The term ‘Caernarfon lintel or arch’ comes from the use at Edward I’s Caernarfon Castle of the frequent use of passage doorways with shouldered lintels sitting on convex corbels. Edward’s castle at Caernarfon was started in 1283. These doorways also at exist at Wells Cathedral, both within the Cathedral itself and in the Bishop’s Palace.
One link between Edward I, his castles and Wells is through Bishop Burnell (c. 1239 – 1292). Burnell was around the same age as Edward and was part of his retinue as a loyal companion from an early age. Upon Edward’s coronation in September 1274 Burnell became Lord Chancellor of England. The following January he was elected to the bishopric of Bath and Wells.[i]
Burnell’s great hall, now forming picturesque ruins in the garden, was built in the late 13th C as an impressive and imposing building. He was given licence to enclose the churchyard and canons’ precinct of Wells Cathedral with a stone wall and crenellate it for better security.[ii]
Bishop Robert Burnell – Bishop from 1275 until 1292
Bishop Burnell’s works at the Bishop’s Palace took place between 1275 and 1292. He added the great hall and the chapel. The corner turrets of the hall have the doorways featuring the Caernarfon lintel. These slender octagonal towers are an early example of such a fashion.[iii]
In 1284 Burnell built Acton Burnell Castle, a fortified manor house in Shropshire for which Burnell had been granted a royal licence to crenellate (issued by the Crown from the 12th to the 16th centuries) in January 1284. The term ‘License to Crenellate’ was attributed to the documented licences by 19th C historians. There are similarities in Acton Burnell Castle and the hall at Wells and probably the same master mason was at work.[iv] Foyle & Pevsner also makes the same observation.[v]
North-east corner tower at Acton Burnell – the doorway with a Caernarfon Lintel can be seen at the top of the photo. A shouldered corbelled arch.[vi]
The arch is economical with space, stone, and carvings. It is a basic design and useful for load bearing if narrow, so that the lintel and corbels can bear the weight. It generally does not need a vault or relieving arch.
The medieval cathedral was started by Bishop Reginald de Bohun (d. 1184) and completed for its dedication in 1239. It seems at Wells these shouldered corbelled arches preceded those built at Caernarfon.
As they are a repetitive design then can also be made by less experienced masons, saving time and skill. The quality of the stone lintel is important though,
At Corfe Castle in Dorset there is a shouldered concave corbelled (rather than convex) arch leading into the southwest gatehouse. The gatehouse was built circa 1250. Corfe was a royal castle and there are similar design features in the early 13th C between Wells and Corfe, in particular King John’s Gloriette built between 1201-5. The design features in common have been identified in an excellent paper by Matthew Reeve and Malcolm Thurlby (‘King John’s Gloriette at Corfe Castle’).[viii] Maybe in the middle of the 13th C design ideas brought the shouldered arch to Corfe from Wells when the southwest gatehouse was built. Was the design inspiration from the triforium gallery at Wells Cathedral?
This Corfe arch is larger and has a relieving arch above it. The wider the arch the more strain on the single lintel and shoulder corbels, hence the relieving arch.
Other Shouldered Arches
In Florence I noticed the shouldered arch in the Bargello (built 1255) – although this is shouldered concave corbelled arch rather than convex. It also has a relieving arch above it.
There are shouldered convex corbelled arches in one of the watch towers on the edge of the city. Presumably they are originally doorways (rather than windows) that led onto a parapet or into a passage now long gone. Again, there are distinctive relieving arches above them. There does seem to be evidence of reconstruction around the openings.
Origins of the shouldered corbelled arch
It is difficult to say whether Caernarfon influenced Wells or even the other way around. The nave triforium at Wells was complete by 1239, and the southwest gatehouse at Corfe Castle was built circa 1250, some years before Caernarfon Castle was started in 1283. James of Saint George (d. 1309) was the master mason from Savoy that Edward I employed for Caernarfon (as well as other Edward I castles in North Wales). Possibly the design came via the Crusades and connection with Islamic architecture. From the 10th to the 12th C the corbelled shouldered arch developed in Islamic architecture.[ix]
But the idea goes back into prehistory. Neolithic passage tombs of the British Isles & Ireland have something akin to the shouldered arch as their entrances.
Neolithic (c. 4000 to c. 2500 BC) Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, North Wales.[x]
At the Royal Palace of Urgarit on the Mediterranean coast of Syria a postern gate has a shouldered-arch type entrance. The palace dates from the between the 15th and 13th C BC.[xi]
The shouldered corbelled arch doorway makes sense as a design for access to parapets or walkways along passages for an individual to walk through. It takes up a small amount of space and is easier to construct than a pointed-arch doorway. But it seems that the name ‘Caernarfon Lintel’ or ‘Caernarfon Arch’ may be from a time after its application in Britain. Further observation and research are needed to ascertain the way this design came into the architectural repertoire!
[i] Alan Harding, ‘Burnell, Robert (d. 1292)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/4055> [accessed 11 February 2022].
[ii] Harding, ‘Burnell, Robert (d. 1292).
[iii] Andrew Foyle and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: North and Bristol (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p.679.
[iv] John Goodall, The English Castle (London: Paul Mellon Centre, 2011), pp. 231-32.
[v] Foyle and Pevsner, pp. 679-80.
[vi] Christine Johnstone (Wikimedia Commons adapted: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:North-east_corner,_Acton_Burnell_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_3040871.jpg [accessed 10 February 2022].
[vii] ‘Corfe Castle’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 2, South east (London, 1970), pp. 52-100. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/dorset/vol2/pp52-100 [accessed 7 February 2022].
[viii] Matthew M. Reeve and Malcolm Thurlby, ‘King John’s Gloriette at Corfe Castle, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Jun. 2005), pp. 168-185 http://www.jstor.org/stable/25068143 [accessed: 15 February 2016].
[ix] Camilla Edwards and David Edwards, ‘The Evolution of the Shouldered Arch in Medieval Islamic Architecture’, Architectural History, Vol. 42 (SAHGB Publications, 1999), https://www.jstor.org/stable/1568705 [accessed 13 February 2022], p. 75.
[x] Rhion, ‘Bryn Celli Ddh’, Wikimedia Commons, 2006 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrynCelliDdu3.jpg [accessed 12 February 2022].
[xi] Disdero, ‘Ugarit Palace Entrance’, Wikimedia Commons, 2005 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ugarit_Corbel.jpg [accessed 12 February 2022].
‘Corfe Castle’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 2, South east (London, 1970), pp. 52-100. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/dorset/vol2/pp52-100 [accessed 7 February 2022]
Harding Alan, ‘Burnell, Robert (d. 1292)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/4055 [accessed 11 February 2022]
Edwards, Camilla and David Edwards, ‘The Evolution of the Shouldered Arch in Medieval Islamic Archihtecture’, Architectural History, Vol. 42 (SAHGB Publications, 1999), https://www.jstor.org/stable/1568705 [accessed 13 February 2022]
Foyle, Andrew and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: North and Bristol (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)
Goodall, John, The English Castle (London: Paul Mellon Centre, 2011)
Reeve, Matthew M. and Malcolm Thurlby, ‘King John’s Gloriette at Corfe Castle, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Jun. 2005), pp. 168-185 http://www.jstor.org/stable/25068143[accessed: 15 February 2016]