A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Hugh Herland: Master Carpenter, Royal Architect, Iconic Visionary

hugh herland portrait

Hugh Herland is the architect of the current roof of Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall – a part of the Palace of Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament are located in London -- has a long history, a history that dates back to to the close of the 10th century.

...[T]here cannot be a doubt that he was the designer of the vast roof, and that, even more than Yevele, he deserves the name of architect to the hall.

Source: 1906 William R Lethaby, Westminster Abbey and the King's Craftsmen  London: Dutton, page 217.

In Britain, historically, there exists a strong national tradition for construction with wood. And perhaps the first British woodworker -- Hugh Herland (ca1330- ca 1405) -- to distinguish himself internationally by his is achievements -- achievements that continue to be recognized -- launches this new series: "Master Woodworkers:-- Carpenters, Joiners, Cabinetmakers", on the Woodworkinghistory.com website. Let us note also, that study of medieval architecture in Britain it has been generally assumed that nothing is known, or may be known, of the "architects" of our medieval English buildings, but so great is the mass of records which have been preserved regarding their erection, that an account of the builders of several of the cathedrals can be made out with some fulness.

According to architectural historian John Harvey, any study of British mediaeval architecture

has been greatly handicapped by the gratuitous assumption that it was anonymous, and that the master craftsmen who designed our great buildings were not architects, but worked as members of a group inspired by a collective tradition as dominating as the instinct of the hive-bee.

Source: John Harvey, English Mediaeval Archtitects: A Biographical Dictionary Down to 1550 London Batsford, 1954, page vii.

Today, though, it is common to call talented people such as Hugh Herland an "architect", according to the online Oxford English Dictionary and my copy of the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, Robert K. Barnhart, editor (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1988), page 23, the word architect itself does not come into usage in the English language until at least 1563, over a century and a half after Herland's death. More intersting, though, is "carpenter": according the the online OED, the use of carpenter is even older, tracing back to 1381, which shows that carpenter enters the English language during Herland's lifetime.

First, in 1097, a son of William the Conqueror, William II (1056?-1100) initiates the start of the original construction of Westminster Hall, and two years later, in 1097, the Norman king holds his first court in it. For that particular time, especially Westminster Hall is a vast chamber: 238' long and 68' wide. (While the original height remains sketchy, today, the height – from floor to ridge-purlin -- is 90'6”.)

Three hundred years later, in the 1390s, King Richard II starts repair of the roof. The thinking is that the original roof suffers because “roofing science of the dawn of the 12th century” may well have been inadequate to deal with such matters.

The text below is the recorded entry of 1394 relating to the work then projected at Westminster Hall:

57. Rich. II m. 3.

Appointment of John Godmeston clerk to cause the great Hall to be repaired, taking the necessary masons, carpenters and labourers wherefor whenever found except in the fee of the church ... until further order and also to take stone, timber, tiles and other materials for the same at the King's charges and to sell branches, bark and other remnants of trees provided for the said hall, as well as the old timber from it and ... by view and testimony of the King's controller of the said works ... accounting for the moneys so received and receiving in that office wages and fee at the discretion of the Treasurer of England.

Source: 1394 January 21. Patent Rolls

On this same date, records show that Hugh Herland is appointed as a carpenter responsible for building a new roof.

For at least thirty years prior to this appointment – and all records remain unclear -- work is either executed or projected for Westminster Hall. However, we do know that, on August 16th, 1360, William Herland, carpenter, and his son, Hugh Herland are instructed

"to take carpenters for the King's works in the Palace of Westminster, the Tower of London, and elsewhere, and to put them in the said works to stay therein at his wages during his pleasure”.

Source: 1922 Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble, "Westminster Hall and Its Roof" The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 40, No. 227 February, page 76.

The "Greatest of Our Carpenters"

Considered the "greatest of our carpenters", Herland is first heard of when working under his father, William Herland, in 1360.

Because Herland spends much time at Westminster, with his obvious talents as a carpenter in his own right, not just one working in the shadow of his father, he attracts royal favour. We know this because in 1366 he is granted a house by the Palace, "for making and keeping his moulds or templates and models", at an annual stipend of £6. 13s. 4.d, plus a wage of 6d. a day. Witj the death of his father in 1375, Hugh Herland is promoted to the vacant office of "Disposer of the King's works of Carpentry" at 1 shilling per a day and "a yearly robe". Between 1378 and 1387, Herland is in charge of works at Rochester and Leeds Castles in Kent. By 1387, Herland is an advisor to William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, at the latter's manor of Highclere, Hants.

