedral had been covered with what was said to be the skin of a person who had sacrilegiously robbed the high altar. It must have been transferred from an earlier door as the date of these doors appeared to be the latter part of the fourteenth century, the north porch having been built about 1385.
Dart's “History of the Abbey Church of St. Peter’s, Westminster,” (1723) mentions a chamber in the south transept, once known as the Chapel of Henry VIII., and used as a “Revestry.” which, “is inclosed with three doors, the inner cancellated, the middle, which is very thick, lined with skins like parchment, and driven full of nails. These skins, they by tradition tell us, were some skins of the Danes, tann’d and given here as a memorial of our delivery from them.”
The tradition at Copford is thus referred to by Richard Newcourt in 1710
The doors of this church are much adorned with flourished iron-work, underneath which is a sort of skin taken notice of in the year 1690, when an old man at Colchester, hearing Copford mentioned, said, that in his young time, he heard his master say that he had read in an old history that the church of Copford was robbed by Danes, and their skins nailed to the doors; upon which, some gentlemen, being curious, went thither and found a sort of tanned skin, thicker than parchment, which is supposed to be human skin, nailed to the door of the said church, underneath the said iron-work, some of which skin is still to be seen.
Richard Newcourt in 1710
When the story of the Danes' skin became popular, souvenir hunters soon picked off the remaining pieces of leather from the church doors. The skins had stayed intact for hundreds of years until their possible genesis became a subject of horrid fascination in the public. When they had finished, there were but a few fragments under the ironwork.
Various fragments of skin from Copford Church are in existence: three pieces are preserved in the church (A label records that "This is a piece of one of the skins, and was given me by Mr, Nathaniel Cobb, Jnr., of Copford, who informed me it was taken from one of the doors [of Copford church] about 50 years ago by his grandfather, and was the only piece then remaining.—John Cunnington, Braintree, 1829."). Colchester museum has a piece given to the Rev. P. A. L. Wood (rector 1861-78). by Theobald, the clerk, who said that it had been taken from beneath the iron-work of the door. Taunton Museum had an exceptionally large piece (31/4 by 3 inches) which was bequeathed to the Somerset Archaeological Soc. by Professor John Quekett. There seems to be a little uncertainty as to its history, but it is " probably one of the specimens sent to him for examination from Copford.". There is said to be a piece in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. The south door itself, though probably twelth century, was heavily restored in the nineteenth century, and stripped of most of its ironwork before being placed in the north doorway.Portions of the skin from Westminster Abbey were evidently examined under the microscope by the famous John Thomas Quekett (1815 - 1861) of the Hunterian Museum, who ascertained, beyond question, that in each of the cases the skin was human. He also examined the Copford specimen (later bequeathed to Taunton museum) and wrote that he believed it was human skin. He published a paper in 1849 on one example of a leathery material found under a metal plate on the church door at East Thurrock that was found to be the skin of a light haired man
DNA testing was recently carried out by Alan Cooper of Oxford University. He was allowed to remove one tiny part of the ancient skin, no more than one centimetre square. He managed to extract identifiable DNA from the sample. The results suggested that the the skin, ancient though it was, was no more than an ordinary cowhide leather covering on Hadstock church door after all. Now a tree ring study has proved that the door itself seems to date to not long after 1060. Dendrochronology conducted by Dan Miles and Martin Bridge of Oxford University showed the most recent tree ring dated to 1025, which allowing for removed sapwood and comparison with other Medieval doors dated by documents, gave a construction range of 1044-1067.
So what is the truth of the legend? This is hard to say until we can get definitive testing on all the verifiable samples. Certainly, Hadstock's door is Saxon and so dates back to the Danish incursions. Copford Church is Norman, and the current (north) door probably of the same date. It could easily be that the doors were customarily covered in cowhide leather anyway and the use of Dane's skin merely a grisly retake of existing custom. The small fragments that escaped the Georgian souvenir hunters may have been just part of the original covering of the doors. they were under the hinge and it would seem to be ascribing a meticulous care to the Anglo-Saxons to take the existing hinges off in order to mount the Danes' skin. Until the time that science finally robs us of the romance of these long-held traditions, I would like to continue the tradition of implanting in the minds of children the dire perils of vandalising a church.