I have previously discussed this topic under Whitcombe and Luppitt. Broadly, it is generally believed that north doors were intended to allow the Devil to exit the church during baptism. This explains why, once exorcism was no longer part of the baptismal rite, north doors were so frequently blocked.
The problem is that in a minority of churches the North door has been the principal entrance for a long time. In the case of Church Hanborough I was compelled to research further because I couldn’t understand why a porch would be built over a north door at a time when exorcism was still part of the sacrament (see my caption to the large picture of the tympanum above). Nicholas Groves’s paper points to two very serious problems with the “Devil’s Door” theory. Firstly, there is no contemporary written account of the belief. Hardly surprising, you might say. More seriously, he points out that the act of exorcism was not carried out in the body of the church at all.
As referenced elsewhere on this site, the “Rite of Sarum” was the most widespread form of liturgy used in England (see more at Heckington). Groves says that the rite of baptism was in two parts. The first, called the “making of the catechumen” included the element of exorcism and this took place in the porch, not the nave! This, by the way, was also the point at which the baby was named. Thus, the Devil had been cast out before the baby entered the church and you would have to say that this seems eminently sensible. Why then would the exorcised Devil need, in most cases, to still to enter the church through the south door only so he could make an exit via the north door? This becomes an even more bizarre notion (in my own view) if the entrance is at the west end of the church. The Devil would have had to have turned a corner!
However, Groves concedes that not all country clergy would have understood this fine point and we can be sure that the congregation would not. Furthermore there is no doubting the traditional belief that the north side was associated with dark forces. Vague as it might be, there is scriptural support for this as well as folk belief. The Vikings came from the north. The coldest winds are from the north. It is indisputable that the north side was seen as an undesirable place to be buried until quite recently; to the extent that some believed erroneously that north sides are unconsecrated. It is also undeniable that churches have traditionally presented their best faces to the south. That is as true today as it ever was. A good eighty per cent of the churches I visit have, I would say, a south door as their main entrance with porches to protect them. Many north sides are an absolute disgrace: the place where you still keep your junk, your bins, your horrible boiler houses and carbuncle-like vestries. I know some where venturing around the north side involves a fight with thickets of brambles and fallen stones.
Nicholas Groves, however, points out that some processions, especially on Palm Sunday, involved leaving the church via the north door so such doors cannot be condemned as simple exits for the Devil.
Where does the truth lie - because it is certainly true that many north doors have been blocked? I find Nicholas Groves’s account wholly convincing that the north door did not liturgically need to be used as the Devil’s exit. I qualify that slightly by pointing out that the Use of Sarum was not in universal use. I do, however, believe that the people of our villages cleaved to ancient practices and prejudices far more strongly than the Church liked to admit and that it is likely that the connotations and traditions of “The Devil’s Door” are not just the stuff of legend. I would also observe - without any statistical evidence to back this up - that town churches are far more likely to have been agnostic about which door has been kept for entry. I put much of that down to the greater sophistication and education of the mediaeval clergy serving the larger town churches and perhaps also of their congregations.
I think Nicholas Groves has proven convincingly that whatever the populace believed about north doors they were not put there just to let the Devil take his leave. Whether that is what they became in practice at some churches is still unprovable. For those who want to study church architecture, this is one of its joys. In this field you can still - as Nicholas Groves has done - “go” to places that nobody’s really been before. There are still theories to be made, myths to debunk.