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Wales Chirk Castle, near Wrexham

A statement of English power and supremacy that later became a much loved family home

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Standing on a rocky outcrop above the confluence of the Dee and Ceiriog rivers, Chirk Castle was built to impress. It was one of the last of the great Edwardian castles built in the late C13th to subdue the Welsh and bring Wales firmly under the control of Edward I and the English throne. It controlled the Marcher land along the Welsh and English border, controlling movement and trade as well as acting as the main administrative centre for the area. Originally lime washed, its stark silhouette could be seen for miles - a constant reminder of English dominance.

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Unlike the better known, but now ruined Edwardian Castles of Caernarfon, Conwy and Beaumaris, Chirk Castle has been lived in for over 700 years. It shows how castles evolved from fortresses to comfortable family homes. Most of its history has been shaped by the Myddeton and later Myddelton-Biddulph families who lived in the castle for 400 years before giving it to the National Trust.

Chirk Castle was a state of the art castle, designed to be defended by a small garrison of 20-30 men. It was built with four corner towers joined by a curtain wall with half towers in the middle of each side. This were well supplied with narrow slit windows for archers and the overlapping fields of fire created a killing zone. The narrow passageways in the curtain wall allowed easy communication between the towers.

After his defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd ap Madog in 1282, Edward I established the new marcher Lordship of Chirklands under the control of Roger Mortimer, a member of the powerful Marcher family. Work on the castle began in 1295 and was completed by 1310. In 1308, Edward II appointed Roger Mortimer as Justicar of Wales and for the following 14 years he acted as surrogate Prince of Wales. He was ambitious and supported the Queen and barons in their struggles with Edward II and his favourite Hugh Despenser. Roger was thrown into the Tower of London where he died in 1326.

The castle passed through a series of important families including the Earls of Arundel and Sir William Stanley (who was executed for treason) as well as Robert Dudley, favourite of Elizabeth I. After his death, the estate was sold by the crown to Thomas Myddelton, the younger son of the governor of Denbigh Castle. He was a successful London merchant who made his money investing in the East India Company and from funding the exploits of Sir Frances Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, so securing a share of the their wealth from plundering Spanish ships. He was responsible for rebuilding the north range turning Chirk Castle into a fashionable Tudor home.

Chirk Castle was taken by the Royalists during the Civil War. Although Sir Thomas II supported the Parliamentarians, he refused to use artillery against his castle. During the Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell, Sir Thomas became increasingly disillusioned and corresponded with the exile Charles II, supporting him in the ill fated Cheshire rising led by George Booth in 1659. Most of the eastern side of the castle was destroyed and it was left a ruin as a punishment.

The eastern range was rebuilt and the curtain walls and towers reconstructed after the restoration of Charles II. In the late C18th, the northern range was refurbished in the latest neo-classical fashion and the park was landscaped. In the mid C19th Pugin was commissioned to remodel the castle and rebuild part of the east wing. Rooms were altered and decorated in the high Victorian gothic style.

By 1911, rising running costs, along with cost of Pugin’s work resulted in much of the estate, buildings and castle contents being auctioned off. The castle was put up for rent and a 35 year lease taken by Thomas Scott-Ellis, 8th Lord Howard de Walden. He was a patron of C20th art, Welsh culture and all things medieval. He held lavish house parties, staged jousts and lined the long gallery with suits of armour.

After his death, the Myddleton-Biddulph family returned to the castle. They ripped out many of Pugin’s medieval features (only the Cromwell Hall remains) and restored the neoclassical state rooms. They were also taken over by spiralling running costs and the house and estate were handed over to the National Trust in 1978.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle cont...

The visitor centre and ticket office are in the Home Farm next to the car park. There is a short walk up through the trees to the castle.

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The Myddelton coat of arms above the main entrance is one of the Pugin additions.

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This leads into a large courtyard. The stark C13th architecture of the west range contrasts strongly with that of the Thomas Myddelton’s north range with its large square windows.

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The west range is the only part of the C13th castle to survive relatively unaltered. The south range is later, dating from around 1400, part of the Arundal era and contains the chapel. It partially collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1529, using much of the original masonry. The opportunity was taken to convert it into a more comfortable alternative to the military quarters in the towers. Mullioned windows were inserted.

Thomas Myddelton continued this work when he built the north range onto the C13th curtain wall, completing the work of turning the fortress into a comfortable family home. The hall, buttery and kitchen were on the ground floor with the main living quarters above. The south range was taken over by the servants.

The east range was completely rebuilt in the late C17th after the Restoration of the Monarchy, with a drawing room and long gallery with an arcaded gallery running along the courtyard.

The north range was refurbished in the neoclassical style in the late C18th, transforming Chirk castle into a fashionable country house, with a beautiful staircase, saloon and state dining room.

