Castell Coch

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Castell Coch
Tongwynlais, Cardiff, Wales
Castell Coch (HDR) (8100712084).jpg
The main entrance to Castell Coch.
Type Gothic revival
Height 25 metres (82 ft)
Site information
Controlled by Cadw
Condition Complete reconstruction
Site history
Built Original castle 11th–13th century
Rebuilt 1875–1891
Built by John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute
William Burges
In use Open to public
Materials Stone
Occupied by the Marquesses of Bute until 1950

Castell Coch (Welsh pronunciation: [ˈkastɛɬ kɔx]; Welsh for Red Castle) is a 19th-century Gothic Revival castle built high above the village of Tongwynlais, to the north of Cardiff in Wales. It stands on the ruins of a 13th-century castle in a strategic position commanding both the narrow entrance to the Taff valley and the coastal plain. Reconstructed in the 1870s by William Burges for John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, the castle has a "sculptural and dramatic exterior"[1] and interiors which match those of Cardiff Castle.[2] On Burges's decoration of these castles, the architectural writer Charles Handley-Read wrote: "I have yet to see any High Victorian interiors from the hand, very largely, of one designer, to equal either in homogeneity or completeness, in quality of execution or originality of conception the best of the interiors of the Welsh castles. For sheer power of intoxication, Burges stand[s] unrivalled." [3]

Early history[edit]

Castell Coch before reconstruction

The first castle on the site was a large motte, probably built during the first Norman invasion of Wales in the late 11th century.[4] It is reputed to have been built by Ifor ap Meurig, known as Ifor Bach.

In the late 13th century a stone castle was built over the motte by the de Clare lords of Glamorgan. This castle had an enclosure wall with two projecting towers, and a square hall above an undercroft. In a later phase of building a third tower and a gatehouse with drawbridge and portcullis were added, and the wall was increased in height.[4]

Although the early history of the castle is largely undocumented, it is generally accepted that it was severely damaged during a period of Welsh rebellion in the early 14th century.[5] Thereafter, the castle fell into disuse and by Tudor times, the antiquary John Leland described it as "all in ruin no big thing but high".[4]


Diagram of Castell Coch; A - Kitchen Tower; B - Courtyard; C - Lower Hall; D - Well Tower; E - Keep

In 1871, John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, ordered the site to be cleared of vegetation and debris while his architect, William Burges, drew up plans for a full reconstruction. Burges and the Marquess had been working for over three years on the rebuilding of Cardiff Castle; the aim at Castell Coch was to achieve another "dazzling architectural tour de force of the High Victorian era, [a] dream-like castle which combine[d] sumptuous Gothic fantasy with timeless fairy tale."[6]

A set of drawings for the planned rebuilding exists, together with a full architectural justification by Burges. The castle reconstruction features three conical roofs to the towers that are historically questionable. Burges sought to defend their use with references to a body of doubtful historical evidence but: "the truth is that he wanted them for their architectural effect."[7] He did admit that they were "utterly conjectural" although "more picturesque and (...) affording much more accommodation", contending that:

View of the castle walls

"It is true that some antiquaries deny the existence of high roofs in English Mediaeval Military Architecture, and ask objectors to point out examples. As nearly every Castle in the country has been ruined for more than two is not surprising that no examples are to be found. But we may form a very fair idea of the case if we consult contemporary (manuscripts) and if we do we find nearly an equal number of towers with flat roofs as those with pointed roofs. The case appears to me to be thus: if a tower presented a good situation for military engines, it had a flat top; if the contrary, it had a high roof to guarantee the defenders from the rain and the lighter sorts of missiles. Thus an arrow could not pierce the roof, but if the latter were absent and the arrow was fired upright, in its downward flight it might occasion the same accident to the defenders as happened to Harold at Hastings."

