How Were Angel Roofs Built?
Westminster Hall roof is built entirely of oak, sourced from Royal and Church woods in the Southern Counties in 1393. Timbers of exceptional size had to be found, given the huge span and weight of the roof structure. (The vertical hammerposts, which are the largest timber components at Westminster, measure 20ft 9in x 39in x 25in and weigh between three and four tons each). The ability to identify trees which would yield timber of the required quality and dimensions was itself a key skill of any Master Carpenter such as Hugh Herland. Westminster’s roof timbers were shaped and framed offsite at Farnham in Hampshire and transported by cart to Ham on the Thames, and then on by water to the Hall. Most angel roofs would have been manufactured offsite in this way, and then transported to their final destination for fitting and finishing.
Oak was favoured in English medieval construction for its strength and availability, and most angel roofs are built of it, though there are exceptions (e.g. the roof at Swaffham in Norfolk is fashioned from chestnut while that at Mildenhall in Suffolk is said to be made of sycamore). Westminster's 26 angel hammerbeams were carved either at Farnham or onsite. Royal records tell us the names of the men who carved most of them, and what they were paid for the work. A certain Robert Brusyngdon carved the first four, and received the highest payment for these, presumably because of the importance of establishing a satisfactory model for other carvers to follow. Given the prestige of this project and the quality of the actual carving, it is likely that all these men were specialist master carvers (known as imagers or ymaginours) rather than generalist carpenters able to turn their hand to sculpture.
While many of East Anglia’s angel roofs, especially the more modest ones, would have been made by local craftsmen, sometimes responsible for both the carpentry and the carving (e.g. Hockwold, Norfolk) we know that masters could be brought in from far afield for expensive and prestigious building projects. For example, the London-based imager John Massingham is known to have worked on carvings in Canterbury, All Souls Oxford and Eton College in the 1430s and 1440s; the best craftsmen were used to working around the country.
Scaffold was set up in Westminster Hall in 1395-6, and the 13 great arch-ribs were put in place by 1397, leaving the upper sections of the roof and the tracery of the spandrels to be worked on from 1397-1401. Getting the roof timbers in place would have been exceptionally challenging and dangerous, given their size and weight, and the height to which they had to be raised.
It would seem that the roof was substantially in place by 1398, because in August of that year, Hugh Herland was appointed to oversee another construction project outside London, his last known major commission.
I will return to this project later, since I believe it has a direct bearing on why angel roofs are found mainly in East Anglia.