Note on vocabulary: In the later Middle Ages, where planning by lay craftsmen replaces planning by ecclesiastics, "disposer" is used to denote either the master carpenter or master mason, a usage that leads historians to make certain assumptions, that is, in the social milieu of the time, no question exists about their achievements as designers and planners. In the case of Hugh Herland, the "master" of the Westminster Hall's "hammerbeam" roof is, in 1375, called "disposer of the King's works ... carpentry". See F B Andrews, The Mediaeval Builder and His Methods New York: Oxford University Press, 1925; Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 1999, page 58; also Nikolaus Pevsner, "Terms of Architectural Planning in the Middle Ages" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 5 1942, page 234.

Evidence of Herland's Genius

westminster hall timber interior looking north

Evidence suggests that Herland is also the designer of the main timber roofs for New College at Oxford, more or less completed by 1386.

In records of 1388-1391 at New College, accompanied by William Wynford, a royal mason, we know that Herland visits New College on several occasions. In 1393, at Winchester, records show that Herland and Wynford dine with Wykeham, in the company of Simon Membury, the clerk of the works of Winchester College. No doubt exists that the wooden vault of the College chapel is Herland's design.

(The image on the left is of Westminster Hall's interior, today, looking north.)

In 1394, Richard II appoints Herland as both Carpenter and Controller of the special works at Westminster Hall.

The old Norman roof is to be replaced by trusses which soar across the 70' span, an achievement that John Harvey tries to capture by saying,

as if borne up by the carved angels which carry the load previously resting on massive posts rising from the floor.

Source: John H. Harvey, "The King's Chief Carpenters", Journal of the British Archaeological Association  11 1948, page 25.

Why the Lack of Recognition For Hugh Herland's Achievements?

Richard II gets credit for initiating the concept for the remodel of the Winchester Hall roof, but the technical skill which translates solid oak trees into soaring arches belongs to Hugh Herland.

It is indeed strange that, relatively speaking, so little public notice is taken of this roof. For one historian,

it is the most outstanding individual work in the whole history of English art, yet it ranks low in the list of London's historic attractions to the visitor. Its true rank is with, or above, the Pyramids, as a Wonder of the World.

Source: Harvey, "King's Chief Carpenters", Journal of the British Archeological Association 2 1948, page 25

In June, 1395, Royal documents give orders for the carriage of 150 loads of prepared timber from "a place called the Frame" by Farnham in Surrey. By 1398, the roof of Winchester Hall is virtually complete, and the master carpenter retires to an estate at Kingston-on­Thames.

In 1397 he is Surveyor of the King's Works, as well as Chief Carpenter, and, taken altogether, his fees amount to £43. 3$. 4d., which in -- in post-WW II Britain, i.e., the mid-20th-century -- is estimated to be somewhere in the realm of £1,500 a year.

Strangely, most sources consulted are confined to records of payments for employment. Few records, evidently, exist about such matters as designs for the Hall's roof. We do know, though, that in 1393 the materials for the new roof at Westminster are being collected. One John Gedeney, Clerk of the Works, is instructed to take, by land and sea, the King's timber in the wood of Pettelewode in Sussex. And, in 1395 the walls of the old Palace are raised, and corbels inserted for the new roof.

Uniqueness of Herland's Achievement

In designing the roof of Westminster Hall, Herland needs to

(1) use the existing walls,

(2) span the existing space without using aisle posts,

(3) create a setting appropriate for royal ceremonies on a grand scale for Richard II.

By the 14th-century, as a rule, aisle posts are not included in British halls. But never before are aisle posts eliminated on as wide a span as the Westminster Hall. In this instance, however, to obtain an enduring strength, of the requires the use of oak rafters in two separate lengths. One of the main problems is how to adapt a hammerbeam roof to fulfil this unique requirement.

More on the Oak Roof Timbers

westminster hall's hammer beam arches

The roof timbers of Westminster Hall are entirely of oak, and in nearly all cases of Sussex oak, of the species Quercus pedunculata. Exceptional trees are necessary.

