Cardiff Castle – Victorian medievalist fantasy romantically overshadowing a Norman keep

Cardiff Castle covers the site of a Roman fort of the first century c.e. beside the River Taff, and a stretch of Roman wall is still visible. The Normans built a stronghold there later and the twelfth-century keep, the Black Tower, which is now the entrance gate, and part of the walls have survived. However, what really draws the eye, and some astonished gasps, is the inspired mansion designed and built on the castle grounds by the architect William Burges for the third Marquess of Bute. Possibly the richest British nobleman of his day, he inherited his title from his grandfather, who had transformed Cardiff from a village on the Bristol Channel into a major port, exporting the coal of the South Wales valleys to the world.

Burges and Bute were both fascinated by the Middle Ages, and Burges was an expert on medieval architecture and eagerly grasped the opportunity to create a romantic late-medieval castle on a grand, over-the-top scale in what his contemporaries called Burgesian Gothic. It has a clock tower 150 feet (46 m) high and four other towers, each quite unlike the one before. Every room in the “castle” is decorated with tiles, murals, and carvings, done with superb craftsmanship. Monkeys are fighting over a book at the library entrance, there is a maze on the floor of the Chaucer Room, and nursery rhymes are vividly depicted in the nursery. The castle was given to the city in 1947 by the fifth marquess and is now also home to two Welsh regimental museums.

From 1872 Burges and Bute applied their nineteenth-century medievalist vision to a smaller, but equally romantic Prisoner of Zenda-like castle just outside Cardiff to the north, Castell Coch at Tongwynlais, which they pretended was a hunting lodge. The bedroom for Bute’s wife, an amazing realization of everyone’s dream of the bedchamber in Sleeping Beauty, is a special delight.