I hardly ever watch television but my eye was caught recently by a programme on John Patrick Creighton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, who was one of the wealthiest men of his day, but one with a social conscience and a sense of humour as well as an eye for beautiful things. He was responsible for commissioning William Burgess the eccentric architect and designer to help him create or redesign some of the most wonderful – and bizarre – buildings in Britain including Cardiff Castle.
I’d visited a couple of years back with the Garden History Society but, as so often happens on organized trips, there just wasn’t enough time to explore it and neighbouring Bute Park properly so the programme made me think its time to go back to Wales and take another look.
Read on to find out why…
The castle site is a wonderfully odd mixture of styles and has a long and very chequered history. There was a Roman fort here and then in 1081, after the Norman Conquest, a motte was raised when Cardiff became the administrative centre of the lordship of Glamorgan. In the 12thc a twelve-sided shell keep, still extant, was built on top. Later two more towers were added, and the courtyard cut in two by a massive cross wall.
By the 15thc the need for such defensive fortifications faded and new residential quarters were added, with a flower garden, or ‘plaisance’ outside the great hall. The following century Cardiff Castle was given to William Herbert, the great Welsh magnate, whose estates also included Raglan and Wilton. Marriage saw the castle pass from the Herberts in 1703, and again in 1766 when it passed to John Stuart, heir to the 3rd Earl of Bute, George III’s erstwhile tutor and Prime Minister.
Now the castle was to become an intermittent building site for more than a century. The 3rd earl had already employed Capability Brown to work at his country estates of Luton Hoo and Highcliffe as well as his London house in South Audley Street so it’s probably not surprising that his son John Stewart [who was later to be 4th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bute] .should have followed his example and, in 1768, asked Brown and his son-in-law, the architect Henry Holland, to modernise the castle and grounds.
By now Gothick was in fashion and Holland not only remodelled parts of the building but also added two new wings in that style.
Cardiff Castle was one of the very few sites where Brown worked at in Wales. He cleared the centre of the castle precinct, filled in the moat, cleared away the buildings in what had been the outer bailey, and most radically, demolished the great crosswall. “Most of its squared stones were taken away for the purposes of building, many of houses in Cardiff being constructed with its materials.” [Francis Grose, The Antiquities of England and Wales, vol.7, 1785]
Walks were also laid out round the ramparts, which according to an account of the site by Robert Clutterbuck in 1794, ‘owe their disposition to the celebrated Brown.’ Amazingly, according to George Manby writing in 1802, these were open and free for anyone to use.
The Norman castle must have been in a neglected state. It was covered in ivy and the motte covered with trees all of which Brown apparently removed, before making a spiral walk up the motte.
I wondered at first if this was through antiquarian concern, or perhaps more like Vanbrugh’s ideas for the preservation of the ruins of Woodstock, merely to provide a romantic eyecatcher. In fact it was probably neither. Instead it seems to have been for a much more unlikely if rather mundane purpose which was revealed in account of visits to the castle between 1800 and 1804 by Edward Donovan. He was clearly not impressed by what Brown and Holland had done. “Before this time the castle had undergone amendments that were far less gratifying to the peculiar taste of the antiquary, than to the admirers of modern reformation”.
He was taken round by an old retainer who” recounted very minutely all the difficulties they had triumphed over in the removal of those stupendous walls… and in the true spirit of modern innovation, declared that the keep itself was very near being fitted up some short time ago for a dancing room!”
So “this fantastic metamorphosis of the ancient keep” was simply so the local gentry could have a larger assembly room – some 75 feet in diameter – than the one in the town hall for their parties.! The idea was to “cover this tower with a noble roof of copper. There were to have been many windows pierced through the walls, two fireplaces of spacious dimensions, one grand entrance, and the whole to have been superbly decorated with chandeliers and pier glasses.” However Donovan goes on to say that the inside of the keep was still full of rubbish and “the walls remain as before, more happily decorated with entangled ivy, and a variety of humble weeds, which nature alone had bestowed upon them.” (Donovan, Excursions through South Wales, vol. 1).
Why was the project tocreate a home for Strictly never finished?
Probablybecause in 1794 the 4th earl’s heir, who was going to make the castle his home, died, and all work came to a halt.
But, even though the dance hall didn’t materialise, work elsewhere didn’t stop for long. By 1814 the second Marquess was of age and carrying out more restoration work, and his widow continued after his death in 1848. But it’s the work that took place in the second half of the 19thc that completed the transformation of the site and created what remains today.