For the construction of this work – which, with out exaggeration, can only be described as “gigantic”, only the finest and largest oaks in the King's forests are selected. In the closing years of the 14th-century, just the felling and transportation of these mighty trees requires a royal mandate, with delegated kingly powers. The hammer beams, braces and other parts are enormous, and the brace abutments are solid. To be used in the Hall's roof, trees must have been especially selected, each with branch-growth at the requisite distance, because each branch needed to be lopped so that its branch-base used for the brace-abutment. The hammer-posts, which rest vertically on the projecting ends of the horizontal hammer-beams, are the largest in section of any timbers in the roof.

In their cross section, alone, their is dimension of 38 ins. by 25 ins. To hew these, with their projecting members — which are all from the one section of timber —trunks of 4 ft. 3 ins. diameter, or even larger, must have been used. Each of these hammer-posts weigh between three and four tons, so that the gigantic scale on which this timber roof has been constructed can be imagined.

(Incidentally, Westminster Abbey is the abbey church of Westminster and isn't part of the Palace of Westminster. They're located close to each other, but they're not part of the same building.)

Charting the Stats on the Roof Timbers

Westminster Hall Timber Inventory

On the left is a chart adapted from Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble, "Westminster Hall and Its Roof" The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 40, No. 227 February, 1922, page 83.

To work out complicated requirements associated with constructing elaborate structures, the medieval builders resorted to models. And for our immediate purposes, Percy J. Waldram, in a letter to the editor of the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 42 (1935): 558? -- "Science and Architecture: Wren and Hooke" -- notes that:

When Hugh Herland, Master Carpenter to Richard II, designed Westminster Hall roof he did not look up textbook on structural mechanics and search the Architectural Review of 1397 for ideas. His textbooks and stress diagrams were his innumerable models, which as we know occupied so much space that rooms in the King's palace had to be reserved for them. Yet he produced a structure which lasted for six centuries and would probably have lasted six more, had he known of an antidote to the death watch beetle.

Can Any Modern Highly-Educated Architect or Engineer Repeat Herland's Achievement?

When the heart is slowly eaten out of his giant timbers, the Office of Works merely inserted modern riveted steel trusses and hid them skilfully inside replicas of the old woodwork.

There was probably not a man in this country, or even in the world, who could correctly analyze the stresses in this or any other hammer-beam roof truss until William Harvey went back to first principles and worked them out on articulated models.

Source: Percy J Waldram, “Science and Architecture – Wren and Hooke”, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architecture 62 1935 page 58.

Consider the Significance of the Westminster Hall Roof

The importance of Westminster Hall roof to the history of art and building construction is so great that it tends to overshadow Herland's life; the exquisite proportions of all its parts, and the harmonious play of light and shade between its trusses make it incomparably the most beautiful work of its kind.

Sources: John Harvey, English Mediaeval Archtitects: A Biographical Dictionary Down to 1550 London Batsford, 1954, page 131; see also Francis B Andrews, The Mediaeval Builder and His Methods New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993, page 58.

For archaeologists, an aid to the dating of the construction of historic buildings are the changes in how materials are used. As Cecil Hewett argues in his 1977 article -- aptly title "Understanding Standing Buildings" -- numerous examples exist: for the building of the great churches, 12th-century, the introduction of finely worked ashlar; in medieval timber building the introduction of the ground-sill. The latter frees timber buildings from their ancient dependence on "earthfastness", and makes possible frames that stand for 900 years or more. (Earthfast foundations -- also known as "post-in-the-ground" architecture -- have short timelines, a decade or two at the most, depending upon how humid is the landscape.)

The practice of using the "ground-sill" -- that is, in a building, the sill or plate nearest the ground -- frees timber buildings from any dependence on earthfastness, thus making possible structures that can stand for centuries.

After ground-sills, the greatest single advance in carpentry is the practice of using "built" — or compound timber structural component. As a practice, it is a step that enables carpenters to build structures larger than the available lengths, or girths, of trees. Historically, the best example of this type of building construction is Herland's Westminster Hall roof.

Out of this concern for carpenters' practices in constructing buildings, a continuous chain of development is evident, although not widely recognized for what it is worth: the perfecting for various purposes and at different times in history, of carpenters' jointing methods. At a basic level, this craft development, which includes an acquisition of ever improving skills and techniques, that apply also to furniture construction.

