What Are Angel Roofs?
By the late 1300s English constructional and decorative carpentry had attained a level of sophistication which was unrivalled in Europe. The angel roof is one of the most impressive and complex examples of this skill. The hammerbeam roof is another. In East Anglia the two structures often combine, but rarely anywhere else in the country.
Between 1395 and about 1530, several hundred angel roofs were built in England, most of them during the 1400s, a century of usurpation, conquest and loss in France, the Wars of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor dynasty. Of these, more than 140 angel roofs survive. They occur almost exclusively in churches, and predominantly in East Anglia, particularly in the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Angel roofs are found in a range of structural patterns, but whatever the structural form, they are all, by definition, adorned with carved images of angels. Some are 8ft tall, others are half-body figures or low-relief carvings. Some roofs have a handful of angels, others scores, and a few have hundreds.
Why Do They Matter?
Before Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, English churches were filled with carved and painted images: devotional statues in niches, guild altars and chantry chapels; Easter sepulchres and wall paintings; dooms and exultations; rood screens showing the crucified Christ; stained glass depicting the Holy Family, angels and saints. For a largely unlettered congregation, these were the common man’s gateway into scripture and the teachings of the church - a vivid reminder of the rewards of piety and the gruesome penalties of sin. Until the Reformation, our churches were a didactic riot of colours and images. In the Protestant revolution of the 1540s, and the Puritan iconoclasm of a hundred years later, most of these depictions in glass, paint, stone and wood were destroyed, condemned as idolatrous distractions.
But amidst the destruction, there were some silent survivors. Roof angels were far above the ground, inaccessible, and sometimes actually supporting the church roof. Not all of them escaped the iconoclasts; but to tear roof angels down required determination, time, and the co-operation of locals and these were not always available. By contrast, most stained glass was a sitting duck, which is why so many medieval churches today have only clear glass or Victorian replacements.
Simply because they were hard for the iconoclasts to get at, roof angels are now the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture. High up in darkness or extremes of light and shade, they are often overlooked by visitors, but they are bright with stories. They speak of the skill and vision of medieval carvers and carpenters, they tell us about the beliefs, economics and personalities of medieval England. Some bear quiet witness to the pride of doomed kings and nobles, and one perhaps, to the midnight burial of an executed queen.