Cardiff, the handsome capital of Wales, is known for its eponymous research university, its National Museum and art gallery, the open-air St. Fagans National Museum of History, well-preserved Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades, abundant parklands, and other distinguishing attractions. However, the center of town boasts Cardiff’s chief glory, a many-towered fantasy whose crenellated walls, tall spires, and varied rooftops suggest some mythical stronghold (Fig. 1). Cardiff Castle embodies roughly two thousand years of history, and, in addition to its venerable exterior, its opulent high Victorian interiors combine medieval and other romantic styles to project a compelling historical narrative that embodies the erudite passions of its most notable owner, John Crichton-Stuart, third Marquess of Bute (Fig. 15).
The castle’s origins go back to a fourth-century Roman stone fort constructed on the site (actually the fourth Roman fort on that site since the first century). In the wake of William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain in 1066, Norman troops built their own citadel using the Roman walls as their foundation and burying them under massive earthen banks, where they remained for the next nine centuries.1 From the early fifteenth century on, the property belonged to a succession of powerful families, who built and maintained a castellated mansion on the grounds as their residence. But by the eighteenth century, the castle, its Norman keep, and the surrounding ten acres were a comparative ruin. In 1766, however, an advantageous marriage brought Cardiff Castle into the possession of the Butes, an ancient, wealthy Scots family. The new owners engaged architect Henry Holland and the celebrated landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown to restore and enlarge the derelict place by beautifying the grounds and adding new wings to the house in the “Gothick” taste increasingly fashionable in Georgian England.
Nevertheless, it was the work commissioned two generations afterward that transformed Cardiff Castle into what John Betjeman, the future British poet laureate and a pioneering champion of Victorian architecture and design, declared in a 1952 radio talk, an “amazing house . . . worth journeying from anywhere, however remote in these islands to see.”2 The scene was set for that transformation by the sudden death in 1848 of the second Marquess of Bute, whose industry led to the development of Cardiff from a provincial market town to an important port city. His labors after discovering the potential of South Wales’s coal and mineral resources and building the Cardiff Docks enriched the city as well as the Bute fortunes.
Bute left behind his wife, Sophia, and their infant son, John, who, at the age of six months, became third Marquess and heir to Cardiff Castle. Early on, the boy began to reveal his exceptional personality, which flourished in his mother’s care, especially his affinity for history, religion, and ecclesiastical ritual.
Tragically, Bright’s disease—a chronic kidney disorder— carried off Lady Bute in 1859 when her son was only twelve years old. Thereafter, the studious, introspective young lord was in the charge of the Bute trustees, who sent him to Harrow School and to Christ Church College, Oxford, where he expanded his interests in literature, art, medieval history, and Roman Catholicism, to which he converted in 1868. During his adolescence, young Bute keenly observed the several alterations to Cardiff Castle overseen by the trustees, but upon attaining his majority in 1868, he was able to act independently on his own ideas, which had been crystalizing, notably after meeting in 1865 the ideal collaborator to realize them, architect William Burges (Fig. 14).
Burges, an ardent medievalist and designer, had already won two international competitions before he was thirty. In 1863 he was engaged to design St. Fin Barre’s cathedral in Cork, Ireland, which is widely regarded as his ecclesiastical masterpiece. About a decade later he designed Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut (though only one section of the exceedingly elaborate and costly plan—the Long Walk—was completed).
“Billy” Burges was one of the most inventive of all nineteenth-century medievalists, his scholarly zeal enriched by a romantic imagination and leavened with humor and a penchant for theatrical gesture (he even donned medieval costume on occasion). The restoration of Cardiff Castle was his dream commission. Calling himself an “art-architect,” he would research and realize all elements of a project, from wall decoration to furniture and decorative objects, regardless of expense. And while other clients might balk at cost overruns, Lord Bute didn’t. Instead, the two kindred spirits established a warm working relationship over the next sixteen years. Working on Cardiff Castle and other projects, including the restoration of Lord Bute’s smaller Castell Coch after 1871, Burges collaborated with an exceptional team of muralists, sculptors, stained-glass artists, ceramists, woodcarvers, and joiners— artist-craftsmen who shared his desire to revive medieval techniques and who executed his multifarious designs for each aspect of his schemes.
