THE CHURCH TREASURY OF HISTORY, CUSTOM, FOLK-LORE, ETC.
Human Skin on Church Doors.
BY THE REV. GEO. S. TYACK, B. A.
THOSE were wild and stormy days for England when the Black Raven of the marauding Dane hovered on her eastern coast, and ever and anon swooped with relentless talons on the devoted land. Time had been when the English themselves had in a similar manner harried and harassed the British who held these lands before them, but with the change of the times, their character had changed also. The sons of the White Horse and descendants of the hardy Norsemen had become tillers of the soil, and patient toilers in life’s ways: while they feared no more the thunder of Thor’s hammer, nor gloried in the fierce fame of fight that Odin loved, for they had knelt to the White Christ, and called themselves His men.
Yet how hardly can a man, or even a race of men become wholly emancipated from the failings of their former selves! How, under terrible provocation, the fierce nature of the wild Viking 159 showed itself through the civilised and Christianised Englishman, this page of history shows. For up and down the country in places mostly near the east coast, but one at least, nearer the west, the gruesome legend runs, that stung to ungovernable rage by the continuous assaults of the Danes, in whose pathway farmstead, and village, and abbey, went up in flames, and specially horrified at the way in which shrine and priest were desecrated and slain, the English took once and again an awful vengeance on their ruthless enemies. As the farmer nails the rook to his barn door for a warning to all the tribe, so the maddened English seized the poor wretch who had fallen into their hands, stripped from his quivering limbs his skin, and nailed it on the door of the church which he had sacrilegiously violated.
A legend of such brutality, one would gladly dismiss as too horrible to be true, but the story rests on more than a legendary foundation.
There are at least six places in England where the church doors have been overlaid with human hide. These are Hadstock, Copford, and Castle Hedingham, in Essex; the cathedrals of Rochester and of Worcester; and Westminster 160 Abbey. Fragments of the skins have been taken from all these doors, except those of Castle Hedingham and Rochester, and have been submitted to microscopical examination by experts, who have in each case declared that it was unquestionably human skin. For the other two cases tradition only exists. Beneath the iron scroll-work on the Norman doors of the parish church of Castle Hedingham leather, like parchment in appearance, has been found, and the local legend says it is the skin of a man. The writer of this article is not aware that it has ever been thoroughly examined. The only allusion to the matter with respect to Rochester seems to be an entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Under April 10th, 1661, he writes, “Then to Rochester, and there saw the Cathedrall, which is now fitting for use, and the organ there a-tuning. Then away thence, observing the great doors of the church, as they say covered with the skins of the Danes.” It is strange that a tradition of that kind, rife only two hundred years since, should now have entirely died out. Yet such is the case, and only the proverbial curiosity of Pepys in noting the smallest details that came under his notice, makes the story worthy of record and regard.161
We have then six of these gruesome instances, four of which are fully substantiated. Legend describes the skins at Worcester, Hadstock, and Copford, as those of Danes; and the microscope has shewn that in each case it once belonged to a fair-haired man, such as the Northmen were. The hide at Castle Hedingham is said to be that “of a foreign robber,” who attempted to sack the church; which probably is another slightly less precise version of the same story. The Westminster case must be treated separately, as it will occur to everyone that no hostile Danes have harried us since S. Edward the Confessor reared his glorious abbey.
This much we know for certain concerning the Danish incursions, that their ships came frequently to the Eastern coast of the country, and that Essex, as well as the neighbouring counties, suffered from their attacks, and, moreover, they occasionally ventured down the channel, and assailed the west coast also, and ran up the Severn, not only as far as Worcester, but even further.
The most complete form of the story is the one extant at Worcester. It relates that the Danes, having landed near the city, from which most of 162 the peaceful burghers had fled on their approach, looted the houses and the great church, and then made off to their long ships. The heavy sanctus bell of the cathedral abandoned, one may suppose, by the rest of the marauders as too cumbersome to carry off, seemed to one man a desirable acquisition, and he lingered behind his comrades to get it. Presently, before he was able, loaded as he was, to join the retreating Danes, the townsmen returned. Doubtless from a distance they had been witnesses of many outrages, and right and left along their streets they now saw signs of the violence of their foes; and in the heat of their rage and indignation they came upon the sacrilegious wretch upon whose shoulder was the sanctus bell.
