The castles of Cardiff

In a previous blog, ‘The weirdest city in the world’, I asserted that Cardiff has more military fortresses than any other city in the world. During some drunken debate the other night I made the claim again and was not believed. So here, for the first time ever in print, is the complete list in alphabetical order of Cardiff’s many castles (defining ‘castle’ as any construction with a primarily defensive or offensive military purpose).

ARCHDEACON’S CASTLE  Pioneer evangelist Dyfrig (c480-c580) founded Llandaf Cathedral in 560 during the flowering of Welsh culture known as the ‘Age of Saints’ (the English call it the ‘Dark Ages’, because they didn’t yet exist). The propaganda arm of the Norman invaders seized Llandaf in 1107, installed their own bishop, pulled down Dyfrig’s tiny wattle and daub monastery and put up their own edifice to assert their mastery – at the time the tallest building ever constructed in Wales. To protect it, forts were built to the north and south. The substantial, moated northern fort, called the Archdeacon’s Castle, was destroyed utterly by Welsh freedom fighters in 1404. Slight mounds and markings are still discernible on what are now playing fields on the banks of the Taff.     

BISHOP’S CASTLE  While bishops in England, which completely fell to the Normans in just 4 years,  were ensconcing themselves in palaces, Llandaf’s bishops required fortresses, such was their perpetual insecurity in the face of regular Welsh attacks. Started in 1295 as protection for the cathedral’s southerly approaches, the Bishop’s Castle lasted a mere century before being almost completely destroyed by the army of Owain Glyndwr (c1349-c1416) in the great rebellion of 1404. The imposing stone ruins of this medieval castle in the centre of Llandaf can still be explored today, an eloquent reminder of Welsh resistance.

CAERAU HILLFORT  Cardiff’s oldest surviving domestic structure sits on top of a high, steep promontory with birds-eye views across the Ely valley. Caerau itself means ‘forts’, indicating the definitive nature of this Iron Age settlement whose massive multiple ramparts were constructed around 500BC by the Silures, one of the great indigenous tribes of Wales. Other than the burial chambers and barrows on the hills to the north of the city, this is therefore Cardiff’s most historic site, the spawning-ground of all Cardiffians to come. If that were not enough, within the hillfort is a 4th century ring-work, built by the native Welsh after the Romans left and Britain became vulnerable to attacks from Saxons, Norsemen and Danes. The Brythonic Celts held on in their westerly strongholds thanks to such strategic forts, allowing the nation of Wales to crystalise, but to the east the Celts were overwhelmed by the Germanic tribes who would eventually form England. In the 9th century roving monks from the early Christian mother-church at Llandaf founded a chapel on the ‘pagan’ burial grounds of the hillfort. After they conquered coastal Morgannwg the Normans set about erasing Celtic Christianity and imposing the Roman Catholic version. The old chapel was dismantled and in 1260 St Mary’s church was erected slap bang in the middle of the main enclosure. Following a typical Victorian restoration in 1885 St Mary’s was in good condition until Cardiff came knocking in the 1930s with the social engineering Category Error of the huge Ely Estate – by 1957 the roofless, plundered ruin had to be abandoned. Then in 1961 dedicated locals rebuilt St Mary’s from scratch and the saddleback tower was raised again in a borderline-sane communal effort. But there was to be no respite; the church was soon under attack once more and was systematically pillaged until beyond recovery, final deconsecration following in 1973. Since then it has been virtually levelled to the ground in what appears to be a frenzy of gratuitous mutilation, the shattered remaining walls for years daubed with the most outrageous graffiti of all time: “FAIRNESS IS A CRIME”. Meanwhile the magical hillfort degenerated into a handy fly-tip and all-purpose punch-bag. It is sadly typical that this emblematic Cardiff place has received such a shameful trashing: Cardiff is a city yet to acknowledge let alone come to terms with its history. Visitors who can cope with a visceral experience of deep unease should catch Caerau hillfort while they still can, remembering that it requires some determination to get to the inaccessible, unsigned, unpublicised, barbed-wire encircled travesty.

