A Possible Solution
So how did the fashion and expertise for hammer beam and angel roofs come to be so heavily concentrated in East Anglia? 

I believe that the answer lies with the royal carpenter Hugh Herland, the creator at Westminster Hall of the first known angel roof and the first major hammer beam roof.

Westminster Hall’s roof was substantially complete by 1398, because on 10th August of that year, Hugh Herland was appointed to a new project, the recruitment of labour for the construction of a new harbour at Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk.  The town was important economically as a centre of herring fishery, and strategically as a maritime base. By 1398, Herland was probably in his late sixties, and this is his last known major assignment.

The four men appointed to work alongside him in impressing labour were Hugh atte Fenn, Robert atte Fenn, John de Cleye and William Oxeneye. These men were East Anglians of substance and status, wealthy merchants involved in the governance of Yarmouth, and, in the case of at least two of them, in the governance of the country, as members of Parliament. It was through such wealthy, influential locals - men with an economic and social stake in their communities - that royal policy was enacted in the provinces during the medieval period. 

Given the, fame, scale and recency of Herland’s work at Westminster Hall, it seems very likely that it was talked about during his interaction with the four East Anglian grandees who had been appointed beside him.

Like any builder, Herland would have taken trusted lieutenants to assist him on the Yarmouth project, and some of these men would surely have worked with him on Westminster Hall roof.  Herland had been appointed to recruit labour, and so he and his team came into direct contact with East Anglian craftsmen, including carpenters, and perhaps also, given the region’s maritime economy, shipwrights (a pool of craftsmen already expert in a different form of timber construction involving large components).

I believe that this was the mechanism through which the idea of and the expertise needed to build hammer beam and angel roofs, and the initial appetite and fashion for them amongst the wealthy, was planted in East Anglia. No other region had this specific catalyst. No other region, as we have seen, has anything like as many angel or hammer beam roofs.  

Some of the local craftsmen who worked with Herland at Yarmouth may have acquired enough knowledge or simply the inspiration to attempt hammer beam and angel roof construction themselves; members of his team from Westminster might even have stayed behind to undertake commissions in East Anglia once the work at Yarmouth was completed; local gentry who came into contact with Herland or his men or heard talk of Westminster Hall’s roof may have been inspired to commission such roofs themselves. 

Once the expertise needed to build hammer beam and angel roofs had been planted in East Anglia, their spread throughout the region during the C15th can be explained by local fashion, and inter-community, inter-gentry rivalry (local competition is a recurrent theme in medieval building contracts which often include a clause specifying that “the work is to be like that at location X, only better”). 

There is one more fascinating link. The earliest dateable angel roof in East Anglia is not (disappointingly) at Yarmouth. It is at St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn, and is generally dated to 1405-10.

St Nicholas is a building of huge scale and magnificence, with one of the most breathtaking of all angel roofs. It would seem to have been funded by donations from several affluent Lynn merchants, rather than by a single wealthy donor. Medieval bench ends from St Nicholas, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, carry detailed depictions of the merchant ships on which the town’s prosperity was based.

One of the donors to the building of St Nicholas was a man called John Wace (d. 1399). Wace was, like Hugh atte Fenn and William Oxeneye in Yarmouth, a rich merchant, a Member of Parliament, and part of his town’s governing class. In his will of 1399, he bequeathed a total of £50, a very substantial sum, towards the construction at St Nicholas.

In 1398 John Wace was appointed to a commission to assemble ships against east coast piracy. So was William Oxeneye of Yarmouth, who in the same year, as we have seen, also worked alongside Hugh Herland impressing labour for the rebuilding of the harbour there. Can we trace a tentative line of transmission from Westminster Hall and Herland, via William Oxeneye, to John Wace and his fellow Lynn merchants, who commissioned (from unknown craftsmen) and funded the first known angel roof in East Anglia? 

This may be a step too far. But certainly we can show that in 1398 Herland came into contact with East Anglians from exactly the class that would subsequently go on to commission angel and hammer beam roofs, and that he also came into contact with East Anglian craftsmen, the class of men who would subsequently build them. 

I am not aware that anyone has made this connection between Herland, the Yarmouth harbour project and the prevalence of angel and hammer beam roofs in East Anglia before, but it seems to me, at the very least, a plausible and tantalizing possibility.
Michael Rimmer

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