Sources: Cecil Hewett, "Understanding Standing Buildings", World Archaeology9, No. 2, Architecture and Archaeology October, 1977, pages 174-184; Martin Biddle et al., King Arthur's Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation Woodbridge, Eng., and Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2000.

St Albans Watching Chamber

The St Albans watching chamber is probably unique in the history of medieval carpentry. It is the only watching chamber in northern Europe built on an architectural scale and in wood. As such it defies the accepted classifications of both furniture joinery and architecture. In this paper, the monument is analysed structurally and art-historically. Previous confusions over dating were due to misunderstandings of the sequence of building. This is more complicated than had previously been thought, and is described as precisely as possible. The conclusions open up new areas of speculation about the history of the Abbey furnishings from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century.

Charles Tracy, "The St Albans Abbey Watching Chamber: A Re-Assessment", Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 1992 - With a Technical Appendix and drawings by CECIL HEWETT.

Taken together, these activities, to be sure, are probably apt examples of the carpenter's art at the end of the 14th-century.

Use of Models

But there is much evidence that models are used extensively throughout the Gothic era for working out difficult and unprecedented structural problems. Unquestionably there must have been wide­spread use of models also in solving the practical problems of erection. However finding and documenting the use of models has been very elusive, so far, but it is something I think is useful in disclosing how craftsmen such as Hugh Herland work with both primitve tools and on such a large scale

anon, "Westminster Hall Roof. An instructional model". RIBA Journal 31, Third series, 1924 July 12, pages 579-581.

In 1922, with the assistance of Sir Frank Baines, Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble calculate that the weight of the entire timber in the roof to be roughly 660 tons, an this enormous weight supported entirely from the wall-heads and from the walls by the wall-posts. It is impossible, however, to realize the enormous size of the timbers, even from an actual view, seen from below.

The Hall's uniqueness (for the era which it is built, the medieval period) is captured by the 19th-century French architect and historian of architecture, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879). Using the roof of Westminster Hall as an illustration, he argues that this type of carpentry is “the pinnacle of English carpentry”.

An interesting description of the roof of the Hall and "the beauty of the execution of this unique work" comes from Viollet-le-Duc. For him, France has nothing of the same epoch comparable comme luxe de construction.

In the words of Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble – writing in 1922 as the Westminster Hall roof is under repair -- to ascend the scaffolding which has been erected, and to stand on one of the hammer beams, is to get a view as of a primeval forest. No drawing or photograph can give any conception, for example, of the size of the great curved rib to each principal, which, in the decayed state of the roof, has had to bear strains and stresses for which it was neither intended nor designed. As far as we know, with the exception of the roof of the Law Library at Exeter (and that is on a much smaller scale), this great curved rib intersecting with hammer-post and hammer-beam is peculiar to the Westminster Hall roof. The roof is the largest and possibly the oldest extant, and is certainly the greatest wonder of medieval carpentry in the world.

At the close of their chapter on the English timber roof, in reference to the Westminster Hall roof, they declare,

Here … we have the greatest triumph if medieval carpentry which England has ever possessed, a testimony alike to the fourteenth-century woodworker and the qualities of English oak.

On Conclusion, Some Notes

In 1624, the British architect Henry Wotton describes the three key design elements which any designer/craftsman must consider:

In architecture as in all other operative arts, the end must direct the operation. The end is to build well. Well building has three conditions. Commoditie, Firmenes, and Delight.

Source: Henry Wotton. The Elements of Architecture Collected by Henry Wotton From the Best Authors and Examples. London, 1622. page 1. Reprinted Longmans and Green, London, 1903.

As he approaches the Westminster Hall project, for a craftsman such as Hugh Herland, what this means is that principles such as pragmatism and simplicity are his guiding principles. With this “seat-of-the-pants” approach, complicated procedures – including if you will incorporating of various mystical proportions or mathematical relationships – are evidently not needed.

But even while a craft is still a living tradition -from medieval times to the end of the 18th century – acquiring knowledge and skill of the working methods must have been difficult. Certainly, Herland's father was himself an accomplished craftsman/carpenter, thus a real propect exists that the junior Herland acquired skills and wisdom from the senior Herland. The 18th-century encyclopedist, Denis Diderot argues that

craftsmen ... live isolated, obscure, unknown lives; everything they do is done to serve their own interest; they almost never do anything just for the sake of the glory.