CAER CYNWRIG  Originally a Welsh camp, Caer Cynwrig was overwhelmed by the Normans in the 12th century and transformed into the 3rd biggest motte in Glamorgan. The pivotal location on a spur of high ground south of the Wenallt by the banks of the Nant Cwmnofydd ensured it would be the scene of many a battle between the Welsh and the invaders – the gore running off into the waterways giving the Nant Waedlyd (Bloody Brook) further downstream its name. Today it is called the Rhiwbina Twmpath, a prohibitively overgrown 130ft (40m) round and 25ft (7m) high bulge of savage jungle freakily engulfed by twee suburbia.

CARDIFF CASTLE  Three castles on one site: a Roman quadrangular fort erected between AD 60 and 300; a Norman motte (the largest in the UK) topped by a keep erected between 1090 and 1150 with further additions throughout the 400-year Welsh Wars of Independence; and an audacious, full-scale Victorian pastiche cooked up by the medievalist imaginings of the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900) and his architect William Burges (1827-1881).

Cardiff Castle’s western array: from the left, Clock Tower, Tank Tower, Guest Tower, Herbert Tower, Beauchamp Tower, Bute Tower

• CASTELL CIBWR  A rich Welsh culture developed in Morgannwg after the Roman Empire collapsed. The highly organised mini-kingdom was divided into administrative units called cantrefi and these sub-divided into communities called cwmwdau –  Cardiff being part of the Cibwr cwmwd in the Senghenydd cantref. Castell Cibwr was raised on an old Silures burial mound in the centre of the lower Taff valley in the 6th century. For 700 years it did its job as the hub of the Cibwr community and  repelling the Anglo-Saxons until finally falling to the Norman shock troops in the 12th century. They rebuilt it in the 1270s with a tall circular tower to dominate the neighbourhood; with this construction, along with a church a little to the west, Whitchurch was born. The castle didn’t last long: it was routed during the uprising of the men of Glamorgan in 1316, rebuilt, and then destroyed again during the mass Welsh rebellion of the 15th century. After that it was allowed to rot. What is now the Fox & Hounds pub bit into the mound in the 18th century, the flats of Clos Treoda eradicated more in the 1960s and 5-a-side football pitches took most of the remainder in the last decade, leaving just a small pile of tree-planted earth alongside Manor Way.

CASTELL COCH  A dazzling, meticulous, irresistible mock-castle peeping through the beech woods of Fforest Fawr above Tongwynlais, recognized as the finest example of 19th century architectural restoration and re-creation in Europe. Hovering over the Taff Gorge, it occupies what was originally a strategic look-out platform of the Silures. The Normans wrested it away from the Welsh and built a stone castle in the 13th century. That structure was destroyed by Welsh incursions and left as a ruin until being reimagined in the 1870s as the ultimate dream castle in a bravado masterclass of solid geometry by opium addict William Burges.    

CASTELL MORGRAIG  The modern boundary between Cardiff and Caerffili runs right through the middle of this fabulously atmospheric crumbling castle 900ft (275m) above the city on Graig Llanisien, where a pitiless wind whistles through the gnarled trees and the ramshackle walls. Its commanding position was the perfect spot for a castle in the mid-13th century when the War between the invaders and the native Welsh was in full spate. Built by the de Clares during their tenure as lords of conquered lowland Glamorgan, it was soon made redundant by their mighty fortress at Caerffili a mile away. Subsequently it was used by the Welsh as a launch-pad for raids on the coastal plan, particularly during the 1315-1316 revolt led by Llywelyn Bren (c1265-1318). After Wales was annexed by England in 1536 it gradually fell to ruin, with many of its stones removed to build local farms. There are no signs to help visitors find Castell Morgraig, the authorities being reluctant to promote any reminders of Wales’ long War with England.

FLAT HOLM BATTERY  Cardiff’s very own island, Ynys Echni in Welsh, is the southernmost point of Wales, set five miles out in the turbulent Severn estuary. In 1869 it was fitted out with nine massive guns located at four separate batteries, the largest of which is in a fortified area by the lighthouse. Flat Holm was just one component in the grand plan of UK Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who spent millions encircling the British coast with “Palmerston’s Forts” as a reaction to the perceived threat of the French navy. The French never came and the various structures became known as “Palmerston’s Follies”. Most of the guns remain on the island to this day.

