The Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust was saddened to hear of the passing of Mark Girouard on the 16 August 2022. Mark was the acclaimed architectural historian and author of many famous books including the best-selling “Life in the English Country House”. When Ruperra Castle was threatened by unsympathetic development in 2008 (thankfully refused on appeal with his help, and that of other experts) he wrote of its importance:
“Ruperra Castle is not only one of the comparatively few outstanding Elizabethan and Jacobean country houses in Wales; it belongs to the very small and precious group of buildings expressing in architectural form the
cult of chivalry which is one of the most remarkable features of the period.
The cult first reached impressive expression in 1580, when Sir Philip Sidney, the 'parfait knight' of the Elizabethan age, staged a mock siege of the Queen, ensconced for the occasion in a pageant 'Castle of Perfect Beauty' at Whitehall. For the next fifty years or so a lavish series of tilts, pageants, fireworks displays, and masques staged by monarch or courtiers used the language of chivalry to symbolize and encourage devotion to the Crown, or celebrate dynastic marriages. Mimic castles frequently featured in these, along with tilting knights in armour. The cult spilled over into portraits of Elizabethan and Jacobean noblemen dressed for tilting, and appeared in literature, most notably in Philip Sidney’s best-selling romance The Arcadia, and Spenser's Faerie Queene, an allegorical celebration of Elizabeth and the knights who served her.
Pageant castles had a history going back well into the Middle Ages. Neither then, nor in the Elizabethan or Jacobean periods, was any attempt made to make them resemble real castles. They were there to symbolize an attitude or frame of mind, and were meant to evoke the legendary days of King Arthur and his Round Table as much as, or more than, contemporary warriors and fortifications. Of their nature they were ephemeral, put up for a particular occasion and often taken down again without any kind of visual record being made. But the attitude of mind behind them spilled over into a group of more permanent buildings, above all actual country houses dressed up as 'castles' of the same symbolic nature as the pageant structures, and not built with any idea of being defensible.
The surviving group is a very small one, and all the more valuable for that:
They may all relate to the great tilt which was held at Wilton in Wiltshire in 1604, to celebrate the marriage of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (the nephew of Philip Sidney) to Alathea Talbot (the niece of Sir Charles
Cavendish of Bolsover). Thomas Morgan of Ruperra made his fortune as steward to the Earls of Pembroke, was a trustee of the marriage settlement, must have been present at the tournament and may well have participated in it, and was to be knighted at Wilton by James I when he came there on progress in 1623.
Ruperra relates especially closely to Lulworth, in its configuration of four round comer towers, and In Its distinctive windows, with tall, thin arched lights. It is possible that the notable Arnold family, mason architects living at Charlton Musgrove in Somerset, may have worked there. William Arnold was the trusted employee of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, and his brother Godfrey was the chief mason at Lulworth; the way in which the central lights of the Ruperra windows are carried up above buildings in Dorset connected with the Arnolds, and their distinctive detail is found on its porch and surviving arches. In contrast to the Gothic echoes of towers and windows, the porch is of exquisite classical design; such a mixture of classical and Gothic is typical of the cult of chivalry, which drew its inspiration from heroes of classical, as well as medieval and mythical, times.
The importance of Lulworth Castle, gutted and ruinous after a fire, was recognised when English Heritage acquired and restored it. If Ruperra Castle were to be allowed to decay beyond hope of restoration it would be a tragic loss to the architectural heritage of Wales.”
Read Mark Girouard’s obituary
Next year - 2023 - will be the 400th anniversary of the knighting of Thomas Morgan of Machen by King James I.
Many Welsh gentry had been rewarded for their support of Henry Tudor when he became king in 1485. Amongst these were the powerful Herbert family, Earls of Pembroke. Thomas Morgan of Machen was a relative of theirs and later became Steward at their home at Wilton House. Although he was kept busy conducting important administrative tasks for the Herbert family in many parts of England, Thomas House he would have absorbed the atmosphere of the European Renaissance at Wilton.
Gathered at Wilton House were brilliant men and women of the age; astronomers, explorers, architects, playwrights, artists, and poets, including some sensitive people who were inclined to look back, as we all do, at the years of their youth, and sometimes to historical ancient or mediaeval times. During Thomas Morgan’s time at Wilton visitors included King James I and his Danish wife Anna and, no doubt, authors like Philip and Mary Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, as well as Inigo Jones.
The father of Inigo Jones was a poverty stricken, unemployed Welsh cloth worker, who made his way from the beautiful mountains of Meirionydd to London to seek greater opportunities for himself and his family. Having been apprenticed as a carpenter, Inigo’s genius was recognised by the Herbert family, who probably financed his travels to Europe to learn about new Renaissance architecture. Inigo became the first British person to be called an ‘architect’ and was appointed Surveyor of Works to Henry, Prince of Wales in 1611.
Inigo and Ben Jonson would often write the scripts for the popular ‘Jacobean masques’ or ‘pageants’ that visitors to Wilton House loved to watch and sometimes take part in. In 1623 a special masque written by Ben and Inigo was held at Wilton House after King James I had knighted Thomas Morgan of Machen. There would probably also have been a banquet, a joust and dancing. Later the same masque was performed at the Royal Court.
It was Inigo who made the moveable scenery, which was painted on canvas sailcloth. Some of the scenery looked like mediaeval fancy castles. Unfortunately for us, it was often thrown away after the event, but Inigo’s ideas for the scenery made him famous. Although some rich people built imitation mediaeval ‘pageant’ castles, which were very fashionable at the time, today there are only four such buildings left in the whole of Britain, including Ruperra Castle.
Many Welsh gentry built other kinds of houses in England at this time, but Sir Thomas chose to build his in Wales. His wife Mary (who was related to the Lewis’ family of Y Fan, Caerphilly) had inherited her family’s medieval house and land at Ruperra. Sir Thomas decided to build a new home on the site, to a design in keeping with his newly acquired status as a Knight of the Realm. Ruperra Castle was completed in 1626 and there are many theories about its designer but in any case, the new castle embodied Inigo Jones’ modern ideas. As the times were more settled, Ruperra did not need to be defended from attack and the brick-built chimney blocks, the towers and the large windows of the beautiful friendly castle now reflected the soothing green countryside, gardens, and woodlands around.
A few weeks after Sir Thomas died in 1645, King James I and Anna’s son, King Charles I stayed at Ruperra Castle, known as the ‘only building fit for a king’ in South Wales. He came to South Wales while drumming up support from Royalists towards the end of the Civil War.
Our vision is to protect Ruperra Castle and the environmental surroundings of this historic site from inappropriate development. We urge everyone with an interest in securing the future of Ruperra Castle to work together so we have something to celebrate by the time of the 400th anniversary in 2026. Read our vision
The Morgan family put Ruperra Castle up for sale in 1935.
We love these photos from the time which show the Castle and grounds in all their glory. Five years later, with no buyer, the Castle was requisitioned for the training of soldiers.
Watch our film, Briars where once was greatness, which tells the story of the Castle from the mid-19th century until it was no longer lived in and up for sale, only being used for parties from 1909.