Address: Castle Street, Cardiff CF10 3RB

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Cardiff Castle History

Around 2,000 years ago the area around Cardiff was controlled by the Silures, a tribe that was eventually subdued by the Romans. This was at the time when the Romans invaded Britain and set up fortifications in strategic places, and Cardiff was one of these. Strategically, the city was important, being near the Bristol Channel and, more locally, on the River Taff.

The Romans actually built three forts in Cardiff, with the first being built shortly after their arrival in Britain in 55AD. This fort had a large area with timber structures and needed to be secure as it was built in a very hostile area. By 75AD, Britain was pretty much under full control of the Romans and as only a smaller fort was thought to be needed, it was subsequently built. The Romans rebuilt again in 250AD and this time it was built of stone. This was far stronger and was needed as local uprisings were on the increase and this new fort served until the Roman Army withdrew in the 4th century.

When the Romans left, the site became largely unused for hundreds of years, as it was at the mercy of sea raiders unless properly defended. The Norman invasion of 1066 saw the castle used as a military base and, as with previous conquerors, the Normans recognised the usefulness of the site and set about rebuilding and redesigning it. A castle was built in 1091, this using the Romans’ classic keep, motte and bailey design. The motte was the 40 feet high earth mound seen today, the keep was the building on top of it and the bailey was the large grass area below. Many of the Roman walls were covered by huge defensive earth banks, with the walls only being discovered hundreds of years later. Their defences were also improved by the construction of the Ward Wall, a wall that ran from the main south gate to the keep and which divided the fort into two defensive areas, the inner ward and the outer ward. The remains of the wall can be seen today, with the inner ward being on the palace side of the green.

The Normans reinforced the keep and motte by building a water-filled moat around it. The keep is twelve sided and is the ‘shell’ type – an outer wall used to enclose small buildings. There was a Great Hall inside, but this was destroyed during the English Civil War.

The castle eventually went into private ownership, being occupied by the de Clares, Despensers and the Beauchamps during the next two hundred years. Following damage to the castle in 1404, when it was attacked by the forces of Owain Glyndwr, renovations were made by the owner Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. This was more in keeping with the comfort of modern living, rather than the previous fortification designs. In the castle’s history, this was a significant move.

The castle eventually passed to the Crown, but after about fifty years, in 1551, it was given to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The family had strong royal links and went about filling the palace with rich tapestries and furnishings, making it fit for a royal visit.

The English Civil war of 1642-46 saw Cromwell’s Parliamentarians rise against the Royalists and, due to the royal allegiance of the Herberts, the castle was a target and was attacked with much damage taking place, especially to the keep.

Through marriage, in 1766, the estate passed to the Bute family and in particular, the 1st Marquess of Bute. He employed architect Henry Holland as well as one of the most famous landscape designers of all time, Capability Brown. His vision was to move on from the fortification layout and create more of a family home. This was the point at which the Ward Wall, the great defensive wall that cut the green in two, was demolished. Various other structures were taken down too, including those surrounding the keep.

Throughout history, many extraordinary buildings can pinpoint their instigation or change to one defining moment, and Cardiff Castle’s main evolvement came when it fell into the hands of John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Bute’s father had died when Bute was a baby, leaving him extraordinary wealth and with his mother passing away when he was 12, much responsibility came onto his young shoulders.

Bute didn’t disappoint. When he was 18, he met and recruited the services of architect William Burges. This was a man who was far more than a plain architect, describing himself as an ‘art-architect’ and he became the ideal man to design and oversee the transformation of the medieval castle into Bute’s fantasy palace. Burges was a keen historian and was also blessed with enormous creativity with the detail on show today being evidence of this. Add to his creativity the wealth that made Bute the richest man in Britain and over a sixteen year period, the transformation of the castle was extraordinary. Bute, and his heirs, were proud of the historical past of the place and were keen to emphasise its history both in the palace decoration as well as structurally outside. The south wall by the main gate shows this as Bute incorporated the original wall, when building his new one, and instructed his staff to outline the original stonework by laying a red sandstone line between new and old.

The castle stayed in the Bute family until 1947 when they gave the castle and park to the city of Cardiff. The Butes had certainly left their mark on the area, turning a relatively modest town into a vast city and this in main, was due to the development of the local coal industry of which Bute was largely responsible.

 

Cardiff Castle Visit

Sitting near the River Taff, Cardiff Bay and the Bristol Channel, Cardiff was recognised as a strategic location by the Romans two thousand years ago. The castle and fortifications were built and as Cardiff gradually became an important port, it saw a large city grow around the ancient castle site.

We now have this marvellous spectacle of people going about their daily business in the city centre and malls, glancing to one side and seeing the magnificent castle at the end of the road.

You literally walk across the road from the shops to the castle entrance and buy your tickets in the booth outside. When visiting, you have the choice of acquiring the headphones that talk you through the history as you walk past points as you activate the audio with the relevant number keyed in. You’re also given the option of putting your name down for a tour of the main castle rooms. This is well worth doing as there’s a huge amount of detail in the decoration and furnishings, many with a story behind them, and this is historical detail that you wouldn’t get if you walked around on your own. You go in groups of about eight and I think the groups go every hour or so.

In a nutshell, the fortifications were started by the Romans, developed by the Normans in about 1100 and then brought into modern living conditions by Lord Bute’s renovation in the 19th century. His vast wealth and creativity produced sights that leave you spellbound at times. To compound the spectacle, the site also has a military museum.

Once through the huge front entrance, you see the vast green lawn area in front of you. At the far end of this, if you look straight ahead, you’ll see a huge mound with a stone structure on top. This is the area that dates back around 2,000 years to Roman times and the structure on top is the ‘keep’.

To the right of the front entrance, once inside, you’ll find the cafe area, museum and indoor kids area. The cafe is modern and has a great outdoor area, idyllic on a warm summer’s day. To the side of the building is the kids area with things like face painting and games, whilst upstairs is the Regimental Museum. The museum has an incredible display of wartime relics, items and memorabilia and all manner of information behind them. A look around the museum is worth a trip on its own, never mind the castle. You can see amongst other things the Victoria Cross details of Chard and Gonville, the famous soldiers from the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.  This was in 1879, during the Zulu wars in Africa, and is famous as being the basis of the film ‘Zulu’ that starred Michael Caine.

Inside, to the left of the front entrance, you’ll see the main castle residence – and what an incredible place! It was the  the Marquis of Bute’s dream building and the result is a display that is breathtaking.

You get an idea of the opulence when you are outside the walls and see the clock tower with its intricate detail. When outside you’ll also see the animal wall. As its name suggests it’s a wall with a host of stone sculptures of different animals. The wall was originally in front of the castle, but has been moved to the side, with most animals perfectly preserved as well as a few more added.

There’s so much to see in the main house and every room seems to have a story which is why it’s such a good idea to go on the guided tour of the house. There really is an astonishing amount of detail and the people who guide you are hugely informative.

The beauty of a trip to the castle is that it’s so convenient to the city centre – your hotel may be only a one minute walk away. You may fancy going to the castle, but the family choose to go shopping. You can simply meet up around the corner when you finish or they join you later – ideal!

This is a great day out as there’s so much to see and if you read a bit about the history before you go, you’ll be able to notice a lot more.