There were minor repairs in 1820 and Pugin was let loose on the castle in the mid C19th. He turned the arcaded gallery on the east range into a corridor, added a library, lower dining room, anteroom and lower butler’s pantry. He also ripped out the neoclassical interiors of the north range replacing them with Victorian Gothic.


The different stages of building can be seen in this plan taken from CastleFortsBattles website.

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When the Myddelton Bidduphs returned to live in Chirk in 1945, Pugin’s additions in the north range were ripped out, apart from the Cromwell Hall and the neo classical interiors reinstated. When the National Trust took over the castle, they restored the rooms in the east wing to what they were like in the time of Howard de Walden. The old kitchens in the north range are now the tea room.

Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle cont -The West Range and Adam’s Tower

This is the only part of the C13th castle to survive relatively unaltered. It offers an insight into how a medieval fortress would have functioned.

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The towers were the LIVING QUARTERS for the garrison. The exterior walls were splayed out at the bottom making then difficult to be attacked by siege engines and the 5m thick walls would resist battering rams. The narrow passageways in the curtain wall connected the towers. Arrow slits gave overlapping fields of fire making the outside of the castle a killing zone for would be attackers.

The ground floor of the Adam Tower was the guard room and weapon store. It now has examples of weapons and armour including chain mail and helmets to try on. The garrison soldiers ate and slept here.

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On one wall is a small oven.

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A steep spiral staircase leads down to the DUNGEON hollowed out of rock. The upper dungeon with its tiny slit window would have housed the more important prisoners.

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Less fortunate ones were kept in a room below this which had no natural light or ventilation.

Above the guard room and reached by a stone staircase is the MUNIMENT ROOM, where the more senior officers lived.

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Above on the second floor was the room used by the castle governor. This was later the room used by Sir Thomas Myddleton before the alterations to the north wing. The large mullion windows were added later, possibly during the time of Robert Dudley.

The narrow room in the corridor in the curtain wall is called the MAGISTRATE'S ROOM. The original function is unclear and the name comes from the figure of a blind and barefoot magistrate holding a set of scales and sword of justice on the early c17th plaster frieze.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle cont - The Cromwell Hall and the Neo-Classical rooms in the north range

A stone staircase leads up into the North range, built along the C13th curtain wall, by Thomas Myddelton around 1600. Nothing remains of his original rooms.

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On the right of the entrance hall is the CROMWELL HALL. The room takes its name from the Cromwellian arms and armour hung on the walls.

This would originally have been the servants’ dining room but was turned into a grand entrance hall in the C18th. In the mid C19th, Pugin turned this into a Victorian interpretation of what a medieval great hall might have looked like. It is his only room to survive and is furnished very much as designed by Pugin. The low ceiling, dark panelling and few windows makes the room very dark.

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There is dark wood panelling around the walls with the heraldic shields of the Myddelton family. There are more shields in the stained glass windows. The muskets, swords and pieces of armour were collected by Thomas Myddelton II.

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A beautiful cantilever staircase constructed in 1777/8 in the middle tower of the north wall leads up to the Neo-classical rooms on the first floor.

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This gives access to the state dining room and saloon. These rooms along with the adjacent drawing room were redesigned in the mid C18th but were gothicised by Pugin. They were returned to their neo-classical elegance in the 1950s.

The STATE DINING ROOM is a very elegant room with white panelling round the bottom of the walls and pale green paint above with decorative plaster insets picked out on gold. The C18th fireplace was placed here by Howard de Walden. The table is set with C18th Bohemian glass and a mid C19th faience dinner service decorated with green to match the walls.

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Next to the dining room is the SALOON, which was originally the great parlour. This was a fashionable space to entertain guests and display collections of furniture, tapestries and paintings. On the walls are Mortlake tapestries telling the story of Cadmus, King of Thebes. These were bought by Thomas Myddelton II in 1670. The pier glass mirrors now set between the windows were originally facing each other at opposite ends of the room. At night they would reflect the light from the candles on the pier tables below. Made in 1782, using the largest plate glass available at the time, the mirrors and the pier tables were valued at a quarter of he contents of the whole castle.

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The ceiling is the original neo-classical ceiling from the 1770s and features scenes from Greek mythology. These are painted on canvas mounted on oak stretchers and fixed to the painted panels between the thicker wooden beams. The deep blue background and gilded decoration were added by Pugin.

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Beyond the saloon is the DRAWING ROOM, formed when the east range was rebuilt after the Civil war. The blue ceiling panels, cast iron fire grate, fire back and irons are Pugin’s work. His red flock wall paper has since been replaced by gold. Family portraits hang from the walls.

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Again the room was used to display fine furniture and ceramics.

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Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle cont -The Long Gallery and King’s Bedroom in the East Range

The East range was rebuilt by Thomas Myddelton IV after the destruction of the Civil War. LONG GALLERIES were out of fashion by then but it was a practical and cheap way to fill the first floor space and housed a billiard table. It is a long low panelled room with a fireplace at either end. The ribbed ceiling is the work of Pugin.

