Angels carved in wood on the king posts of the hammer beam roof at Grundisburgh Church
in Suffolk. Totaling fifty angels altogether, some were given new heads and wings
Carved angel under the roof of Mildenhall Church in Suffolk.
Angels under the roof at Cawston Church in Norfolk.
The pairs of angels here at Blythburgh in Suffolk, adorn the intersections of the
roof beams, and face east and west. They date from the fifteenth century.
The chancel roof in the church of St. Edmund at Southwold in Suffolk has gold stars
on a blue sky interspersed by painted wooden angels.
The fifteenth century benches in the chancel at Grundisburgh Church in Suffolk have
oak additions dating from 1873. Four of them have ends with carvings of the Evangelists.
This one (right) of a winged man represents Saint Matthew.
Angel painted on a rood screen base at Glandford Church in Norfolk.
Left: Angel carved in stone on top of a memorial slab in the churchyard at Pulham
Market in Norfolk.
For more pictures and information on Glandford Church and other Norfolk churches
As Peter Burton and Harland Walshaw say so charmingly in their book on Angels, ‘The
profusion of angel carving..constitutes a decorative tradition which, if not exclusively
English, has no parallel for its range and invention in any other country... When
you begin to look closely at our buildings and monuments, our pubs and our cemeteries,
our churches, lamp posts and theatres, you realise that we are a country infested
by angels in almost plague-like proportion: lurking in the hammer-beams, squatting
on the gravestones.., floating in the vaulting.., on inn signs (and) on floor tiles.’
Well, East Anglia is no exception. Here are just a few examples from hundreds
in the region.
For more pictures and information on angels as decoration see The English Angel’
by Peter Burton and Harland Walshaw, published by the Windrush Press in 2000.
Carving of an angel on the front of one of the choir stalls at Carleton Rode Church
This pub sign (above) depicting an angel is at Loddon in Norfolk.
Other examples of angel decorations:
In Wenhaston Church in Suffolk there is a wonderful depiction of a winged Saint Michael
as he weighs on scales the souls of the departed. The painting is several centuries
old and was once covered up. Hidden by whitewash, in 1892 it was thrown out into
the churchyard, but the painting beneath was revealed again when washed by the rain
There are angels on the fifteenth century rood screen at Barton Turf Church in Norfolk.
There are angels in the roof at Upwell Church in Norfolk. The roof here probably
dates from the first quarter of the fifteenth century.
One of the fourteenth century roof bosses in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral has
six angels, four of whom are depicted as being unbound from the River Euphrates by
the other two.
There is a carved angel in the spandrel of the west door at Salle Church in Norfolk.
A pair of angels depicted in glass at Forncett St. Peter Church in Norfolk. They
have pink and green wings and long, white robes.
Right: The stone figure in the niche over the door of Aslacton Church porch in Norfolk
is St. Michael. He has a shield like St. George and is standing on a dragon (representing
Satan), but unlike St. George he has wings. According to Christian tradition St.
Michael is the patron saint of churchyards and looks after the souls of the departed.
He is usually depicted in full armour because according to the Bible he had a fight
or dispute with the devil.
The porch at Aslacton was built in 1438.
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Below: A photo of a painting on the chancel arch inside the parish church at Pulham
Market in Norfolk. It depicts the Ascension of Jesus, who is accompanied by two
angels. The painting was commissioned in 1895 in commemoration of the Fellows family.
The Reverend S Fellows was Rector here from 1871 to 1917.
Below: Angels carved and painted in St.Mary’s Church, Huntingfield in Suffolk, dating
from the mid-nineteenth century.
Right: Close-up of the painted angels on the chancel ceiling of Huntingfield Church.
One holds a banner and the other a cross.
The ceiling in Huntingfield was painted from end to end in brilliant colours, in
medieval style, by Mildred Holland, the rector’s wife. It took her eight months
to paint the chancel ceiling from September 1859 to April 1860, and three years from
1863 to 1866 to paint the nave ceiling.
The carvings on the nave roof at Mildenhall are of a particularly high standard.
The roof was most likely endowed by Sir Henry Barton. Originally from Mildenhall,
in 1416 he became Lord Mayor of London.
The nave roof at Cawston is steeply pitched and of a single hammer beam construction.
It dates probably from about 1470 to 1480. The carved angels here, which unusually
stand upright on the hammer beams, are over six feet tall from feet to wing tips.
They are clad in suits of feathers. Demi-angels line the horizontal wall plates.
A great deal of money must have been spent on this roof.
The roof at Blythburgh (below left) is of a cambered tie beam structure. It is richly
painted along its whole length. The angels hold shields bearing the arms of the
principal sponsors of the rebuilding of the church. In 1644 they were instructed
to be removed and destroyed by William Dowsing, but his orders were never carried
out. There is evidence of shot damage on them, but this is due to attempts to clear
flocks of jackdaws from the church at a later date.