GARTH BARROWS  There is no more impressive sight in the whole city than these five Early Bronze Age round barrows strung along the top of the wind-buffeted ridge of Cardiff’s highest point, Mynydd y Garth. From the 4,000 year-old mounds there is a matchless 360° panorama that makes every other Cardiff attraction pale into insignificance.

GRAIG LLWYN  An Iron Age hillfort of the proto-Welsh Silures tribe from around 200BC, sited north of the M4 above Lisvane. The close-set, multiple, concentric earthen banks have never been excavated, preserved or properly interpreted. Ancient sulphur pits in the vicinity have led some to speculate that this might be the location of the legendary Camelot (from Caer Melyn – Yellow Fort).

KING’S CASTLE  An 11th century Welsh defensive mound by the banks of the Canna brook, which ran down from Llandaf to join the Taff near today’s Brook Street, flattened in the 14th century as the Anglo-Normans laid waste to lowland Glamorgan. A tavern was built on the site in the 18th century, preserving the name of the long-gone castle. This King’s Castle was demolished in 1892 as Canton urbanised, but a replacement pub was built a few metres to the east and has survived.

LLWYNDA-DDU  An Iron Age hillfort of the Silures, the formidable Celtic tribe of south-eastern Wales. Located near Pentyrch, it has been partly destroyed in the subsequent 2,500 years, but the oval camp and inner ramparts are still apparent.

• MACKINTOSH INSTITUTE  The bulk of Roath passed by inheritance and marriage to the Bute dynasty in the late 18th century, prompting the lesser gentry, following the Bute lead, to set up country residences there. In 1803 the Richards family, unscrupulous local power-brokers destined to have a baleful impact on Cardiff for generations, built a mansion called Plasnewydd in the enchanting wooded countryside. When a Richards’ heiress married The Mackintosh of Mackintosh, the ludicrous title of the Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire, Plasnewydd was given the pompous castellated battlements mandatory for a Scottish aristocrat of the era. It became known, semi-mockingly, as ‘Roath Castle’, and nearby Plwcca Lane was renamed Castle Road in deference to the Mackintoshes (changed again to City Road in 1905 when Cardiff was made a city). Today it is a community centre, an incongruous mock-baronial presence in the midst of Roath’s utilitarian terraced streets.    

MAINDY BARRACKS  Cardiff’s past as a garrison town persists into the digital age. The British Army has thought it necessary to have a major Cardiff presence in one form or another since big landowners set up the Glamorgan Militia in 1759. They no longer shoot the natives, as in the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Chartist Uprising of 1839, the Rebecca Riots of 1839-1844 or the Tonypandy Riots of 1910, but their continued occupation of a major site in the centre of the Welsh capital still seems vaguely threatening. This bullying gothic lump in Pennant sandstone was built in 1881, originally as the HQ of The Welch Regiment. Now the barracks house the Territorial Army (3rd) battalion of The Royal Welsh. It’s the regimental goat I feel sorry for.

ROATH COURT  Roath’s very name is derived from the Welsh ‘Rhath’, meaning mound. Here was an age-old Celtic meeting place where tributary streams converged as they flowed to the sea. By the 5th century it was one of the cultural and administrative centres of Morgannwg’s Cibwr division and a moated fortress was built by the banks of the Lleici river. The area was overran by the Normans in the 1090s, those locals who didn’t flee to the hills being murdered in an orgy of violence. The Welsh fort was then rebuilt as the manor or ‘home farm’ of Cardiff Castle’s usurpers, and the farm lasted 700 years until the present Roath Court replaced it in 1805. The fine Georgian villa has since been enlarged in all directions, and became a funeral home in the 1950s. Outside is the White Wall, parts of which are as old as Roath itself, a meeting place for Cardiffians since beyond living memory.