John Patrick Creighton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess, was born in 1847 and inherited the vast Bute fortunes and titles as a baby. He met William Burgess, twenty years his senior, in 1865. Burgess was already a reasonably successful architect but the young aristocrat was to become his greatest architectural patron. They shared values and ideas, and in particular both wanted to re-establish the architectural and social values of a utopian golden-age mediaeval England. It must have been the dream encounter for Burgess, and their friendship and collaboration was to last until his death.
The 3rd Marquess was scornful of what Henry Holland had done, describing the castle as “the victim of every barbarism since the Renaissance.” At his coming of age he commissioned Burgess to transform the building into the “most successful of all the fantasy castles of the nineteenth century.” [John Newman Glamorgan: The Buildings of Wales] Burgess already had a team of trusted workmen described by architectural historian Mordaunt Crook as “a group of talented men, moulded in their master’s image, art-architects and medievalists to a man – jokers and jesters too – devoted above all to art rather than to business.” To supplement them the Marquess set up ‘Bute Workshops’ to train more local craftsmen.
Work began in 1868 with the 150 feet high Clock Tower on the site of a Roman bastion, complete with a covered parapet walk, mediaeval-style embrasures and arrow slits.
In 1875 he added the Swiss Bridge, probably modelled on the 13thc bridge on the lake at Lucerne. It crossed the moat, connecting the castle to its gardens in what is now Bute Park. Unfortunately in 1927 it was taken down and re-erected over the canal that connected the Castle Mews to the park but by the 1960s it was sadly considered beyond repair and dismantled.
Another of Burgess’s additions is a fantastical sunken roof garden, created in 1876 on top of Bute Tower.
It’s in the form of a classical peristyle, with a marble-lined bronze-columned colonnade surrounding a sunken, tiled courtyard with a bronze fountain in the middle, and a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary on one side. There is mediaeval-style shuttering, elaborate tile pictures telling the story of Elijah and lots of other whimsical touches
The garden is, to put it mildly, ornate but if you can tear yourself away from looking at them there are panoramic views, in every direction including to Bute’s “country cottage castle”, Castell Coch, also designed by Burgess, to the north.
This is no space to go about Burgess’s extraordinary interiors or furniture, but if you want to know more just ‘google’ him and be prepared to be surprised. As Lady Bute, wife of his patron, wrote, “Dear Burgess, ugly Burgess, who designed such lovely things – what a duck.” He died in 1881 but work continued in the same manner thanks to the legacy of his meticulous drawings, and masterminded by his former assistant William Frame.
In 1888 the Marquess decided to construct another tower [it makes you wonder how many towers a man, even a Marquess, might need!] and in the excavations for the foundations the workmen found the remains of Roman walls which were dated to dating from c.AD 276–85 . Further Archaeology showed that there had been four forts, each a different size on the castle site. The present walls were then built on top of the Roman ones.
The North Gate, in the middle of the north side, is a conjectural reconstruction by William Frame, although it was lowered and altered in 1922 during more alterations by the 4th Marquess.
Despite huge death duties on the estate after the death of his father in 1900, which led to the selling off the families assets around Cardiff, including the coal mines, docks and railway companies, the 4th Marquess did not compromise his committment to the castle and its grounds. He completed many of his father’s restoration and improvement projects.
But most famously he completed the Animal Wall. The Animal Wall was designed by Burgess as early as 1866, and was intended to be part of a ‘Moat Garden’, a larger, more elaborate scheme intended to include statues and fountains. In fact it was not actually built until 1890.
There were originally nine animal sculptures – all painted – made by Thomas Nicholls, one of Burgess team of master craftsmen. It stood between the castle and the city until 1922 when the road running past was widened, and the wall was moved about 50 metres to its present location outside Bute Park.
It was finally finished by the 4th Marquess when a further six animals, sculpted by Alexander Carrick, were added in the 1930s. These can easily be spotted as they don’t have glass eyes! The Animal Wall was immediately taken to Cardiff’s heart and is one of the most popular tourist attractions.￼
The Bute family continued to stay at the Castle throughout the 1920s and 1930s, although most of their remaining land interests were sold off or nationalised in 1938. In 1947 when the fifth Marquess, inherited the castle on the death of his father he too faced considerable death duties so sold the very last of the Bute lands in Cardiff, and gave the castle and the surrounding park to the city. It was declared a scheduled monument in 1952 and is now protected as a grade I listed building with neighbouring Bute Park listed Grade 1 on the historic parks register.