Hammerbeam Roof: History & Examples

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces the basic architectural features of the hammer beam roof and its history. Specifics include identifying components, when and where it first appeared, and historic buildings sporting the design.

Hammer Beam Roof

The name is likely unfamiliar and sounds a bit strange, though you've likely seen this type of roof before. Appearing in films and history text books related to English history or even in Gothic artwork, the events beneath the roof always seem to capture attention rather than anyone pointing out the style name of the lovely, vaulted ceiling stoically resting above action and adding to the ambiance of the scene.

Inside the Great Hall, Victoria College, Jersey
Victoria College

Quick Vocabulary Lesson

To best understand the design of a hammer beam roof, we must first define some roofing terms as a foundation for later explanations.

  • Rafter: This is a sloping beam laid at an angle to the vertical walls and provides a framework for the roof to rest upon. Roofing material is laid across these rafters and the beam's sloop determines the pitch of the roof.
  • Tie Beam: This is a beam laid horizontally at the base of rafters. It connects the bottom part of one rafter to the bottom part of the corresponding rafter on the other side of the roof. This ensures the rafters remain in place and do not spread apart from the weight of roofing materials, snow loads, or gravity. Without the tie beam, a roof would collapse from the rafters shifting.

English Architectural Ingenuity

English architect seemed to have an affinity for open-timber rooves, ones in which the supporting tie beams do not need to go straight across the ceiling, cutting off space between the room and the roof. The hammer beam roof is the crowning achievement in English Gothic architecture and open-timber roof design. It uses reinforced posts, curving slightly outward from the wall, to support the weight of short beams that only stick out from the wall for a short way. The curving posts are called hammer braces while the beams, called hammer beams, can be likened to the remaining ends of a tie beam of you cut out the middle portion. The weight of the roof and rafters rests on the hammer beam and its supports, transferring the load as low as possible.

Diagram of Hammer beam Roof
hammer beam diagram

Often, a curved beam, called a collar beam also rests on the hammer beam to add additional support with a decorative touch for the larger space. Adding to the decorative element, ornate wood work often filled the space between the rafters and the collar beam, while the ends of the hammer beams were embellished with decorative carvings and sculptures. Structurally, the hammer beam roof also allows rooms to be much wider without interrupting the space with support pillars.

St. Mary
Ceiling St. Mary Church

Hammer Beam History

Hammer beam rooves did not appear in general use until the 15th century. However, earlier works appeared as 1290-1310 A.D. (range of dates given for construction) with the Pilgrims' Hall in Winchester Cathedral, the oldest known, still standing use of a hammer-beam roof. The most famous early example; however, is Westminster Hall, one of the oldest buildings in the Parliament estate in England. But in 1399 A.D.

Pilgrims' Hall in Winchester Cathedral

The dates of construction for the Pilgrims' Hall in the Winchester Cathedral complex ranges from 1290 A.D. to 1310 A.D. During this time, the St. Swithun's Priory created a guesthouse for the large number of visitors traveling to Winchester Cathedral each year. The earliest remaining hammer beam roof featured carved heads on each hammer beam with one rumored to be King Edward II. Today, the hall is part of the Pilgrim's school, a prep school for boys, and houses a stage for school assemblies, play performances, and concerts.

Westminster Hall

Illustration of Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall

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