RUMNEY CASTLE  One of a necklace of early castles built by the Normans in the 11th/12th centuries on strategic low hills with views over the coast and up the valleys, this extensive ringwork with stone gate tower and two timber halls was eventually superseded by bigger castles as the Normans tightened their grip and converted into a more lightly-defended manor in the 14th century. Abandoned in the 16th century, the substantial ruins were still very apparent right through to 1981, when Cardiff Council inexplicably allowed a housing development (Castle Rise) to erase virtually all traces. Only the chiselled natural escarpments on the north-west and north-east sides, viewable from the river Rhymni below, hint at its former presence.

ST FAGANS CASTLE  A sweet case-study in historical balance, beginning with the violent land-grab of the Normans that dispossessed the native Welsh. St Fagans castle was erected in the 12th century, an impregnable stone fortress to control the Ely valley. Then, after Wales was finally subdued, it came into the possession of the Herbert dynasty in 1596. These seminal English thugs, one of whose lesser baubles was the lordship of Cardiff which they held from 1550 to 1775, converted the castle into the most important Elizabethan house in Glamorgan before the cruel tyrants sold it in 1616. In 1730 it passed via marriage to another parasitic branch of the English nobility, the Earls of Plymouth. From this base the Plymouth Estate made a fortune out of developing their Glamorgan holdings, including most of Grangetown and Penarth, before eventually downsizing in Wales after the coal bonanza dried up. In 1946 the Plymouths kindly “donated” the castle and its grounds to the National Museum of Wales and today, as the site of the National History Museum, it is the 2nd most visited attraction in all of Wales, an inspiring and revelatory open-air museum tracing Welsh life through the millennia. Entry is free since the Assembly abolished museum charges in 2001, and there is no better bargain in Cardiff. See: if you wait long enough, the wheels of justice turn full circle.

The 16th century mansion behind the 13th century curtain wall at St Fagans

ST MELLONS CASTLE  A breathtaking 12th century Norman ring motte, 150ft (45m) in diameter with 30ft (9m) high earth walls topped by a 100ft (30m) wide enclosure and encircled by a deep ditch. Astonishingly, it is unmentioned in the history books and tourist guides, unheralded by Cadw, the body responsible for historic monuments, and unknown even to Cardiffians who have lived close to Pen y Pil or Caer Castell or St Mellons Castle (it doesn’t even have a settled name) all their lives. Abandoned quite soon after construction in favour of the stone castles of the 13th and 14th centuries, the timber edifice on the edge of the sea marshes was gradually absorbed back into the landscape and, more by chance than intention, has avoided obliteration for these 800 years. Covered in impenetrable thickets and choked in disgraceful quantities of litter, the Castle has never been excavated – its secrets left to the shrews, adders, foxes and warblers that live in its mysterious dark heart.

TYNANT CASTLE MOUND A ditch-encircled Norman motte of the 13th century located on the flat Taff watermeadows at the entrance to the vital Taff Gorge. After being trashed by the Welsh repeatedly it was evacuated and relinquished. The enduring, overgrown mound is now easy to miss at the back of Pugh’s Garden Centre in Morganstown.

WENALLT  Another surviving Iron Age enclosure with ramparts and ditches, difficult to find in the woods up on the Wenallt. The Wenallt is the hill most aligned with the city centre, almost always within view wherever you are in Cardiff, the city’s backdrop and watchful witness forming that oh-so-familiar silhouette across the northern horizon. Having seen off the Romans after their 300 year occupation, the chieftains of Morgannwg revived the strategic Wenallt Camp in the 5th century to fortify their lands against new threats of invasion from Vikings, Danes and Anglo-Saxons. Residues of stone revetments show how important the fort was in the successful repulsion of the barbarian hordes.

Well, that’s a total of 21. I will subtract Mackintosh Institute/Roath Castle (it was never a real castle at all, I only included it to give The Mackintosh of Mackintosh a mention), meaning there are 20 castles in Cardiff, an area of approximately 90 square miles. There are no traces left of only one (King’s Castle). Liechtenstein and the Czech Republic beat Wales to the title of country with the most castles per square mile, but I defy anyone to name me a city with more than Cardiff.

Pictures: Cardiff County Council; National Museum Wales

ADDENDUM: For Google map of the castles see: