Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Cardiff Castle: central and fascinating

First impressions
   As you enter Cardiff Castle you will be struck by a huge 40 feet high Norman motte (the largest in Wales) topped by a keep ahead of you and an impressive Victorian Gothic Revival mansion to your left. There are hidden Roman remains to be visited later and this large open area was once split in two -so all is not as it first seems. Part of the original dividing wall can be seen in this grassy space.
   The castle is conveniently situated for modern visitors near the city centre and the site must have appealed to invaders with very different motives during the last 2000 or so years.
   Local materials were used to build the walls: blocks of blue lias limestone and large boulders, the latter probably taken from the bed of the River Taff.

Roman occupation
   It would have been the easy access to the sea for transport of supplies that attracted the Romans at the end of the 50's, intent on holding down the warlike Silures and accustoming them to Roman supremacy. In time the troublesome tribesmen found advantages in adapting: improved trade and communication; efficient administration including justice - and the possibility of Roman citizenship. Pirates were also a perceived threat, the snag in being close to the sea.
   Excavations in the 1970's found evidence of 4 forts, three earlier wooden versions and a fourth stone structure which later fell into disuse. It had been the 3rd Marquess of Bute who, deciding to build a new tower on the east, started the digging process in 1888 during which remains of Roman stonework were discovered that had hitherto been unknown. He had these remains exposed and then reconstructed in a manner thought to be authentic at that time with the addition of a gallery for exercise in bad weather. (During World War II, these wall galleries were used as air-raid shelters for up to 2000 people caught out by the siren whilst shopping.)

The Normans
   William the Conqueror founded this castle in 1081 to establish his rule over the stroppy inhabitants of south-east Wales. Robert Fitzhamon became Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Glamorgan and erected many early defences including the motte and a wooden keep on top. During the 12th century these were replaced by stone and the castle changed hands many times: owners included the de Clares, the infamous Despensers and the Beauchamps.

The remains of the Norman dividing wall

   The 12-sided keep, originally surrounded by a moat, is of a structure known as a shell as it once contained other buildings. Despite its height and strength, it was raided in 1158 by the Welsh leader Ifor Bach who abducted the Earl, his wife and son, holding them to ransom until he received back his rightful land. Other threats were posed by Llewelyn ap Gruffudd and Llewelyn Bren. The castle was stormed and damaged in 1404 by Owain Glyndwr during the uprising which unsettled the whole of this area.
    Fascinatingly, Robert Curthose ('short-arse') eldest son of the Conqueror was held prisoner (after a failed rebellion to seize the crown) by his younger brother Henry I  and languished here for many years until his death in 1134. You can spot a small painting of him in the Banqueting Hall. Three executions were those of Sir William Fleminge, made a scapegoat by Hugh Despenser the younger; Llewelyn Bren who was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered by Hugh, and the heretic Thomas Capper, burnt on the orders of Henry VIII. The Black Tower was used a a prison during the 16th century.
    Castles as fortifications only were becoming less popular by the 14th and 15th centuries and the  owner of Cardiff Castle, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, built a convenient and comfortable mansion for himself, starting in 1423, on the west side: this contained a Great Hall and family accommodation. Later, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke repaired and modernised the rooms, the keep and the Black Tower as well as adding a tower, a private garden called the Lord's Plaisance and a rather sedate-looking Ladies' Walk.

The Butes
   They were an ancient family who traced their roots back to Scottish kings and, in the period that concerns us, made a vast fortune from coal mined on their estates. They spent huge sums on the castle, completely transforming it by redoing the mansion, adding new Gothic-style wings and employing Henry Holland with 'Capability' Brown to landscape the gardens. He knocked down ancient walls, the medieval chapel and the Shire Hall. Judge for yourself.

The 3rd Marquess of Bute and William Burges.
   An unusual friendship was struck between the young 3rd Marquess, who had been dubbed 'the richest baby in Britain' and the older architect: devoted to the Middle Ages, they created together a unique mansion, elaborately and sometimes humorously decorated with an animal theme throughout. "Billy" Burges (1827-81) was short, stout, vibrant and gifted. He started with the Clock Tower and proceeded to redesign the entire building, paying minute attention to every detail of ornamentation and employing local craftsmen. The result has been termed: "the most magnificent that the gothic revival ever achieved." You can see bedrooms, the library, the Winter Smoking Room, the Banqueting Hall, the Arab Room, the Day Nursery and so on. Animals include bronze beavers, parrots, rabbits, a crocodile, the faithful dog Gelert, and imagined creatures as well as a bestiary on the wall outside. Of all the many wonders within, I find the stained glass on a sunny day the most alluring.

   After the death of the 4th Marquess and the payment of enormous death duties earlier, the Bute family made the generous decision to gift this colourful and extraordinary castle with most of its park to the City of Cardiff in 1947.  There is also the Firing Line Regimental Museum to complete your stay. In all, the Castle is a fascinating place to visit although one may be critical of previous demolitions - console yourself with the thought that you can see historical development caught and preserved in front of you.  Console yourself also with the marvellous CAKES in the café, all locally made and particularly splendid on Tuesdays. They are proud that the delicacies range from Welsh cakes to Danish pastries thus showing a cosmopolitan range. The shop sells lovely recycled wool throws: the calories I had consumed in lemon drizzle gave me the inspiration to buy one and I am wrapped in it right now!

Cardiff is easy to reach by bus and is a lively, safe-feeling city with many other attractions. You are not far from Caerphilly Castle which is magnificently imposing and a little further away are Chepstow Castle and Raglan Castle as well as the Roman remains at Caerleon.
 For opening times at Cardiff Castle click here.

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