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The Third Marquess and His Legacy to Cardiff

 

The Third Marquess was a shy, intense and rather solitary young man. The turning point in his life arrived three months after his coming of age, when he announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism. This proved to be a contentious issue, both in his native Scotland and in Cardiff, but the decision pleased the swelling Catholic community in the borough. Henceforth, religion was the motivating force of Bute's life, a fact noted by Disraeli who made him the hero of his successful novel, Lothair.

Politically, Bute remained a Conservative but took little part in active campaigning. In the election of 1852, the Bute trustees made their last attempt to impose a candidate of their choice on the voters of Cardiff. Their candidate, John Nicholl, was defeated by Walter Coffin, a Nonconformist and a Liberal. For the rest of the century, apart from a solitary Conservative triumph in 1895, the Liberals dominated the political scene in Cardiff. In December 1910, ten years after the Marquess had died, local Tories chose his son, Lord Ninian Stuart, to fight the seat. Though successful, his victory owed nothing to the Bute connection which had long since ceased to be politically important in Cardiff.

It was the wealth of the Marquess which left a more lasting impression on the city. Probably the richest man in Britain, he had the resources to satisfy his interests, his hobbies and his talents. Bute was a scholarly man, reputed to have mastered more than twenty languages, renowned for his expert knowledge of the scriptures, mediaeval history and heraldry. He loved travel, especially to Italy, Greece and the Holy Land, confessing on more than one occasion, "Athens and Assisi have spoilt me for anything else'. The Marquess admitted to "a considerable taste for art and archaeology and happily the means to indulge them'. He also had a passion for building which steered him towards the restoration of Cardiff Castle.

Bute entrusted this task to William Burges, an eccentric genius with a romantic love of the Middle Ages. His plans were always drawn on yellow parchment, his own house was designed as a castle complete with a drawbridge, and it was not unusual for him to arrive at a banquet in mediaeval dress. From 1865 until his death in 1881, Billy Burges was employed in a task most architects dream about: restoring a building in the style he loved without any restrictions on expenditure. The result is an extravagance of high Victorian fantasy which tends to overwhelm the first-time visitor. Burges was a gregarious, humorous extrovert, whose insignia of parrots, mice, and the roots of trees are visible in practically every room of the castle. The Marchioness, Lady Gwendolen, loved him. "Ugly Burges who designs lovely things', she said. "Isn't he a duck'!

While encouraging Burges to use his riotous imagination, Bute examined his plans in detail and occasionally amended them. Full scale models, from key plates to complete rooms, were submitted to him for perusal. Ten designs of the Clock Tower were scrutinised before the Marquess gave his approval. The lions on the Animal Wall were returned for re-touching, as Bute deemed them, "to be too modest in demeanour, savouring rather of pets than of roaring lions'. The Marquess made his own contribution with pen-and-ink sketches and a study of the castle's history. At the specially constructed Bute workshops, the finest craftsmen from Wales, London and abroad produced the stained glass, marquetry and joinery, so admired by modern visitors to Cardiff Castle.

Burges re-designed and modified the existing buildings along the west wall to produce an outstanding skyline. Inside the Herbert Tower, an authentic Arab Room was created. Its walls were lined with cedarwood and the ceiling appears to be enveloped in golden stalactites. While the Herbert Tower showed little change externally, the appearance of the Beauchamp Tower was transformed. It was crowned with a wooden Gothic spire coated in lead and, inside the tower, the Chaucer Room was dedicated to the famous mediaeval poet. Its walls are decorated with scenes from his works, while a statue of Chaucer bears a striking resemblance to Burges himself.

Of the three new towers, the most outstanding is the Clock Tower, embellished with classical emblems and the coats-of-arms of the Bute family. It was built on the site of a former Roman bastion, and in 1867 houses were pulled down at the south-west angle of the castle wall to pave the way for this impressive Gothic structure. Inside the Clock Tower were the Bachelor's Apartments, presumably intended as a retreat for the Marquess before his marriage in 1872 to Lady Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard, the daughter of Baron Howard of Glossop.

The Marquess was fond of his roof garden in the new Bute Tower. This pleasant setting offered quiet seclusion amid the plants, the bronze fountain, and the delicately carved statue of the Madonna. Around the walls, hand-painted tiles depicted scenes from the life of Elijah.

The third of the new towers, the Guest Tower, was intended to accommodate visitors, but it also housed the servants' quarters, the kitchen, and even a skittle alley. Its loveliest room is the children's nursery with a wall frieze of traditional fairy tales.

The lower level of the fifteenth century domestic apartments was converted into a drawing room and a library for Bute's magnificent collection of books. The upper storey became the Banqueting Hall, a dazzling array of murals and stained glass, expressing Burges' interpretation of the Middle Ages and the life of Robert the Consul. From the superbly carved hammer beam ceiling, angels, bearing the Bute arms, look down on this splendid hall, the scene of many notable occasions in its hundred years of history.

The dressing room, where the Second Marquess died in 1848, became a chapel to his memory. Its theme is the Passion and the Resurrection. The altar represents the Garden Tomb at the first Easter, but the most touching memorial is a carving on the door, showing the tree of life cut down in its prime.

The castle grounds were not neglected while these improvements were being carried out. Five farms were amalgamated to enlarge Bute Park and new stables were erected near the North Gate. When Cardiff Bridge was rebuilt in 1859, the land between the castle and the river was enclosed. Likewise, when Castle Street was widened, a number of buildings were removed and it was possible to reconstruct the Norman wall.

The restoration of Cardiff Castle may have been extravagant, but the Marquess faithfully retained the memory of the past by carefully preserving the Norman keep and the Roman wall. His archaeological excavations of the Roman fort, the Blackfriars and the Greyfriars all added to the historian's knowledge of early Cardiff.

The Marquess rehabilitated a number of other castles and, near Cardiff, Burges restored the ruins of Castell Coch in a French Gothic style, complete with conical round towers. Popular with film-makers, the castle is a work of fantasy, majestically overlooking the Taff and a picturesque, sloping forest. It was on these slopes that Bute experimented with the cultivation of vines. For a time he was commercially successful but the venture came to an end in 1923.

In the twentieth century the Bute family were to make a gift of both Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch to the local community. In his own lifetime, the Marquess was a generous benefactor to worthy causes in Cardiff. He contributed to a wide range of charities and we have seen how he provided land for public parks and recreation grounds.

Perhaps understandably, the squalor of a mid-Victorian town did not appeal to the young Marquess and he was sometimes criticised for not spending more of his time in Cardiff. However, in 1891 he served as its Mayor, the first nobleman to hold that office in a major British town for more than 200 years. He was content to be a figurehead, but his year in office may have influenced his decision to sell the site at Cathays Park to the Corporation; his last and most important intervention in the affairs of Cardiff.