The Angel Roofs of East Anglia – A Review

As a representative of Little Waldingfield History Society I was offered the chance to review this book (by Michael Rimmer), which the publisher’s accompanying letter advised was “the first detailed historical and photographic study of the region’s many medieval angel roofs”. Knowing nothing of this subject but loving the architecture of old buildings and particularly of old wooden roofs, my interest was naturally aroused.

The associated material also included an estimate that “over 90% of England’s figurative medieval art was obliterated in the image destruction of the Reformation”. It then went on to say that “angel roof carvings comprise the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture” and that “although masterpieces of sculpture and engineering, angel roofs have been almost completely neglected by academics and art historians”. At this point in the narrative I was hooked and most eager to review the book for myself.

I am delighted to advise that Angel Roofs of East Anglia does not disappoint; the beautiful photographs of the roofs and close ups of individual angels, all of which were taken by the author, are simply stunning; equally, the skill and artistry demonstrated in the composition, exposure and overall photographic layout is nothing short of a tour de force. I am certainly going to use the book as a reference for visiting as many of the regions angel roof churches as I can over the next few years, in order to see for myself these incredible unseen and beautiful masterpieces of the middle ages.

There is however more to the book than just a collection of magnificent photographs; I particularly appreciated the second appendix, where the author presents six black and white images of varying architectural roof types with annotated names for all of the major component parts thereof. This is simple when you know but impossible otherwise; I was aware of the major roof styles, including “tie beam with arch braces”, ‘single hammer beam’ and ‘double hammer beam’, but ‘false double hammer beam’ was completely new to me and quite astonishingly wonderful.

Thirty-six churches feature in the book, each with a good deal of historical narrative to accompany the mostly full-page photos of their glorious angel roofs. Quite deliberately and properly, each church features as a double page spread, whilst happily some of the more magnificently decorated churches feature over four or even six pages. Together this section comprises about 70% of the book and will be the part to which reference is likely to be made again and again, as I intend to do – readers won’t be disappointed.

Although less likely to be read over and over, Michael Rimmer correctly begins with a historical consideration of angel roofs, which includes, for example:

  • What they are?
    The author believes angel roofs are “some of the most impressive and complex examples of English structural and decorative woodworking that attain an outstanding level of skill and sophistication”, and I for one most certainly agree such sentiments.
  • Why they matter?
    The reader is advised there are an estimated 9,000 medieval churches in England and that only about 170 angel roofs survive in England and Wales, with nearly 70% in East Anglia.
  • Why most such roofs are in East Anglia?
    I won’t spoil the surprise by telling readers Michael Rimmer’s theories, just that I agree with his clear, detailed and logical analysis.
  • When they were constructed?
    Over a surprisingly short time span of roughly 140 years from 1395.

At around 130 pages and 10 inches by 7.5 inches this paperback book is priced about right at £19.95, primarily because of the many wonderfully glorious and simply astonishing images he has created; however, all royalties from book sales will be donated to The Churches Conservation Trust, which is also a nice touch. It’s a shame the book is not available in hardback form, which I personally would prefer, though I understand the cost implication why not; however, slinging a copy in the back of a car for reference when visiting churches could easily damage paperback covers and possibly the book itself.

All in all a fascinating book that will readily appeal to lovers of old churches, of wooden architecture or of English history; separately, casual readers may well also become hooked on the subject and want to see some angel roofs for themselves, as I most certainly do. I recommend the book as the ideal Christmas or birthday present for anyone with the aforementioned interests – they are likely to be both astonished and delighted.

I have attached some poorer copies of angel roof photos whilst interested readers may view some absolutely stunning images at the accompanying angel roof website: http://www.angelroofs.com/images_12_of_the_best

Andy Sheppard                                                                                         September 2015

The cover of the book - the angel roof of Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk

The cover of the book – the angel roof of Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk

The angel roof at St Mary's Church, Bury St Edmunds

The angel roof at St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds

St Mary Angel Bury St Eds

A close up of one of the St Mary Church roof angels

A close up of one of the St Mary Church roof angels

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