Chirk Castle and Lord Howard de Walden, patron of the arts

Chirk Castle sits south of the River Dee, not far from Wrexham, in a quiet and secluded part of north Wales. It was not always so, as this was the area where the Romans made their first incursions into Wales. The castle itself was one of the massive fortresses created by Edward I for his conquest and subjugation of the country.

Built in the final years of the 13th century, the original fortress may have been designed by the famous castle builder James of St George. The original owner was Roger Mortimer, the 1st Earl of Chirk, but in 1595 it was bought by Thomas Myddleton for the sum of £5,000. These days that figure equates to somewhere in the region of £10m.

The original fortress would have been rectangular in shape with towers sited at each corner and half way along each wall. It was originally a place of war and conquest, a structure that was both powerful and forbidding.

Chirk Castle. Copyright Trevor Rickard

Little of the original castle now remains as the Myddleton family consistently modified and upgraded the building over the years of their ownership. It is now more of a grand country house than castle, although some of the original structure did manage to survive the modifications of the Myddletons, notably Adam's Tower at the south west corner, along with a number of 'murder holes' in the floors above.

Since 1981 the castle has been in the custodianship of the National Trust (although members of the Myddleton family continued to live in part of the building until 2004) and is open to the public for several months of the year. The place is particularly notable for its magnificent gardens, yew hedges and the surrounding park.

Chirk Castle, however, holds a special place in the history of culture and the arts in Wales. Between 1911 and 1946 it was leased from the Myddleton family by Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, the 8th Baron Howard de Walden.

A writer, playwright, compiler of Burke's Peerage and sportsman, Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis was at one time the 12th richest man in Britain. He wrote a number of libretti and plays, works such as The Cauldron of Annwn and Children of Dom, many of them being based or centred on Welsh folklore. He also wrote on heraldry and even competed in the 1908 Olympic Games, in the only motor boat competition ever to be included.

Although he was not actually Welsh, Lord Howard de Walden held the country as a very special part of his life. He was president of the National Museum of Wales and a governor of the National Library but, more significantly, he was probably the most noted of all 20th century patrons of the arts in Wales.

Born in 1880, Scott-Ellis succeeded to the barony in 1899 and went on to serve with distinction in the Boer War and World War One. After the war, during the 1920s and '30s, his 'house parties' at Chirk became legendary and he regularly entertained writers such as Dylan Thomas for grand weekends. Quite what Dylan and his wife Caitlin made of these lavish occasions remains unknown, although the de Walden estates in London do hold a number of letters from the poet expressing his grateful thanks for the hospitality and entertainment.

Lord Howard de Walden regularly commissioned works of art from painters like Augustus John and John Lavery. The magnificent Chirk war memorial, a bare mile from the castle gates, was sculpted by Eric Gill at de Walden's request. He was a great supporter of the Eisteddfod and all aspects of the creative arts.

Perhaps the most important thing Howard de Walden did, however, was to champion the cause of a national theatre for Wales. Inspired by the example of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, he was determined to create a similar national theatre in Wales.

As early as 1914 he and several other influential people met in Cardiff with the aim of founding a professional touring company to traverse Wales and bring theatre to the masses. Unfortunately, the timing was dreadfully wrong and this professional company managed only one season before war was declared and cultural events such as this ground to a halt.

Lord Howard de Walden tried again in 1933 when he founded a Welsh National Playhouse at Plas Newydd in Llangollen. This was a bilingual company that also had a training brief but, unfortunately, it failed to attract Welsh audiences in any great number. The company struggled on but with the advent of World War Two in 1939 it was finally forced to close its doors.

It was not until the early years of the 21st century, when Theatre Genedlaethol Cymru and its English equivalent, the National Theatre Wales, came into being that Lord Howard de Walden's dream became a reality. By then, of course, he was long dead, having passed away on 5 November 1946.

Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, the 8th Baron Howard de Walden (and 4th Baron Seaford), remains a significant figure, a true Renaissance man who used his money and position to benefit others. Sadly, these days he is something of a forgotten figure – something that should be rectified. He was undoubtedly a man about whom it can be said 'We shall not see his like again.'


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