Cardiff Castle (Welsh: Castell Caerdydd) is a medieval castle and Victorian architecture Gothic revival mansion, transformed from a Norman keep erected over a Roman fort in the Castle Quarter of Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The Castle is a Grade I Listed Building.

The Roman fort

There may have been at least two previous Roman forts on the site. The first was probably built about AD 55 during the conquest of the Silures tribe. From the late 2nd to the mid-3rd century, civilian buildings associated with iron working occupied the site (Roman fort).

The Norman castle

The Norman keep was built on a high motte on the site of a Roman castra, first uncovered during the third Marquess of Bute's building campaign. The Norman keep, of which the shell remains, was constructed about 1091 by Robert Fitzhamon, lord of Gloucester and conqueror of Glamorgan. After the failed attempt of Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror's eldest son, to take England from Henry I, Robert of Normandy was imprisoned here until his death in 1134. The castle, rebuilt in stone, was an important stronghold of Marcher Lords, in the de Clare and le Despenser dynasties, also the Beauchamps Earls of Warwick, Richard of York through his marriage into the Neville family, and the Herbert family, Earls of Pembroke. In the 18th century the castle became the property of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, who became through his Herbert wife a major landowner in the area, and whose heirs developed the docks that transformed Cardiff from a fishing village to a major coal exporting port during the 19th century.

The Victorian mansion

In the early 19th century the castle was enlarged and refashioned in an early Gothic Revival style for John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute by Henry Holland. But its transformation began in 1868 when John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute commissioned William Burges to undertake a massive rebuilding which turned the castle into a medieval palace. Bute's and Burges's shared interest in medieval gothic revivalism, combined with Bute's almost limitless financial resources as the richest man in Britain, meant that Burges could build on the grandest scale. His imagination, his scholarship, his architectural and decorative talents, his inventiveness and his sheer high spirits combined to make Cardiff Castle the "most successful of all the fantasy castles of the nineteenth century."

It was necessary for Burges to incorporate the existing structure of the castle within his work. This "over-laying" can clearly be seen, either from the park or from the courtyard, with the silhouette showing Burges' capping of the Georgian towers by gothic steeples. However, the Clock Tower, which was begun on Bute's coming of age in 1869, is entirely Burges' own. The first part of the re-building, it formed a suite of bachelor's rooms, the Marquess not marrying until 1872, comprising a bedroom, a servant's room and the Summer and Winter smoking rooms. The rooms are sumptuously decorated with gildings, carvings and cartoons, many allegorical in style, depicting the seasons, myths and fables. Work continued along Holland's Georgian range including the construction of the Guest Tower, the Arab Room, the Chaucer Room, the Nursery, the Library, the Banqueting Hall and bedrooms for both Lord and Lady Bute. Almost the entire of Burges's usual team were involved, including Chapple, Frame and Lonsdale. Following Burges' death in 1881, further areas of the castle were developed along the lines he had set, culminating in the Animal Wall, which was not completed until the 1920s by the third Marquess' son, the fourth Marquess. The Swiss bridge that originally crossed the moat to the pre-Raphaelite garden which the Animal Wall encompassed, was demolished in the nineteen thirties. Also gone is the Grand Staircase. It was long thought that the staircase, shown in a watercolour perspective prepared by Axel Haig, had never actually been built but very recent research has shown that the staircase was in fact constructed, and then torn out in the 1930s.

William Burges was able to create a richness and fantasy in his interiors that has rarely been equalled. Although “he executed few buildings as his rich fantastic gothic required equally rich patrons (..) his finished works are outstanding monuments to nineteenth century gothic. As such Cardiff castle was the last great masterpiece of the gothic revival, its interiors some of the most magnificent that the gothic revival ever achieved.

From the park, all five towers appear in enfilade to produce a wonderfully crowded variegated and romantic Victorian skyline. It has been suggested that Burges' work is overpowering. Mordaunt Crook responds that, whilst at Cardiff "the lily suffers from a surfeit of gilding.. (the) suffocating richness was the aim. (The rooms) are fantasy capsules, three dimensional passports to fairy kingdoms and realms of gold. In Cardiff Castle we enter a land of dreams".

Cardiff Castle is extraordinary but is it unique? Mordaunt Crook contends that there is nothing in Victorian Britain to match its obsessive exoticism. "Alton castle, Eaton Hall, Carlton Towers, Alnwick, Peckforton, none approaches the Burgesian Sublime. And none has comparable interiors. Cardiff is incomparable. Its silhouette has become the skyline of the capital of Wales. The dream of one great patron and one great architect has almost become the symbol of a whole nation."

Access and events

In 1947, the Bute South Wales estates having all been sold, the castle, and surrounding park, was gifted to the City of Cardiff by the fifth Marquis. It is now a popular tourist attraction, and houses a regimental museum in addition to the ruins of the old castle and the Victorian reconstruction. It sits in the expansive grounds of Bute Park.

The castle has hosted a number of rock concerts and performances and has the capacity to accommodate over 10,000 people. Notable concerts include the Stereophonics's Live at Cardiff Castle in June 1998 and Green Day in 2002. Tom Jones performed here before a large crowd in 2001; it is on DVD, Tom Jones: Live at Cardiff Castle. In 1948 a crowd of 16,000, a record for a British baseball game, watched Wales defeat England in Cardiff Castle grounds. During the 1960s and 1970s the castle was the setting for a military tattoo to rival that of Edinburgh, the floodlit keep providing a spectacular backdrop.

Currently, Cardiff Castle plays host to Cardiff University's Summer Ball each year, and is the site of Wales's largest Mardi Gras held every August.

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank selected the Castle as one of his eight choices for the 2002 BBC book The Story of Britain's Best Buildings.


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