The astonishing Elizabethan house that lies at the heart of St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

An impressive Elizabethan house is at the heart of the Welsh national collections of history and archaeology at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff, as David Robinson explains.

Other Windsor-Clive (1923− 2018), the 3rd Earl of Plymouth, returned from distinguished service with the Coldstream Guards during the Second World War to find himself thrown into the job of having to rationalise the family estates. Reluctantly, he decided to give up his Welsh seat, a large Elizabethan house in the village of St Fagans, set beyond the expanding western suburbs of Cardiff.

It was a timely word from Sir Cyril Fox, director of the National Museum of Wales (1926−48), that determined the next step. On February 4, 1946, the Earl and his mother, the Dowager Countess, called upon Fox at Cathays Park in Cardiff. They had decided to offer the museum St Fagans Castle — as the house is known — together with its 20 acres of gardens and grounds, specifically for the creation of an open-air folk museum.

Written confirmation of this generous offer led to a flurry of administrative, fundraising and practical activities. Crucially, given the need for space, Plymouth Estates agreed to the sale of a further 80 acres of the adjacent wooded parkland on very favourable terms. St Fagans Castle, meanwhile, was rapidly transformed. For a time, apart from staff accommodation, it would be the only building in which collections might be displayed.

The Welsh Folk Museum opened its gates in July 1948. The many subsequent developments were crowned in 2018 (the 70th anniversary) with the completion of a £30 million redevelopment. Now renamed St Fagans National Museum of History, the site boasts a refurbished reception complex (by Percy Thomas Partnership, 1968−74, and Purcell, 2012−17), with galleries featuring innovative displays exploring the archaeology, history and material culture of Wales (Fig 7).

These developments aside, for many of the 600,000 annual visitors to the museum, the greatest draw surely remains its collection of historic buildings, now almost 50 in number, rescued and relocated here from across the Welsh landscape. This remarkable assemblage of buildings is the subject of next week’s article, particularly the way its architectural character has evolved over the past 70 years. For the moment, however, our attention is focused on St Fagans Castle, one of the finest Elizabethan manor houses in the historic county of Glamorgan.

There had been a castle at St Fagans since the coming of the Normans. In about 1100, or soon after, Robert le Sore built an earth and timber enclosure (a ‘ringwork’) on this bluff overlooking the valley of the River Ely. Little is known of the castle’s subsequent structural history, although a curving section of curtain wall — around the southern side of the Tudor house — could well be the work of one of de Sore’s descendants in the early 13th century.

Fig 2: The 16th-century parlour is currently displayed as an Edwardian drawing room. St Fagans National Museum, Cardiff. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

In the 1530s, when the castle was seen by the antiquary John Leland, he noted that only ‘a part of it yet standith’. Almost all else was presumably swept away in the late 16th century, making way for the St Fagans Castle we see today. Its builder opted for a house of architectural modernity, with fashionable symmetry employed for the plan and elevations. He was clearly an ambitious man, but, sadly, neither the architecture itself, nor the documentary sources, allow us to be certain of his name.

This said, a late 17th- or 18th-century account of Glamorgan family pedigrees states unequivocally that the builder of Elizabethan St Fagans was Dr John Gibbon, which — given what is known of his biography — seems perfectly possible. Gibbon was born locally, but graduated from Oxford and became a successful lawyer in London. He was also MP for Hindon in Wiltshire in 1558 and, 20 years later, became a Master in Chancery.

We can assume that Gibbon maintained an attachment to Glamorgan throughout, as, beginning in the early 1560s, he gradually appears to have purchased the lordship of St Fagans. He was certainly described as ‘Lord of St Fagon’ in 1569. London, nevertheless, remained the focus of his life and career and it was there that he died, in about 1581.

Of course, Gibbon may have intended to retire to St Fagans at some point, or he was perhaps thinking of an appropriate seat for his son, also John, who had married into the well-connected Herbert family. In the event, John Gibbon Jnr died soon after his father and, no later than 1586, St Fagans was acquired by his brother-in-law, Nicholas Herbert (d. 1601).

Herbert already occupied a late-medieval house at Cogan Pill on the Glamorgan Coast, but he would surely have viewed a fashionable new residence at St Fagans as an attractive proposition. After all, his brothers — Sir William (d. 1609) and Sir John (d. 1617) — were responsible for major Tudor houses on two former monastic sites, in Cardiff and at Neath.

In other words, it seems reasonable to speculate that, at the very least, Herbert would have striven to complete any works that had been left unfinished by Gibbon. Conceivably, even, he could have been responsible for the house as a whole. Such a property would certainly have underlined Herbert’s social standing as sometime Sheriff of Glamorgan and MP for Cardiff, as well as being in keeping with his familial connections to the Earls of Pembroke.

Fig 4: In the late 19th century, the original Elizabethan hall was used by the Windsor-Clive family as a dining room. The grand chimneypiece appears to be a confection, although the inclusion of the Plymouth arms suggests it cannot be earlier than 1730. St Fagans National Museum, Cardiff. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Whatever the truth of the matter, in about 1596, when still held by Herbert, St Fagans was described as ‘a very faire house’, suggesting that it was essentially complete by this date. Admittedly, it is not of the first rank, but it is certainly a sophisticated piece of domestic architecture, with a rigorous symmetry that might be regarded as precocious in a Welsh context, even assuming that it was built as late as the 1580s. Indeed, it seems likely that the plan and elevations were derived from ‘plats’, possibly supplied by a London architect.