We will not try to picture the final scene; the Englishmen’s blood was up, the Dane was caught redhanded in theft and sacrilege, and moreover there was probably not a man in all the throng who did not burn under a sense of some private wrong inflicted on him by the pirates. Upon the devoted head of the one the misdeeds of all were visited; and his skin, in attestation of his guilt and of his doom, was fastened to the church door.163
Such is the story which is told with more or less fullness in every instance; it is always a Dane who suffers, and always for a robbery of the Church. An old rector of Copford, in writing some “Church Notes,” says that such a story was told to him concerning Copford Church in the year 1690, and that his informant, an aged man, had heard it when he was a boy.
It is not an unusual occurrence for a tradition, springing, it may be, from a historical foundation in one district, to get transferred in some way to others with which it has no real connection. But we are debarred from thinking that all these stories have sprung from one original, by the fact of the presence of the skin in each instance. No skin now remains upon the Copford door, the last vestiges having been removed about the year 1843 or 1844; a new door was also erected in 1846 at Hadstock, to which the fragments of skin that still adhered to the old one were not transferred. The great door of Worcester Cathedral was also long since removed, but it is still preserved, and portions of the human hide may yet be seen. Fragments from Worcester, Hadstock, and Copford are also preserved in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn; 164 and other authenticated pieces are in the hands of public or private collectors of antiquities.
A difficulty in accepting the legend in all its details arises from the computed age of the door in some of these instances. Some hold that the old doors of Worcester date back no earlier than the fourteenth century; others, however, assign them to the Norman, or even the Saxon period. Since they are evidently very ancient, and show signs of having been altered since they were first made, they may perhaps date from the Saxon time, but have been fitted afresh to new requirements, arising from Cathedral alterations in a later century.
Another detail is affected by the fact that the introduction of the use of a sanctus bell is attributed to William of Paris in 1097, or to Cardinal Guido in 1200.
Whether the special act of sacrilege was the theft of a sanctus bell, or of some other article of church furniture; whether the robber were Saxon, Norman, or Dane; the presence of the human hide is a witness for the truthfulness of the most terrible part of the story.
The skin found on the doors of Westminster Abbey recalls another incident. The doors in 165 question are four in number, and are the three leading into the re-vestry, and one into the Chapel of the Pyx, anciently the royal treasury. Here, as in other instances cited, the skin has been worn by the action of time, or peeled by the curiosity of visitors, from the more exposed portions of the surfaces, but under the iron clamps and hinges it has been preserved, and scientific examination has decided definitely in favour of its claim to be human skin.
The Westminster story, which the late Dean Stanley recalls in his “Historic Memorials of Westminster Abbey,” and which he deems to be sufficiently supported by facts, is as follows: — “In the year 1303, King Edward I. was in Scotland, prosecuting that war of subjection which was so nearly successful, when news came to him that his store of ‘the sinews of war,’ which had been placed in the Treasury of Westminster had been stolen. Six years before, having exhausted his supplies in his almost continuous hostilities with Wales, Scotland, and France, the King had to raise fresh sums for the prosecution of his plans of conquest. Both clergy and laity had seized the opportunity to press for redress of grievances, and the King had confirmed Magna Charta and the 166 Charter of Forests, and had in other ways complied with their demands. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that in return the people had contributed liberally to the needs of the Kingdom, and that a large amount of money in consequence lay at Westminster.
“On the discovery of the robbery, forty-eight monks of the Abbey, together with the Lord Abbot himself, were arrested and thrown into the Tower, where they were kept while a thorough investigation of the circumstances took place. The result was the acquittal and release of most of the accused; it was, however, proved that one, Richard de Podicate, had made off with the money, being aided and abetted by persons of no less position in the Abbey than the sub-prior and the sacristan. Upon these men condign punishment was inflicted, after such sort, it would appear, that fragments of their skin to this day remain at Westminster as a warning to the robbers of Church and State.”
In all these cases we find a record of a barbarous and hideous punishment inflicted for an aggravated act of robbery. In the earlier instances cited, the crime was sacrilege, the furniture of the Church itself being carried off; in this last one, 167 the resources of the State were plundered after they had been placed in a measure under the protection of the Church, and the thieves were those whose duty it was to guard them. It would probably be useless to seek for statutes which ordered, or customs which sanctioned, such a frightful doom as that of flaying alive, even in those rough days, and in the cases of such crimes. In the earlier instances, it is more probable that it was the summary act of a mob stung to frenzy by repeated wrongs, and in the last, the judgment of a stern and justly indignant monarch, to whom a life spent in bloodshed had left but little pity for the agony of those who had baulked his will, or marred his schemes.