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