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It was used for parties and dances and the Victorians filled it with furniture and curiosities. Howard de Walden lined it with suits of armour. These have now gone but it still contains some fine bits of furniture, including a 1600s Japanese shark skin trunk with copper clasps. The lacquer panels are inlaid with mother of pearl making rural scenes of animals, trees flowers and houses.

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The Chirk or Charles II Cabinet is a 17th-century Dutch cabinet given to Sir Thomas Myddelton by Charles II for his loyalty to the Royalist cause. It is made of ebony inlaid with tortoiseshell and ivory, and decorated with filigree-like silver. The paintings showing scenes from the life of Christ are painted on copper panels are from the studio of from the studio of Frans Francken the younger.

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The beautiful late C17th ivory and ebony Italian cabinet was a gift to Lady Margaret Myddelton.

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Off the long Gallery in the Old Maid’s tower is the KING’S BEDROOM and DRESSING ROOM. Charles I spent two nights at Chirk Castle during the Civil War but it wouldn’t have been in this room, as this was part of the post civil war reconstruction. The ceiling, red flock wallpaper and fireplace are the work of Pugin. Although the bed carries a silver footplate proclaiming Charles I slept in it, this is an impossibility as the bed wasn’t made until 1700. This is likely to be an C19th addition.

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Off it is a small dressing room with a hip bath, again C19th.

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Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle cont - Pugin and the Ground Floor of the East Range

Pugin was responsible for the reconstruction of the rooms on the ground floor of the east range. He turned the arcaded gallery facing the courtyard into a corridor and added a library, lower dining room, anteroom and lower butler’s pantry. These were the private apartments of the Myddelton-Biddulphs until they moved out in 2004. The National Trust have restored the rooms back to what they might have been like when Howard de Walden rented the castle.

Pugin’s corridor has an elegant plaster vaulted ceiling with hanging lights. The tops of the windows have stained glass with arms of the Myddelton families.

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At the far end is the LIBRARY, converted from a bedroom by Pugin with his characteristic panelled ceiling. Old bookcases, carefully altered to fit the space line the walls. The fireplace surround was made from pieces of a finely carved C17th bed.

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The original collection of books were sold when the Myddelton’s moved out but the National Trust has succeeded in buying back over 80% which explains the gaps in the bookshelves. This is one of the last surviving early private library in a Welsh home and nearly a quarter of the books were printed before 1701, many still having their original bindings.

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Next to the library is the LOWER DINING ROOM, with a vaulted ceiling. This was the schoolroom for many years. It is now a ‘family room’ with chairs for visitors to sit in and games to play. Much of the Myddleton-Biddulph furniture had been sold off, so the National Trust has acquired suitable furniture for the room. The fireplace overmantle is another carved Tudor bed head. Above the Tudor sideboard is a picture of Howard de Waldon’s children playing chess.

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On the table is a copy of the Myddelton pedigree. The original is displayed on the wall. It was commissioned around 1660 to mark the baronetcy granted by Charles II and traces the Myddelton family tree from 1670 back to the Welsh Princes and ancient English kings. The scroll is 10m long and a different 2m section is displayed each year.

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Beyond is the ANTE ROOM, an extension of the Pugin corridor, which has display cabinets with china and a set of four George III mahogany chairs.

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Off this, in the base of the Old Maid’s tower, is the BOW DRAWING ROOM. This has been furnished as it might have been in the time of Howard de Walden, with plenty of comfortable chairs and a piano. This is where the rich and famous were entertained. Visitors are again encouraged to sit and enjoy this room. There is a framed picture of Howard de Walden on the piano as well as a bronze bust by Auguste Rodin. On the wall are pictures of him and his wife painted by Augustus John. The fireplace is Pugin Gothic at its best.

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Beyond in the lower butler’s pantry are cine films from the 1930s showing family life of the Howard de Waldens.

Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle cont - The Chapel

The CHAPEL is tucked away in the south east corner of the castle and dates from the C14/15th. It fell into disrepair during the C18th, eventually being restored in the C19th when the large east window was added.

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The wooden door is set in a carved frame.

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Howard de Walden added the oak floor, panelled fireplace, with its carved overmantle (another recycled bed head) and the wooden stair to the Long Gallery in 1912.

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The tapestry above the fireplace depicts the Academy of Pluto from the life of Diogenes and may originally have been part of a set.

The chapel is no longer used apart from weddings.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chirk Castle Gardens

The castle was originally surrounded by a deer park. Sir Thomas Myddelton laid out the first formal garden in 1653, along with a kitchen gardens. The magnifcent white painted iron gates date from 1719 and have the coat of arms of the Myddleton family. They were moved to their present position in the late C19th.

The estate was remodelled and landscaped in the mid C18th by William Eaves, to include formal gardens and parkland. The yew topiary and hedges were added in the C19th, along with herbaceous borders and rose gardens.
 

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