The central block incorporates a porch and is flanked by projecting wings to create the classic E-shaped footprint so typical of late 16th- and early 17th-century houses (Fig 3). On the entrance front, large mullioned and transomed windows light the two principal storeys, with smaller windows in the gables opening into attics. Interestingly, the roof form is not typical of near-contemporary carpentry in south Wales and has far more affinity with examples found in southern England.

The symmetry observed in the elevations offers little clue as to the original internal arrangements of the house. The porch leads to a cross-passage (a legacy of medieval planning) with services and a large kitchen to the south and a hall (Fig 4) and parlour (Fig 2) at the northern end. The principal staircase must have been at the north-west corner, where the essentially 19th-century replacement is now located (Fig 6). At first-floor level, the large room over the parlour was doubtless intended as a great chamber and another substantial room stood above the kitchen. Between these were bedchambers and possible withdrawing rooms.

A notable feature of the house is the broad service corridor to the back of the hall and kitchen. On the first floor, this well-lit space might be regarded as an embryonic long gallery. It further allowed for individual access to the family bedchambers.

Fig 5: A stained-glass panel, probably introduced to the castle in the time of the Windsor-Clives, depicting the tale of the Pied Piper. St Fagans National Musuem, Cardiff. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Herbert was succeeded by his son, William (d. 1628), who, in 1616, sold St Fagans to Sir Edward Lewis (d. 1628), before joining Sir Walter Raleigh’s doomed expedition to Guyana in search of goldmines. Sir Edward’s family was already well established in Glamorgan, with a seat at The Van (Y Fan in Welsh), near Caerphilly. This had been refashioned in the late 16th century, with similarities to the entrance front at St Fagans.

Nevertheless, Sir Edward, possibly the richest member of the Glamorgan gentry at this time, was not deterred from investing in his new house. His son, on the other hand, another Sir Edward (d. 1630), found a seat at Edington in Wiltshire and subsequent heirs were also based largely in the south of England, where they all served as MPs for a variety of constituencies. Richard Lewis, who succeeded to the estate in 1674, stands out as one later member of the family with a discernible interest in St Fagans.

We cannot always identify which of the Lewises was responsible, but it is from their period of tenure that the earliest internal furnishings in the house can be traced. If not before, one suspects that many of the rooms were panelled at this time. More specifically, a fireplace on the first floor, featuring an elaborate overmantle, is dated 1624, and bears the initials of the first Sir Edward. Sections of carved wall frieze can also be attributed to him. A second bedroom fireplace has an overmantle dated 1635.

Apart from the fabric of the house itself, it is not unlikely that the gardens reached a degree of maturity during the Lewis era. The sequence of roughly formalised ponds to the west (Fig 1), for instance, may have originated as part of a Renaissance scheme, traces of which seem to be depicted on an estate map of 1766.

In 1730, the Lewis heiress, Elizabeth, married Other Windsor (d. 1732), 3rd Earl of Plymouth in the 2nd creation, which determined the future of the St Fagans estate. Their descendants showed little interest in the house during the 18th and early 19th centuries, such that, in 1815, it was partially occupied by a tenant farmer, whereas, in the 1840s, one room was used as a school, with the schoolmaster and his family the only residents.

Fig 6 right: The principal staircase, which is largely 19th century. St Fagans National Museum, Cardiff. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

In 1843, on the death of the 8th Earl, the earldom of Plymouth became extinct. Thereafter, the family line was continued through the 6th Earl’s sister, Harriet (d. 1869), who had married Robert Henry Clive (d. 1854). In 1855, she was granted the title Baroness Windsor and changed her name to Windsor-Clive. In 1852, her son Robert Windsor-Clive (d. 1859) had married Lady Mary Bridgeman (d. 1889), youngest daughter of the Earl of Bradford. The couple were initially to live at St Fagans, suggesting at least some improvements.

Following her husband’s early death, however, it was Lady Mary who apparently took forward far more substantial alterations to the property in 1868−69. These included major works to the roof, new chimney stacks, plaster ceilings and the addition of kitchen services and a servants’ hall at the back of the house. Lady Mary was also an enthusiastic gardener, which resulted in many changes.

The son of this match, Robert George Windsor-Clive (d. 1923), inherited the family estates on the death of his grandmother in 1869. In many ways, his coming of age, nine years later, heralded a new dawn for St Fagans. The event was marked in the village with gusto, culminating in a sumptuous feast at which toasts were drunk to Lord Windsor-Clive and his mother, Lady Mary, ‘with the utmost enthusiasm’.

Following their marriage in 1883, Lord and Lady Windsor-Clive began to spend a large part of each summer at St Fagans, accompanied by almost 50 staff. They entertained liberally, which presumably played some part in the decision to build a new dining room to the rear of the house in 1895−96. Windsor-Clive was active in both local and county matters, serving as Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan, for example, from 1890 until his death. He was also connected with industrial developments at Penarth and Barry docks.

Fig 7: Visitors to the museum now enter via a spacious reception atrium, imaginatively refurbished by Purcell in 2012–17. St Fagans National Museum, Cardiff. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

In 1905, Windsor-Clive was created 1st Earl of Plymouth of the 3rd creation. By then, he and the Countess had four children and it was as a family that they continued with their summer visits to St Fagans.

Significantly, it is through the prism of those Edwardian years that the house is presented to the museum’s visitors today. One intriguing reflection of this era may be two striking panels of stained glass (Fig 5), found near the dining room of the 1890s. Ivor, the 2nd Earl, continued the tradition with his own family, through to his death in 1943. Three years later, the 3rd Earl and his mother decided to offer the house and its grounds to the National Museum of Wales. It is this new chapter in the history of the site to which we shall turn next week.

Acknowledgements: Eurwyn Wiliam and Bethan Scorey. For more information and opening hours, visit www.museum.wales/stfagans