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History of Castell Coch

The original castle on the site was probably constructed by the Normans after 1081. Its aim was to protect the newly conquered town of Cardiff, as well as to control the route along the Taff Gorge. It formed one of a string of eight fortifications with this aim, and took the form of a raised, earth-work motte about 35 metres (115 feet) across at the base, and 25 metres (82 feet) on the top, protected by surrounding steep slopes. This structure was probably abandoned after 1093, when the Norman lordship of Glamorgan was created, changing the line of the frontier. Gilbert de Clare reused the castle’s earth motte after it was abandoned, building a new stone fortification between 1267 and 1277, in order to exert control over his Welsh lands. The newly refurbished Castell Coch, strategically situated between Caerphilly Castle, and Cardiff, was comprised of a shell-wall, a projecting circular tower, a gatehouse and a square hall above an under-croft. Further work between 1268 and 1277 added two large towers, a turning-bridge for the gatehouse and further protection to the north-west walls, making this a small, but powerful, fortification. After Gilbert’s death, the Castle passed on to his widow, and it began to be known as the ‘Castrum Rubeum’, which means ‘the Red Castle’ in Latin. This was probably in reference to the red colour of its sandstone defences. ‘Coch’ in fact means ‘red’ in Welsh. Gilbert’s son, also called Gilbert, inherited the Castle in 1307. He died in 1314, when the Castle itself was destroyed and then slighted, during a Welsh rebellion.

Castle Coch remained abandoned and derelict. Stones from the site may have even been filched and used for other structures. John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, acquired the Castle ruins in 1760 as part of a marriage settlement when he married Lady Charlotte Windsor. John Stuart, who was reportedly one of the richest men in the world at the time, had gained his wealth through the mineral resources of his Glamorgan estates.

In 1848, the Earl’s grandson, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marques of Bute, inherited the castle and estates when he was a child. When he came of age, he realized he was one of Britain’s wealthiest men, with many interests such as architecture, archaeology, theology, history, and medieval studies. He employed the ‘eccentric’ architect William Burges, whom he had already employed to renovate Cardiff Castle, and gave him free reign to create a rural and opulent retreat, and to use the medieval remains as the basis for the reconstruction of Castell Coch. The Castle was reconstructed between 1875 and 1879. Burges sure didn’t hold back, constructing dazzling ceilings, and rooms with over-the-top furnishings. Some of his detailed architecture drawings still survive to this day. Burges died in 1881, and the work on the castle was continued and finished by his brother-in-law Richard Pullman and his team ten years later, in 1891.

Castell Coch was not used as a permanent residence since it was too small for the family, and their visits to it were infrequent. The Marques of Bute was also responsible for planting a vineyard just below the castle, since he introduced a viticultural commercial venture which flourished up to the First World War. He died in 1900 and the Marchioness his widow was given a life interest in Castell Coch. She occupied the Castle together with her daughter, Lady Margaret Crichton-Stuart, and made occasional visits. John, the 4th Marques of Bute, acquired the Castle in 1932, but had little use for it. Eventually he reduced the family’s investments in Wales, selling off the coal-mines and most of their investments there.

The 3rd Marques’ grandson, the 5th Marques of Bute, eventually placed the Castle into the care of the Ministry of Works. The paintings were removed from Castell Coch and sent to the Cardiff National Museum of Wales. As of 1984, it has been managed and taken care of by the Welsh Heritage Agency, CADW, who also opened it up to the public.