Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Michael Rimmer to the Parish Room last Wednesday night, to hear all about the wonderful Angel Roofs of East Anglia. Michael enthralled the near 50 audience with a superbly polished, professional and visually stunning account of how and why these magnificent pre reformation religious sculptures came into being, how they escaped the reformation and where we can see these magnificent icons for ourselves. He also impressed with some unexpected but delightful audio visual pieces with period music that perfectly set the scene.
We first heard:
Michael next explained what they are and why they matter.
We heard that until the Reformation, medieval churches were a riot of colours and images. Following the Protestant revolution of the 1540s and the Puritan destruction of images a century later, most of the depictions in glass, paint, stone and wood were destroyed, condemned as idolatrous. However, amidst this destruction there were some silent survivors; roof angels were far above the ground, inaccessible and sometimes holding up the church roof. Not all escaped the iconoclasts, but tearing down roof angels required determination, time and the co-operation of locals - not always available. In contrast, most stained glass was a sitting duck, explaining why so many medieval churches today have only clear glass or Victorian replacements. Because they were hard 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, often overlooked by visitors, they tell of the skill and vision of medieval carvers and carpenters, and about the beliefs, economics and personalities of medieval England. As Michael observed, this was England's Talibanic moment; thankfully our churches were not blown up.
The earliest known angel roof is at Westminster Hall in London, which was erected mainly between 1395 and 1398 by Hugh Herland, master carpenter to Richard II, as part of the King's enlargement and restoration project. Michael told us this roof is a masterpiece of art and engineering, spanning a previously unprecedented width of 67ft, at a height of 92 ft; a combination of timber arches and hammerbeams provide rigidity without need for columns, leaving the hall floor space entirely open.
It is estimated the oak roof timbers weighed some 660 tons, with the original lead covering probably a further 176 tons. Early C20th restorers discovered that 70% of the roof timbers were rotten but the roof still stood, testament to the redundancy built in. Herland is unlikely to have fully understood the physics of the roof, so over-engineering was understandable given the status of his patron and the scale of the challenge. Hammerbeams at Westminster Hall were carved in the shape of full-length angels bearing shields emblazoned with Richard‘s arms, projecting horizontally from the wallplates, intersecting the arch ribs and stretching beyond to support vertical hammerposts connecting with curved ribs higher up. It seems that even today, with the benefit of computer modelling and pressure sensors, architectural experts disagree exactly how the roof works, but its strength is clearly based on the combination of arches and braced right-angles, with load also dispersed through vertical tracery - all techniques subsequently deployed in many of the C15th angel roofs of East Anglia.
Westminster's 26 angel hammerbeams were carved either at Farnham or onsite. Royal records tell the names of the men who carved most of them, and what they were paid for the work. Given the prestige of this project and the quality of the carving, it is likely 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, particularly the more modest ones, would have been made by local craftsmen, sometimes responsible for both the carpentry and the carving (e.g. Hockwold, Norfolk), masters could be brought in from far afield for expensive and prestigious building projects. 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, so it appears that the best craftsmen were used to working around the country, helping to spread the technology and ideas.
We heard that rich prosperous men were eager to show their status when alive, and to alleviate the suffering of their souls after death, by spending on reconstruction or adornment of their churches. By the 1400s, the prime era of angel roof building in English churches, East Anglia was rich compared to most of the rest of Britain; however, although other parts of England were also rich, and elaborate expensive churches were built there, angel roofs were not a common feature of these regions. The sophistication of East Anglian expertise in carpentry and wood carving during the C15th-16th has been noted by several writers. At a small scale, finely carved church bench ends are found in large numbers only in East Anglia and the West country. East Anglia also excelled in large-scale medieval carpentry and wood carving, clearly demonstrated by the distribution throughout England of single and double hammerbeam roofs - arguably the most complex and audacious form of medieval timber roof. Such roofs provide multiple surfaces for figurative carving, and many of East Anglia's hammerbeam roofs are also angel roofs - but how did the fashion and expertise for hammer beam and angel roofs come to be so heavily concentrated in East Anglia?
Michael believes the answer lies with royal carpenter Hugh Herland, creator of the first known angel roof and the first major hammer beam roof at Westminster Hall. This roof was substantially complete by 1398, because on 10th August 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; probably in his late sixties, this was his last known major assignment. Four men were appointed alongside him: Hugh atte Fenn, Robert atte Fenn, John de Cleye and William Oxeneye. All were East Anglians of substance and status, wealthy merchants involved in the governance of Yarmouth. Given the scale, fame and recency of his work at Westminster Hall, it seems very likely that it was talked about during Herland's interaction with the four East Anglian grandees appointed beside him.
Michael believes that Herland would have taken trusted lieutenants to assist him on the Yarmouth project, some of whom would have worked on the Westminster Hall roof. Herland and his team would then have come into contact with East Anglian craftsmen, both carpenters and shipwrights, a pool of craftsmen already expert in a different form of timber construction involving large components. Some of these local craftsmen may then have acquired enough knowledge and inspiration to attempt hammer beam and angel roof construction themselves, whilst members of his team may 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 also then 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; for example: “the work is to be like that at location X, only better”.
Michael is not aware that anyone else 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, at the very least, a plausible and tantalizing possibility.
Michael finished his glorious performance by answering many thoughtful and detailed questions from the floor, which by general consent was the best presentation to date - a real tour de force during which our audience was completely spellbound and enthralled throughout.
Andy Sheppard 9th December 2016