This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.
Westminster Hall was originally built during the reign of William II in 1097 but most of the Hall and its iconic roof we know today is from the repairs, redesign, and rebuilding commissioned by Richard II in 1393. The oak hammer beam roof is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe. The Hall measures 20.7 by 73.2 meters (68 by 240 feet) and due to an incredible feat of craftsmanship and engineering, the roof does not need to be supported by pillars. This allowed the Hall space to be uninterrupted, with an unobstructed view, making the space feel bigger.
Parliament was often held in the Hall but during the construction of the roof in 1397, a temporary shed was erected for this purpose, it was open on each side so all could see and hear the debates.
The Chief Carpenter, responsible for the design of the timber roof, was Hugh Herland. He worked alongside Chief Mason, Henry Yevele, who created buttresses on the walls to further strengthen and support the roof. So, the roof was able to support its own weight, without the need for pillars, for centuries to come. The oak timber used for the roof came from several sources including the Royal woods in Odiham, Hampshire, and from the woods of the Abbot of St Albans. For his work on the roof, Herland was awarded the titles The King’s Esquire, Chief Carpenter, and Surveyor of the Works within the Palace of Westminster. The title of Surveyor of Royal Works continued in some form or other for centuries and was a title later held by Sir Christopher Wren.
Angels are carved directly into the oak hammer beams of the roof, and although the wings are a separate piece of woodwork, the angel itself is part of the solid oak beam. There is a total of 26 angels carved into the hammer beams. Each angel is holding a shield bearing the royal arms of Richard II. The angels, as well as other architectural designs in the Hall, were intended symbolism to emphasise the sacred importance and divine right of the King. Richard II also included the coat of arms of Edward the Confessor into his royal arms. At the time there was a popular cult of Edward the Confessor, he was remembered as the last true Anglo-Saxon, revered as a Saint, and embodied the idealistic view of kingship.
The roof and its angels have remained consistent over the centuries, but that doesn’t mean they have been ignored. There have been many reports on the roof to make sure it stays in good condition which has led to necessary repairs and additions when needed. Some repairs were more useful than others, as suggested in this 1923 report:
“Some of the repairs undertaken in the past undoubtedly prejudiced the stability of the roof, distorted the already overstressed timers and mutilated the original design.”
Westminster Hall: Repairs to the roof, 1923, Parliamentary Archives, HL/BR/2/357
The first detailed accounts of roof repair are from 1663, there were also detailed repairs in 1819-22 by architect John Soane. Also, in 1820 for George IV’s coronation banquet, iron hooks were added to the angels to hang chandeliers. The hooks can still be seen in this 1905 photograph and some are still used to hold lighting in the Hall to this day.
There were more recent repairs in the 1920s after an investigation of the roof by Sir Frank Baines in 1914. He created a series of illustrations of the roof, its current condition, and any damage, which accompanied the condition report. It was found that the timbers were badly infected by the wood-boring death-watch beetle, causing decay to the wood from the inside out. This is shown in Baines’s drawings, all the red colour on the illustrations representing wood that was decayed, worm-eaten, and hollow.
The solution of insecticide extermination of the beetles required careful consideration with the centuries-old timbers, as they needed to avoid any flammable or poisonous chemicals in Westminster Hall and couldn’t change the exterior appearance or colour of the ancient wood. But the correct chemical solution was found, the beetle problem removed, and the timbers were repaired and reinforced.
The Westminster Hall roof angels have had numerous repairs, both good and bad, and battled a death-watch beetle infestation. They have spanned 33 monarchs and survived the 1834 parliament fire and blitz bombing. After roughly 8 centuries, the angels carved into the original 14th century hammer beams in the Westminster Hall roof are still flying high bearing the arms of Richard II.
Own a piece of history
In 2018, historic woodcarver William Barsley was part of a team of expert craftsmen called in to help restore the angels to their former glory. Following intense study of their form and features, William now carves his own replicas using the same tools and techniques as the original medieval craftsmen. These are now available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament Shop, with each angel hand-carved to order.