Westminster Hall probably goes unnoticed to the hordes of tourists on their camera-clicking itinerary between the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Dwarfed between Pugin’s spikey neo-Gothicism and the ancient splendour of the real thing in the Abbey, the great hall broods, anonymous and unenticing. And yet this hall, the only structure still standing of a once glorious medieval palace which has seen a host of coronation celebrations, monarchs lying in state, and trials for treason, contains one of the world’s great architectural treasures: its medieval hammer-beam roof.
Without the ingenuity of the carpenter, the architectural and engineering feats of the Middle Ages could never have been achieved. The hammer-beam roof is the pinnacle of that ingenuity. But the hammer-beam roof is not only a great technical achievement. At its best, it is a form that displays an aesthetic sensibility of both subtle refinement and jaw-dropping grandeur. My PhD investigates such structures: who built them and why; how they were built; and how ostensibly prosaic carpentry became art. Any consideration of the hammer beam roof must turn on the fulcrum of Westminster Hall – the roof of which, both aesthetically and technically, is the finest work of carpentry ever realised – bar none. It was completed for Richard II in around 1398 by the ‘disposer of the King’s works touching the art or mystery of carpentry’ (the ‘King’s Carpenter’), the genius, Hugh Herland (d. 1411).
Span was the major headache for Hugh. Richard demanded that his 68ft wide hall be of clear span – no internal supports were to clutter the floor space. Yet such a span was unprecedented, exceeding by nearly a third the then record held by a lordly hall, John O’ Gaunt’s Kenilworth Castle. The technical challenge was enormous, and in an age when regally ordained public disembowellings were public entertainment, Hugh needed to get it right. His enormous hammer-beam roof, an audacious technical tour de force, solved the problem. And Herland did get it right. It was not the deficiencies of the carpentry that demanded the insertion of a steel framework over 500 years later in 1914, but the ravages of the death-watch beetle.
The roof was not only a technical but also an aesthetic masterwork. The great ‘arch rib’ which runs transversely through the roof-frames was state-of-the-art; the angel hammer-beams, entirely apt for a king obsessed with his own divinity, were unique. Such features, especially the angels, were copied in a subsequent explosion of English hammer-beam roof building.
The roof has been investigated from academic perspectives both art-historical and technical. Spats have ensued, with academics arguing about how the carpentry performs structurally, with no consensus arrived at. As part of my PhD research I wanted to investigate the roof from a unique perspective: that of the carpenter. How did Hugh Herland design the roof to perform? Are there any clues in the carpentry which may indicate his thought processes? In other words, I wanted to investigate not how the roof is working now from the perspective of modern engineers, but how Herland in 1393 intended it to work.
Obviously, how better to solve this conundrum than by building the roof!
I am a life-long woodworker and worked for a brief period in the field of traditional carpentry. I would not, though, presume to call myself a carpenter. So, with the crucial assistance of traditional carpenter Chris Dalton, we set about building the most remarkable, and demanding, part of Herland’s roof: the lower hammer-beam framing. We carpentered it in green (unseasoned) oak, at a scale of 1:4, using identical jointing techniques to Herland’s.
Having recently completed this section, sans all the moulding and tracery, we have come to our first earth-shattering (if un-academic) conclusion: it is very, very hard to do. Much time has been spent rubbing our chins, scratching our heads and other body parts in both confusion and wonder at how Herland came up with this crazy framing. The three-dimensional spatial imagination alone necessary to design the thing is staggering. Nonetheless, already we have uncovered some valuable nuggets: regarding probable erection procedure, economic and adaptable use of timber resources, and how Herland (rather than C20 structural engineers) thought the roof would perform.
Postscript: We had intended to build a complete bay of the roof: two cross-frames and purlins, one frame with all the bells and whistles of moulding and tracery, the other left bare to show construction, but funding is currently a brick wall. (I have constructed the above section at my own expense.) So if anyone out there has any ideas how to further this exciting and unique project…