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Home / Places to See / The heroes and heroines of the past who helped shape Wales
William Burgess - Three fates chimney piece Castell Coch

The heroes and heroines of the past who helped shape Wales

The stories of those who shape the  nation are a massive part of history,  and there are plenty of great names  from Wales’ past who have helped to  shape this great country of ours.

In celebration, Cadw, the Welsh Government’s  historic environment service, has commissioned  The Heroes and Heroines of Wales story  collection to bring to life and reveal the drama  and excitement behind Cadw and Wales’ most  loved historic sites.

The seven short stories are available to  download from the Cadw website.

In addition to learning about Wales’ rich  historic past, once you’ve read the stories you  will almost certainly be inspired to join the more  than 2.5 million visitors who visit Cadw’s 128  sites annually, to relive the dramatic stories  behind the monuments.

Each story includes a Follow the Footsteps  guide to encourage visitors to explore sights and  structures at the Cadw locations referenced.

One of the most striking examples of a Welsh  hero is William Burges. Said to be the most gifted  and well-loved architect and designer of his time,  his looks were such that his friends fondly called  him ‘Ugly Burges’. He also had poor eyesight.

Despite this, he went on to design the most  beautiful, romantic places, including the fairytale  palace of Castell Coch on the outskirts of Cardiff.

Rick Turner, an inspector of ancient  monuments who works for Cadw, says that  Burges’ is a story worth telling.

“I think Burges was an extraordinary man. He  was said to be full of good humour, impish,  inexhaustible, workaholic, genius and mischievous.

“He had an unusual architectural career in the  sense that it took him a long time to get started.  He had a degree of private income – his father  was an extremely successful marine engineer.”

Although Burges carved out his own place in  architecture and worked on cathedrals,  universities and stately homes, it wasn’t until he  met with the John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, third  Marquess of Bute, that the magic truly began.

“When he met the Marquess of Bute in 1865,  Burges was 38 and had a very wide experience of  travel. He’d travelled all over Europe and into  Turkey, to Istanbul in particular, so he had an  amazing knowledge of medieval architecture.

“In the Marquess of Bute, who was around 18,  he found a patron who was interested in the  Middle Ages, but who could commission  somebody to put their joint dreams of the  Middle Ages into reality. It was an  incredibly fruitful partnership.

“The Marquess helped to shape  Burges’ ambitions and drive to help  realise the buildings, and they  clearly enjoyed the process, that’s  what comes out of letters and  documents – how much fun they  had realising their dreams of  Cardiff Castle first and then  Castell Coch.”

With the Marquess’ interest  and funds, the pair worked  together to unveil two of the  most striking buildings in South  Wales. But although the  Marquess was the money and  Burges was, largely, the creativity,  they were, Rick says, very definitely  a partnership.

“The Marquess was a great student of  languages and medieval religions. He was  interested in local Welsh saints, and he was a  very scholarly fellow.

“He was not of the same vivacious  personality as Burges, but he obviously  enjoyed spending time with Burges, and you  get the sense of that interaction when Burges  makes his proposals and how the Marquess  reacts and, later on, when his wife becomes  involved, how they react to the proposals.”

A letter records Lady Bute, wife of his patron,  writing to Burges, ‘Dear Burges, ugly Burges,  who designs lovely things…’ which offers a sense  of the closeness between them. Rick says  together they helped to stabilise some of the  Burges designs.

“Sometimes their notes would make the  buildings more functional and more realisable  than Burges may have offered, and you  see that interaction between the client and  the architect.

“With Castell Coch, we have access in Cardiff  Castle to a set of working drawings of the  building. You can see on the drawings how things  have been changed and corrected – red lines are  struck through and so on, so you can see this  interplay between the two.”

Money was no object, and working with the Marquess enabled Burges to use the best craftsmen and artists that he could to work on his buildings.

But while the rich creative partnership  between the two yielded stunning examples of  Gothic architecture, the end came all too soon.

“Things did change in 1881 when Burges died.  At that point Cardiff Castle was largely complete,  but as for Castell Coch, the building was there,  and two of the rooms had been decorated but the  rest of the project was carried on by Burges’  assistant after he died.

“I think a bit of the spark went out of it. It  didn’t seem quite as much fun as it had been  when the two of them were sparking ideas off  each other, but it doesn’t take away from the  final building.”

Burges’ detailed working drawings and written instructions for everything enabled craftsmen to continue work on Castell Coch.

Ten years later, the Gothic-style castle was  completed. It survives today as a memorial to the  eccentric genius William Burges, a man described  by the Marquess of Bute as “soul-inspiring”.

Footsteps of greatness

As well as William Burges, six other heroes and heroines have been celebrated in the new story collection.

Saint David

St David was a monk believed to have lived in the 6th century, who spread the message of Christianity, and encouraged his followers to care for the natural world. He is credited with many miracles, the most famous being when he raised a hill beneath his feet so that the crowds could hear him preach. By the 12th century, more than 60 churches in Wales had been dedicated to him.

Branwen ferch Llyr

An old Welsh legend from a collection of stories called the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. When Branwen ferch Llyr, sister of Bendigeidfran the king of Britain, married Matholwch, king of Ireland, it should have brought peace to the two warring countries. But Branwen’s evil half-brother wasn’t happy with the match. He set out to ruin the marriage, but ended up bringing death and destruction to his own family…


Gwenllian was a brave and beautiful Welsh princess who died trying to save her country from Norman invaders. Her story is set over 870 years ago in the kingdom of Deheubarth (south-west Wales). England and parts of Wales had been conquered by the Normans, but the Welsh people fought back for their land and freedom. It was a time of endless struggle and bloodshed.

Llywelyn the Great

Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, known as ‘Llywelyn the Great’ was one of the most famous and powerful of the Princes of Gwynedd. He was a brave warrior, but also a shrewd diplomat. By the time of his death, Llywelyn had united most of native Wales under his rule. During his reign, Llywelyn built a chain of imposing castles to defend the borders of Gwynedd and the heartland of Snowdonia.

Santes Dwynwen

This legend is set in Wales in the 5th century. Princess Dwynwen was the beautiful daughter of the king of south Wales. When she was forbidden to marry the man she loved, she ran away and became a nun. She devoted the rest of her life to helping other lovers find happiness and is now the Welsh patron saint of love.

The chemists of Blaenavon

Sidney Gilchrist Thomas was fascinated by chemistry. In 1876, he began working on secret experiments at Blaenavon Ironworks with his cousin, Percy Carlyle Gilchrist. This led to a discovery that changed the steel manufacturing industry worldwide.

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