Walking in almost any street in the Four Shires you will be greeted by any number of interesting architectural details but one small addition may go unnoticed. The door knocker of someone’s home or business can be a work of art all on its own.
Door knockers are more popular in England than in any other country and can be found everywhere, even in the most remote locations.
But the history of door knockers begins several thousand years ago in Ancient Greece.
Greeks were wary about unannounced visits to their dwellings, and it was considered a breach of etiquette to enter without warning. Where Spartans would simply shout their arrival, the more sophisticated Athenians preferred to use a door knocker.
Doors had replaced hangings to provide better safety and privacy, and upper class Greeks had slaves whose sole purpose was to answer the door.
It’s a bit like having a butler, but one that was chained to the door to prevent them wandering off. If they didn’t die of boredom, they’d fall asleep, and so to wake them up, visitors rapped the door with a short bar of iron attached to a chain. It wasn’t long however before some Greeks realised the short bar made a good weapon with which to attack the householder. So property owners fought back with new technology.
The knocker evolved into a heavy ring fastened to the door by a plate, this provided a dual purpose, the knocker and handle was born.
Adopting the Greek custom, the Romans spread the use of door knockers to the farthest reaches of their empire. While the heavy ring remained until around the 15th century, blacksmiths became adept at working various forms onto the back plate. And along with the Renaissance came the greatest embellishments to design of the hammer and craftsmen saw the artistic possibilities beyond mere utility.
Some of the most elaborate examples can be found in Italy, England, and Germany.
Styles of door knocker
Dating from the 11th century, the knocker at Durham Cathedral holds a special significance under English common law. As far back as 740, Cynewulf, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Lindisfarne, offered sanctuary to any criminal who could reach the White Church at Durham, later replaced by Durham Cathedral, and strike the knocker. Housed, fed, and kept safe from capture for 37 days, the criminal was either pardoned or taken to a place of refuge far from the scene of the crime. This practice was lawful for hundreds of years until it was overturned by parliament in 1623.
Lion’s Head Knockers
One of the most enduring themes for knockers has been the lion’s head. Traditionally regarded as the king of beasts, the lion’s head symbolises bravery, nobility, strength, and valour.
Hand Door Knockers
Thought to originate from the Hand of Fatima, a palm-shaped amulet used to protect against evil. Hand-shaped knockers are common in countries bordering the Mediterranean whence they spread to neighbouring countries.
Fish Shaped Door Knockers
Thought to originate from Scottish foundries, knockers with a maritime theme were often seen on the homes of shipping merchants. There are a wide variety of styles of Dolphin and Mythical fish knockers each with their own meaning, for example a carp is a symbol of good luck and abundance and a fish with a Poseidon fork design depicts power and a mastery of the seas.
So in choosing your door knocker, bear in mind their interesting meanings and historical references and most of all, have fun with it!