A terrible legend surrounds the calm, inconspicuous St. Botolph’s church in Hadstock, near Cambridge. During renovations in the late 1800s, it was revealed that the entryway had a big portion of skin hidden behind its metal bands. According to legend, the skin belonged to a Danish (Viking) robber who attempted to plunder the cathedral in the 11th century. As a terrible warning, he was then flayed alive and affixed to the door. The “human leather” decoration on the front entrance of this church is not unique. These skin remnants may be found in at least three medieval churches in England: St. Botolph’s, St Michael & All Angels Church in Copford, near Colchester, and Westminster Abbey in London.
Scientists have conducted scientific investigations on some of the samples in the past to see if these beliefs were real. However, there has been considerable disagreement as to what it was built of. In the 1970s, Ron Reed, a leather specialist from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, investigated St Botolph’s skin and found that it was human and likely came from “a person with light or greying hair,” confirming the legend. However, DNA research confirmed that the sample was of Bovid origin during the BBC documentary Blood of the Vikings (2001), however the accuracy of the results was questioned.
Ruairidh Macleod and his colleagues used a non-destructive technology called “Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry” or ZooMS to further study the skin pieces from all four sites at the UK Archaeological Sciences Conference 2022 (UKAS). The collagen peptide sequence in samples is revealed using this procedure, allowing scientists to determine which species the material formerly belonged to. In this case, the researchers used rubber erasers to brush against the skin’s surface, then collected and trypsin-digesting peptides from the eraser waste.
None of the skin samples were found to be human in any way. Two of the samples were from cows, while the one from St Michael & All Angels Church came from a horse or donkey. Because these species have a very similar collagen fingerprint, the later sample could not be identified any further. But, more importantly, why did this tale begin in the first place?
“It’s remarkable that quite similar traditions about the origins of the skins from Danish (Viking) attackers have emerged for all of the churches we looked at.” The belief that they are flayed human skins from Danes was first confirmed by Samuel Pepys in his journal in 1661, therefore the idea has been around for a long time.” IFLScience spoke with Macleod. “In the lack of any samples proving to be human, it appears that this narrative began as a local legend for one of the churches (the reports for Hadstock and Westminster are among the earliest), and then swiftly spread to others where bits of dried skin were also discovered attached to the door.”
There might be another explanation for the use of animal skins on church doors. Nailing treated (not tanned) animal skins to doors, according to Theophilus, may have a more current function and a more attractive interpretation. “However, the myth’s morbid fascination certainly explains its survival, as well as functioning as a deterrent to would-be church-desecrators!” argues Macleod.