“Just how did the design of Westminster Hall roof suggest itself to the brain of Hugh Herland? …We shall never know the answers to scores of similar questions which fill the subject with uncertainty.”
John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects, Revised Edition 1987, p xxxix
While there are many unanswerable questions in the study of English Medieval Architecture, this is not, I think, one of them.
I believe the source of Hugh Herland’s inspiration for the roof of Westminster Hall (built mainly between 1395-1398) can be demonstrated with a high degree of confidence.
The answer lies in the relationship between Herland and William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester.
Herland’s long association with Wykeham is well known. John Harvey suggests that they may have met as early as 1360, when Wykeham was clerk of the works at Windsor Castle.
Herland certainly worked for William of Wykeham from 1387 onwards, because when the latter’s manor house at Highclere in Hampshire was being rebuilt in that year, Hugh Herland (and his horse) were on the payroll:
“master Hugh Herland was paid 6d a day for 4 days [spent at Highclere] and 10d was allowed for 6lb of oats" for the horse of "master Hugh Harlond coming for divers turns” [John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects, p138, and Public Records Office, Eccl. 2-159395].
Herland worked on the repair of Winchester Castle in 1389/90 and in 1391 his pension of 10 marks a year was made payable out of the fee farm of the city of Winchester.
Around the same time, mason William Wynford was building Winchester College for Wykeham. Stylistic traits convinced John Harvey that Herland was responsible for the chapel and hall roofs there, which would again place him in Winchester.
Herland is also known to have visited William of Wykeham frequently over the course of 1393. He dined with him in Wolvesey Palace, in Winchester, or in Marwell, five miles away, seven times that summer.
It is therefore clear that Hugh Herland spent a lot of time in and around Winchester, worked with and visited its Bishop, William of Wykeham, and so was undoubtedly familiar with the buildings in the vicinity of Winchester Cathedral.
The roof of Westminster Hall is sometimes said to be the earliest known hammerbeam roof, but it is not.
That honour goes to the Pilgrims' Hall (the name is a C19th invention), in Winchester, close to Winchester Cathedral. The Pilgrims' Hall has been dated to the early 1300s and so predates Westminster Hall by roughly ninety years. [John Crook, The Pilgrims’ Hall, Winchester. Hammerbeams, Base Crucks and Aisle-Derivative Roof Structures. Archaeologia 119 (1991), 129-59].
Viewed together, the similarity between the arch-braced and hammerbeam construction of the Pilgrims' Hall roof and Herland’s work in Westminster Hall is immediately striking.
Particularly similar are the curves of the beams above the hammers, echoed by the curved braces below running down to the wall corbels. It is this combination of arch-ribs and hammerbeams which gives Westminster Hall roof its rigidity, without the need for floor standing columns.
The scale, magnificence and elaboration of Herland’s roof at Westminster are of an entirely different order, but the bones and geometry of it are all there, in embryo, in the Pilgrims' Hall, a building Herland would have seen during his frequent visits to Winchester.
I believe that it provided him with the inspiration for the roof structure at Westminster Hall, and in particular showed him how to span such a vast space without the need for columns.
Who the architect of the Pilgrims' Hall was, some ninety years before Herland, and what inspired that unknown craftsman's innovative roof construction, are questions that remain to be answered.
Michael RimmerJanuary 2012