Why an Angel Roof at Westminster?

Who made the decision to adorn Westminster roof with angels - so sparking off an entire genre of medieval roof design - is not known. Perhaps it was Richard II himself. There is strong evidence that angels played a prominent part in the iconography of his regime.  The Wilton Diptych shows Richard being presented by saints to the Virgin and Child, who are flanked by eleven angels wearing the king's livery badge of a chained white hart.

Angels also featured in ceremonial surrounding the king. At Richard’s coronation procession in July 1377 the Great Conduit in Cheapside was transformed into the Heavenly City, and a mechanical angel bowed down and offered him a golden crown (Richard II, The Art of Kingship, Ed. Goodman and Gillespie, p 150). An eyewitness account of Richard’s reconciliation with the City of London in August 1392 records “At his entry into Cheapside ... came two angels down from a cloud, the one bearing a crown for the king...and the other another crown, which was presented to the queen...the conduits of the city...ran with wine...and angels made great melody and minstrelsy”.Elsewhere during the pageant, a throne was set up, surrounded by three circles of angels symbolising the angelic orders attendant on God. On the canopy of Richard’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, angels bear the arms of the king and of his first wife, Anne of Bohemia.

Angels were plainly part of the imagery used by Richard to project the notion that his kingship was divinely ordained. Westminster Hall is the most prominent example of his assertion of kingly authority through art. But despite the heavenly images, Richard’s earthly power was always precarious. His authoritarian impulses were not backed by political skills, and for most of his reign, power see-sawed between the king and a faction of disaffected nobles. Ironically, the first major event to take place under the newly constructed angel roof at Westminster was not a demonstration of Richard’s power, but the confirmation by Parliament of his deposition and replacement as king by Henry Bolingbroke, Henry IV, on 30 September 1399.


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