Burges intended his architecture and wall decorations to “speak and tell a story,”3 a philosophy that paralleled the concept of the “architecture of illustration” advocated by Burges’s French contemporary, architect Charles Garnier, in the design and decoration of the glorious Paris Opéra. Though Bute had initially engaged Burges to restore the stone masonry of Cardiff Castle’s south wall, the architect went on to propose building a huge clock tower at the southwestern corner, not only to serve as a singular landmark, but also to include living quarters for Lord Bute. Together with Bute (who chose decorative ideas from medieval literature, legend, and philosophy), Burges worked out the tower’s external iconography relating, as he put it, “the story of the heavenly host.” Burges had been fascinated by astrology since his youth and now made Bute an enthusiast as well. Hence, apart from the tower’s lead roof, decorated with tin stars that sparkle in the sunlight, he flanked each of the four clock faces with stone statues nine feet tall representing the sun, moon, and planets Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus. These and other stone sculptures Burges placed in the castle interiors were brightly painted, reviving a practice Burges favored. Painted alabaster carvings of sacred figures had been an important product of medieval English workshops, and modern painted stone statuary was a controversial notion of some long standing at that time. Sculptor John Gibson’s three marble statues delicately polychromed in wax, Tinted Venus, Pandora, and Cupid the Soul, had been shown at the 1862 International Exhibition in London,4 and architect-designer Owen Jones’s polychrome Greek Court, including a colored reconstruction of the Parthenon frieze, was one of several exotic courts he designed for the reconstructed Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1854.5
The tower’s narrative spirit influenced the decorative schemes within—the room themes chosen from medieval literature, myth, and philosophy. Though Bute married before the clock tower was completed, its living quarters were initially conceived for a bachelor existence, including a bedroom (Fig. 3) and adjoining bath—its tub fashioned from a Roman marble sarcophagus—and Winter and Summer Smoking Rooms, both sumptuously decorated. The Winter Smoking Room, lowest in the tower, narrates the passage of time, with murals illustrating the labors characteristic of the four seasons on the walls and its vaulted ceiling painted with zodiac symbols recalling manuscript illumination. The room’s stained-glass windows show the Norse gods for whom the Saxons named the days of the week.
Even more lavish is the airy, two-story Summer Smoking Room at the top of the clock tower, with a clerestory proffering magnificent views of Cardiff and the mountains to its north (Fig. 6). Here the themes are time, the earth, and the heavens. In an age known for intensely rich decoration, Burges’s decorative schemes are unrivalled for opulence. Amidst the riot of colored marble, the encaustic tile floor (its medieval design of concentric rings surrounding a map of the earth inlaid in brass, copper, and nickel), painted stone sculptural elements, and gilt-bronze fittings, a series of mural panels in painted tiles by Frederick Smallwood depicts the signs of the zodiac, along with classical figures such as Hercules, Virgo, and Apollo wearing medieval costume—as if Ovid’s Metamorphoses were filtered through Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Suspended from the room’s dome (illustrating the heavens and stars), a gilt-bronze chandelier represents the sun’s rays supporting the figure of the sun god Helios (Fig. 5). In his preliminary watercolor design for the room, Burges peopled it with figures in medieval dress, and apparently Lord Bute himself liked to appear here bedecked in a smoking costume modeled after the vestment of a saintly bishop.
Lord Bute’s marriage to Gwendolen Fitzalan- Howard in 1872 eventually produced four children, while also prompting work on the rest of the property. The couple enjoyed travel as much as Burges, and as Burges deemed the Middle East (then commonly known as the Orient) the fountainhead of medieval life, Lord and Lady Bute regularly voyaged around Europe and to the Middle East. They brought back ideas and objects for use in ongoing works at the castle, most notably the Arab Room, with its multicolored marble walls and floor, its inlaid marble chimneypiece, and its extraordinary muqarnas (i.e. stalactite or honeycomb) ceiling of painted and gilded wood, inspired by the twelfth-century Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Sicily (Figs. 7, 8). Created for the sheer pleasure of doing so, this dazzling chamber had no particular purpose. On one occasion a little brass bed was installed for a visitor (the castle was chronically short of guest bedrooms), and in 1907 the young fourth Marquess treated Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to coffee there, after serving them luncheon in the Banqueting Hall (Fig. 10).
“Though the castle looks large, it’s only one or two rooms deep, with about 40 usable rooms,” Matthew Williams, the castle’s curator emeritus and author of the handsome, definitive volume, Cardiff Castle and the Marquesses of Bute, wrote to me. To make the mansion roomier and impart greater interest to its roofline, Burges built the Guest Tower in 1875, and thereafter heightened three existing towers on the castle’s west side: the Bute Tower, Herbert Tower, and, most notably, the fifteenth-century Beauchamp Tower, which he crowned in 1878 with a striking lead-covered spire, or fleche, inspired by Amiens Cathedral. The Beauchamp Tower houses the glorious Chaucer Room, created as the marchioness’s sitting room (Fig. 9). Burges revered Chaucer, and this diminutive chamber (roughly ten feet wide), presided over by Chaucer’s statue atop the elaborate chimneypiece, commemorates his work, including stained-glass windows representing The Canterbury Tales designed by Burges and Horatio Walter Lonsdale and made by Gualbert Saunders and William Worrall, and painted murals by Charles Campbell depicting scenes from Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowls, with roundel portraits of characters from Chaucerian romance, including Paris, Helen, and Isolde.