Burges's report on the proposed reconstruction was delivered in 1872[8] but construction was delayed until 1875, in part because of the pressure of work at Cardiff Castle, and in part because of an unfounded concern on behalf of the Marquess's trustees that he was facing bankruptcy.[9] But in August 1875 work began in earnest. The exterior comprises three towers, "almost equal to each other in diameter, (but) arrestingly dissimilar in height."[4] They form an awesome display of architectural power and ability. In a lecture, Burges called on architectural students to "study the great broad masses, the strong unchamfered lines".


View of the interior

The Keep tower, the Well Tower and the Kitchen Tower incorporate a series of apartments, of which the main sequence, the Castellan's Rooms, lie within the Keep. The Hall, the Drawing Room, Lord Bute's Bedroom and Lady Bute's bedroom comprise a suite of rooms that exemplify the High Victorian Gothic style in 19th century Britain. They begin weakly: the Banqueting Hall, completed well after Burges's death, is "dilute(,...) unfocussed"[10] and "anaemic."[2] The Drawing Room is "more exciting",[10] a double-height room with decoration illustrating the "intertwined themes (of) the fecundity of nature and the fragility of life."[11] A superb fireplace by Thomas Nicholls features the Three Fates, spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life.[12] The octagonal chamber with its great rib-vault, modelled on one designed by Viollet-Le-Duc at Château de Coucy, is "spangled with butterflies and birds of sunny plume in gilded trellis work."[13] Off the hall, lies the Windlass Room, in which Burges delighted in assembling the fully functioning apparatus for the drawbridge, together with "murder holes" for expelling boiling oil.[14] The Marquess's bedroom provide some "spartan"[15] respite before the culmination of the castle, Lady Bute's Bedroom.

The room is "pure Burges: an arcaded circle, punched through by window embrasures, and topped by a trefoil-sectioned dome."[15] The decorative theme is 'love', symbolised by "monkeys, pomegranates, nesting birds".[15] The decoration was completed long after Burges's death but his was the guiding spirit; "Would Mr Burges have done it?" William Frame wrote to Thomas Nicholls in 1887.[15]

Following Burges' death in 1881, work on the interior continued for another ten years. The castle was not used much: the Marquess never came after its completion, and the family appeared to use it as a sort of sanatorium, although the Marchioness and her daughter, Lady Margaret Crichton-Stuart, did occupy it for a period following the death of the Marquess in 1900. But the castle remained "one of the greatest Victorian triumphs of architectural composition,"[16] summing up "to perfection the learned dream world of a great patron and his favourite architect, recreating from a heap of rubble a fairy-tale castle which seems almost to have materialised from the margins of a medieval manuscript."[15]

In 1950, the 5th Marquess of Bute placed the castle in the care of the Ministry of Works. It is now administered by Cadw, an agency of the Welsh Government. Ths castle is Grade I listed,[17] of exceptional architectural and historical interest.

Burges' interior design[edit]

Site of Special Scientific Interest[edit]

The beech woods around the main approach

The area surrounding the castle is notable both for the ancient beech woods and for the rock outcrops, which show the point where Devonian Old Red Sandstone and Carboniferous Limestone beds meet. The area is designated the Castell Coch Woodlands and Road Section Site of Special Scientific Interest.[18]

Media appearances[edit]

The castle has been much used for filming, including:

See also[edit]



  • Girouard, Mark (1979). The Victorian Country House. Yale University Press. 
  • Floud, Peter (1980). Castell Coch: Official Guide. Welsh Office. 
  • Crook, J. Mordaunt (1981). William Burges and the High Victorian Dream. John Murray. 
  • Crook, J. Mordaunt (1981). The Strange Genius of William Burges. National Museum of Wales. 
  • Ferriday, Peter (1963). Victorian Architecture. Jonathan Cape. 
  • McLees, David (2005). Castell Coch: Official Guide. Cadw. 
  • Newman, John (1995). The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan. London, UK: Penguin. ISBN 0 14 071056 6. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°32′09″N 3°15′17″W / 51.53585°N 3.25482°W / 51.53585; -3.25482