Source: Denis Diderot, Rameau's Nephew and Other Works; ed. by Jacques Barzun and Ralph Henry Bowen Indianapolis : Hackett Pub., 2001, page 304.

Rightly, we think, Diderot suggests that, for the most secretive trades, the shortest way of gaining the necessary information is to attach yourself to some master as an apprentice. Because the information about Herland's training seems to be lost in the far recesses of history, his working methods, his design principles and practices, are not part of our living traditions. In this crafts tradition, where skills are passed on from master to apprentice, we cannot expect to find more than a scant body of published source material of any specificity. Sadly, the medieval world lacks their Walter Roses and George Sturts.

Moreover — and on this point many modern analysts can go astray — little direct connection exists between the pragmatic methods employed by these historic craftsmen and the multitude of contemporary theoretical publications, even though these publications loom as useful sources of information, however limited in their ability to plumb the mind of a craftsman such as Herland.

Some will argue that our modern intellectual apparatus makes it difficult to think about design in the same way that such early builders as Herland does, a factor that limits our understanding of their methods. Such speculative thought carries some truths of course. Fancy math formulas – based on complex numerical calculations – are not part of the early craftsman's bag of tricks, which means that we must seek another source that explains how these craftsman managed to achieve such complicated results sheerly on their intuitive powers.

Despite our lack of authenticate source material for the various craft specialties, the very strong inter-relationships that certainly exist between them imply that it is reasonable to extrapolate from one to another. Ex: stone masons are said to inspire medieval carpenters. Therefore, if well-supported, some general principles can be given considerable weight. In particular, historical source material which relates to the building crafts can be useful, including late-medieval works which present specific design methods used by master masons, architectural treatises of various Renaissance writers, works on furniture design, and archival material on building projects.

Sources, listed chronologically: William R Lethaby, Westminster Abbey and the King's Craftsmen London: Dutton, 1906. (Himself a practicing architect in Victorian Britain, Lethaby seems to be the first investigator to draw atttention to the achievements of Hugh Herland.) F. E. Howard, "On the Construction of Medieval Roofs," Archaeological Journal N.S. xxi, 1914, pages 293-352; Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble, Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, 1922 Vol. I. Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble, "Westminster Hall and Its Roof", The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 40, No. 227 (Feb., 1922), pp. 76-79+82-84; William Harvey, Westminster Hall Roof: An Instructional Model London: Royal Institute of British Architects, 1924. (Also brief description of the "model" itself, in Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects July 12 1924.) F. B. Andrews, The Mediaeval Builder, 1925; Herbert Cescinsky, “Two English Oak Cabinets of the Early Sixteenth Century Two English Oak Cabinets of the Early Sixteenth Century” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 74, No. 433 (Apr., 1939), pp. 187-189+193; R. E. Swartwout, The Monastic Craftsman: An Inquiry into the Services of Monks to Art in Britain and in Europe North of the Alps during the Middle Ages London: Heffer, 1932. (Consider this book a revisionist account of the medieval architect/carpenter. Swartout treads carefully through the existing scholarship, correcting numerous false claims of earlier scholars on both sides of the English channel.) Nikolaus Pevsner, "Terms of Architectural Planning in the Middle Ages" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 1942, pages 232-237. Cecil Hewett, "Understanding Standing Buildings", World Archaeology 9, No. 2, October, 1977 pages 174-184. Eugene S. Ferguson, "The Mind's Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology", Science, New Series, Vol. 197, No. 4306 (Aug. 26, 1977), pp. 827-836. Lynn T. Courtenay, "The Westminster Hall Roof and Its 14th-Century Sources", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec., 1984), pp. 295-309; Yun Sheng Huang, et al, "Westminster Hall's Hammer-Beam Roof: A Technological Reconstruction", APT Bulletin 20, No. 1 1988, pages 8-16; Lynn T. Courtenay and R. Mark, " The Westminster Hall Roof: A Historiographic and Structural Study", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 46, No. 4 December, 1987, pages 374-393; Gene Waddell, "The Design of the Westminster Hall Roof", Architectural History 42, 1999, pp. 47-67.