Most of the rooms created by Burges are relatively small, which magnifies the intensity of his rich interiors. The spaciousness of the banqueting hall and library, the castle’s two largest rooms, provides a dramatic contrast. Inspired by the early history and style of the original fifteenth-century castle, Burges designed a vast wooden ceiling for the hall supported by rows of fan vaulting issuing from the walls (Fig. 10). Forty-two stained-glass windows feature portraits of the medieval lords and ladies of the castle—the “Cardiff Ancestors.” The upper walls contain murals relating episodes from the life of Robert Consul, Earl of Gloucester and the second Norman lord of Glamorgan, who played an important role in the twelfth-century power struggle between King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda (often known as Maud). This vivid narration is completed by the room’s castle-shaped painted stone chimneypiece. At its center, Robert Consul rides out to battle, while at the lower left, peering through the barred window of his dungeon cell, is Robert, Duke of Normandy, whom Consul imprisoned in Cardiff Castle for the last eight years of the duke’s life.
The library is one of the castle’s most satisfying spaces, reflecting Lord Bute’s love of literature and research (Figs. 11, 12). In addition to his linguistic expertise, his accomplishments as a liturgical scholar, his prolific writing, and his bibliophilic activities, the marquess served as rector of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. The decorative themes here are language, literature, and learning, beginning with the library chimneypiece. In its five Gothic-style niches, sculpted figures each hold a tablet representing an ancient tongue—Greek, Assyrian, Ancient Hebrew, Egyptian— and the runic alphabet. Burges continued the literary theme in the bookcases and furniture, all exquisitely carved and decorated with inlay. Stained-glass windows designed by Lonsdale and executed by Saunders portray Old Testament kings and prophets. Even the red and gold stenciled walls are literary: a series of putti hold the names of Bute’s favorite authors, among them Dante, Tasso, Shakespeare, Rabelais, and Molière. Walking through this inviting sanctum today, one can understand why it was a favorite room of successive generations of Butes.
The Butes’ daughter and three sons enjoyed pony rides, playtime, and fishing afternoons at Cardiff Castle, preceded by morning lessons in the nursery, which Burges designed with its own literary theme: a wonderful frieze in painted tiles depicts a procession of characters from folklore and fairy tale, among them Red Riding Hood, Reynard the Fox, and Robinson Crusoe (Fig. 13).
Surprisingly, for all the delight the Butes took in Cardiff Castle, “the family apparently spent only around six weeks a year there,” Matthew Williams wrote to me, “although this probably varied with subsequent marquesses, what stage various building works were at, their wives’ preferences, children’s school holidays, and so on. There seems to have been no particular preference for certain times of the year. In 1890–1, when the 3rd Marquess was mayor of the city, most of the year was spent in Cardiff, but that was an exception of course.” Tragically, death again stalked Cardiff Castle. In 1881 “the soul-inspiring Burges,” as Lord Bute affectionately called him, suddenly died at age fifty-three, and his unfinished plans had to be realized by an associate. Then, Lord Bute himself developed the kidney disease that had killed his mother. After suffering a debilitating stroke in August 1899, he died a year later, also just fifty-three.
At age nineteen, his eldest son, John, became fourth Marquess, inheriting not only Cardiff Castle and other Bute properties, but staggering death duties. Despite this, he realized the completion of many of his father’s projects, most notably reconstructing the original Roman wall, its venerable stones clearly outlined today on the castle’s south facade. The Butes regularly stayed at Cardiff Castle during the 1920s and ’30s; however, following the fourth Marquess’s death in 1947, the family resolved to make a gift of the castle and much of its park to the city of Cardiff. For a quarter century thereafter it served as home of what is now Wales’s National College of Music and Drama. Since 1974, Cardiff Castle has been open to the public. As John Betjeman declared, “it may not be very Welsh, not even medieval, but my goodness it’s wonderful.”6
1This, and much of the information contained in this article (including otherwise undocumented quotes), is drawn primarily from Matthew Williams, Cardiff Castle and the Marquesses of Bute (New York: Scala, 2019). 2John Betjeman, “Cardiff Castle” in Trains and Buttered Toast: Selected Radio Talks, ed. Stephen Games (London: John Murray, 2006), p. 309. 3Matthew Williams, The Essential Cardiff Castle, (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers, 2014), p. 15. 4See entry for Tinted Venus at rct.uk, the Royal Collection Trust website. 5Owen Jones entry in Who’s Who in Architecture 1400 to the Present, ed. J. M. Richards (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson/New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977). 6Betjamin, “Cardiff Castle,” p. 315.