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 Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
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 19th century fantasy of a medieval palace, with a series of rooms that, perhaps, constitute the highest achievement of later Victorian Gothic Revival design.
Rebuilding began with the Clock Tower, planned 1866 – 1868 and begun in 1869. The towers continue westward, the Tank Tower, the Guest Tower, the Herbert Tower and the Beauchamp Tower.
Bute and Burges were two hearts in harmony. Furthermore the third Marquess was the richest man in Britain. So Burges could realise his dreams. His imagination, his scholarship and his sheer high spirits combine to make Cardiff Castle the most successful of all the fantasy castles of the nineteenth century.
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".
Informed opinion agrees that the castle at Cardiff is outstanding but argument continues as to whether it is 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."