Medieval London

St. Ethelburga-the Virgin Doorframe

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Figure 1. The inner doorframe partition from St. Ethelburga-the Virgin Church in the city of London, which is affixed to the church’s porch.


Figure 2. This map of London circa 1270 shows the Church of St. Ethelburga (marked with a star).

The inner doorframe pictured here [fig. 1] came from the Church of St. Ethelburga the Virgin in the city of London near Bishopsgate [fig. 2]. The brown, wooden doorframe is 2049mm high, 203mm wide, and 130mm deep.  It was located at the western entrance of the church [fig. 3] and connected the porch to the rest of the church. The spandrels, or the triangles coming inward, at the top of the arch show the faces of a man and a lion, representing St. Matthew and St. Mark respectively.[1] The arches with the carved moldings show a Romanesque architectural influence, although this doorframe was not constructed until the late fifteenth century.[2] It may be that these carvings showcased the community’s dedication or strong faith to these apostles as church entryways often reflected community identity. It is thought that the porch once had a second door that was decorated with symbols of the other two Evangelists, St. Luke and St. John.[3] These apostles could represent the parishioners' dedication to these four saints. These face carvings are the only noticeable decorations on the doorframe.

The Church often received assistance from royalty or nobility to acquire large structural timbers, such as those needed for door frames, which suggests that they were expensive to make.[4] Elm was usually supplied in board form to be used for doors and was usually available locally.[5]  The door frame was most likely built by a carpenter who would have had the skills to construct this large, heavy wooden piece.[6] It is unlikely that the carpenter did the carvings, but rather a carver that was commissioned to assist after the carpenter had completed the door frame.  Apart from this partition, very little pre-Reformation woodwork of London parish church survives besides St. Ethelburga and St. Andrew Undershaft.[7]

The parish church of St. Ethelburga- the Virgin was probably first constructed around the early thirteenth century, or as early as the late twelfth century[8] since molded stones were found in the walls after the church was bombed.[9] Only 17 meters long by 9 meters wide, it was the smallest church in the city.[10]  It was dedicated to the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, St. Ethelburga, and this is the only known honor to her in London.[11] The church underwent a rebuild in the fifteenth century, when the doorframe was probably added.[12] The patronage of the church was vested in the convent of St. Helen until 1539 and then was given to the Bishop of London by Queen Elizabeth.[13] This was one of the only city churches that was not destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666.[14] After an IRA bombing in 1993 destroyed the church, the doorframe was not damaged, yet it was removed and not included in the rebuilding.[15] This bombing provided the extraordinary circumstance to study the medieval church piece by piece.[16] Besides St. Ethelburga, there were probably not many porches of grand architectural status in London as most churches had their main entrance in a tower, not a porch.[17] The preservation of this door highlights its architectural important to both the studies of medieval history and architecture, but also illustrates the door’s importance to the history of the church itself.

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Figure 3. Blueprint outlining the different additions during each period of the construction St Ethelburga church. The location of the doorframe is marked with a star (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for London, 1929).

This doorframe connected the church’s porch to the body of the parish (fig. 3). It is thought that this porch was probably constructed of timber.[18] Church porches were known by 1339 and were often the focal point of social interaction in English communities, in part because so many ceremonial processions passed through these main entrances.[19] Their importance also drew attention to the types of carvngs and figures chosen to represent the parish community. Porches were often built to protect the main doorways, providing both transitional (or logistical) and social spaces.[20]

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Figure 4. Detail of a burial ceremony located near a church porch, which highlights the role of the church porch in religious ceremonies. From a Book of Hours in the Pierpont Morgan Library. MS M. 136.

This church’s porch was a central venue for the community, serving as the setting for marriages, births, business and legal transactions, a place to distribute donations to the poor, and other religious events, such as burial ceremonies (fig. 4).[21] There were two human burials located beneath the porch, highlighting the religious and social role of the porch and entryway of the church.[22] Church porches often took on an economic purpose as well. This specific congregation rented out the porch to small shops in order to raise more revenue for the church. The location of the door as a connecting element from the porch to the parish signifies that it represented a center of community and played an important role in both the social and religious lives of medieval Londoners.

--Katherine McGrath


[1] “St Ethelburga-the Virgin Door Frame,” Museum of London Collections Online.

[2] Sayer, The Medieval Period, 260-261

[3] Schofield, “Saxon and Medieval Churches,” 101

[4] Schofield, “Construction,” 10

[5] Ibid. and Schofield, London 1100-1600, 170

[6] Ibid., 13

[7] Schofield, “Saxon and Medieval Churches,” 101

[8] Hibbert, “St. Ethelburga-the-Virgin at Bishopsgate,” 575

[9] Schofield, “Saxon and Medieval Churches,” 101

[10] Ibid.

[11] Schofield, London 1100-1600, 170

[12] Schofield, “Saxon and Medieval Churches,” 101

[13] Millard, St. Ethelburga, London

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bates, “Church Ravaged by IRA Bomb Reopens as Centre for Peace”

[16] Schofield, London 1100-1600, 170

[17] Schofield, “Saxon and Medieval Parishes,” 56

[18] Schofield, “Saxon and Medieval Parishes” 56

[19] Ledfors, “St. Dunstan in the East,” 66

[20] Ibid.

[21] “St Ethelburga-the Virgin Door Frame,” Museum of London Collections Online.

[22] Schofield, Saxon and Medieval Parishes 101


An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Londo”, Volume 4, the City. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1929. British History Online. Accessed 29 September 2020.

Bates, Stephen. “Church Ravaged by IRA Bomb Reopens as Centre for Peace.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 14, 2002.

Hibbert, Christopher, Ben Weinreb, John Keay, and Julia Keay. “St. Ethelburga-the-Virgin at Bishopsgate.”  In The London Encyclopaedia. New York: Macmillan, 2010. 

Ledfors, Jennifer. “St.  Dunstan in the East: An Architectural History of a Medieval London Parish Church.” London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Transactions (2015): 47–77. 

Mary D. Lobel and W.H. Johns, eds., The City of London from Prehistoric Times to c. 1520, Volume III (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); digitized by British Historic Towns Atlas Accessed 29 September 2020.

Millard, Andrew. “St Ethelburga, London.”  GENUKI; UK and Ireland Genealogy. Accessed September 24, 2020.

“Pierpont Morgan Library. MS M. 136.” The Morgan Museum and Library. Accessed October 16, 2020. 

Postles, David. “Micro-Spaces: Church Porches in Pre-Modern England.” Journal of Historical Geography, 33, no. 4(2007): 749–769. 

Sayer, Duncan. “The Medieval Period.” The Handbook of British Archaeology, edited by Chris King, Revised ed., Constable, 1998, pp. 259–263. 

Schofield, John. London 1100-1600: The Archaeology of a Capital City. Sheffield : Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2011. 

Schofield, John. “Saxon and Medieval Parish Churches in the City of London: A Review.” London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Transactions, 45 (2015): 23–147. 

Schofield, John. “The Construction of Medieval and Tudor Houses in London.” Construction History, (1991): 3–28.

“St Ethelburga-the Virgin Door Frame.” Museum of London. Accessed September 25, 2020.

St. Ethelburga-the Virgin Doorframe
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