East Anglian Church Angel Roofs
About 170 medieval angel roofs survive in England and Wales, dating mainly from the
fifteenth century. They are mostly in parish churches. Of the 69% that are in East
Anglia, 29% are in Suffolk, 26% in Norfolk and 14% in Cambridgeshire. The reason
that so many occur in these counties is probably because they were the most populated
counties during the Middle Ages.
The first angel roof that we know of in England and Wales is at Westminster Hall
(in London), which is now part of the Houses of Parliament. Being the earliest surviving
hammer beam roof, it was built between 1393 and 1398 in oak for King Richard II by
his master carpenter, Hugh Herland. Michael Rimmer in his book about Angel Roofs
of East Anglia suggests that it is Hugh Herland who is the link between the roof
at Westminster Hall and those which followed shortly afterwards in East Anglia. Hugh
Herland was put in charge of recruiting men for the construction of a new harbour
in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. He was closely associated with local wealthy merchants,
some of whom were donors of angel roofs in the region. The first angel roof in East
Anglia was at St.Nicholas’s Church in Kings Lynn in Norfolk. It dates from about
1405 to 1410.
Oak was the preferred wood for construction in the Middle Ages because of its strength
and durability. Sometimes, though, chestnut was used, as is the case at Swaffham
and Necton in Norfolk. The roofs were manufactured in a carpenter’s workshop and
then transported, often by water, to their destination, which was sometimes some
considerable distance away. For example, the angel roof at Knapton in north Norfolk
was probably manufactured in Suffolk.
Raising the components of an angel roof into place was hard and dangerous work. Roof
trusses were assembled at ground level and then lifted up to the top of the church
walls to be jointed securely into the wall plates. Roof carpenters worked from scaffolding.
Roof parts were lifted from the ground using treadmills, hand-rung-operated winches
and framed pulley systems.
The vast majority of angel roofs in East Anglia churches are pitched (sloping), which
allows rain and snow to run off. But the pitch puts stresses on the building below,
exerting an outward thrust on the walls. Medieval roof wrights found ways to counter
these strains, such as with horizontal tie beams, arch braces and hammer beams. The
use of hammer beams is an East Anglian phenomenon. There are two main types, single
Hammer beam roofs, with their many components, provide multiple surfaces for figurative
carving. The angle created by the intersection of a curved arch brace and a horizontal
beam (a spandrel) lends itself to decoration. Spandrels are often filled with fretted
tracery. In a single hammer beam roof, the hammer beam itself may be carved into
a full-length, horizontal angel (as is the case at Southwold in Suffolk). Or a smaller
angel may be carved on the end of the hammer (as is the case at Banningham in Suffolk.)
With a double hammer beam roof, the many beam ends created lend themselves to mass
angel decoration, which are often done in low relief with the angel wings outstretched.
There are good examples at Cotton and Woolpit in Suffolk, and at Gissing, Swaffham
and Knapton in Norfolk. At Knapton there are almost 140 carved angels perched on
the hammer beams.
Angel carvings were probably the work of specialist carvers. We can trace the same
handiwork in different locations by the different styles seen. There is a wide variation
in the style and quality of the carvings within East Anglia. Good ones can be seen
at Methwold and at Bury St. Edmunds. Not so good ones are at Hockwold. The best
skilled carvers were paid well, and master carvers enjoyeda high measure of social
Most angels were not painted, but a few were. Where paint was used, the most commonly
decorated sections were the bays nearest to the altar. Examples of those with colour
can be seen at Salle and Cawston in Norfolk, and at Blythburgh in Suffolk. Some
roofs have been repainted by restorers in the Victorian era, such as is the case
at Bardwell and Bacton in Suffolk, and at Necton, Banningham and South Creake in
Norfolk. The gilded and painted angels in the chancel at Southwold date from 1867,
and the roof at Huntingfield in Suffolk was painted between 1859 and 1866. The paint
at Knapton church in Norfolk is modern.
It is likely that the depiction of angels in church art was inspired by the costumes
that were worn by players in dramas and mystery plays. Roof angels are often depicted
clad in suits of feathers (as at Cawston and at Bury St. Edmunds), just like the
suits worn in pageants. Angels are often depicted bearing the instruments of Christ’s
Passion (spear, ladder, hammer and nails etc), musical instruments (as at Kings Lynn),
or as celebrants at Mass with hands raised in prayer (as at Bury St. Edmunds). Sometimes,
as is the case at Gissing, they bear the emblems of saints. Or they bear the heraldic
arms of the principal sponsors of the roofs (as at Blythburgh).
In early medieval times angels were considered to be intercessors between people
and God. By the twelfth century there were considered to be twelve Orders of angels.
Nine Orders of angels appear on painted altar screens (as is the case at Barton
Turf in Norfolk). But angel roofs sculptures are generally confined to the two lowest
Orders of angels, namely Angels and Archangels, because they are believed to be the
closest to and most involved with mankind. They are depicted with a single pair
For further details of angel roofs, see Michael Rimmer’s book entitled ‘The Angel
Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen masterpieces of the Middle Ages’. Published by the Lutterworth