The Romans were first here in AD 75 and built the fort where Cardiff Castle now stands; the name Cardiff probably derives from the Welsh Caer Tâf (Fort on the River Taff).
After the Romans left Britain the site remained unoccupied until the Norman Conquest. In 1093 a Norman knight named Robert Fitzhamon (later earl of Gloucester) built himself a castle here – the remains stand within the grounds of Cardiff Castle – and a small town grew up around it. Both were damaged in a Welsh revolt in 1183 and the town was sacked in 1404 by Owain Glyndŵr during his ill-fated rebellion against English domination.
The first of the Tudor Acts of Union in 1536 put the English stamp on Cardiff and brought some stability. One of the few city-centre reminders of medieval Cardiff is St John’s Church. But despite its importance as a port, market town and bishopric, only 1000 people were living here in 1801.
The city owes its stature to iron and coal mining in the valleys to the north. Coal was first exported from Cardiff on a small scale as early as 1600. In 1794 the Bute family – who owned much of the land from which Welsh coal was mined – built the Glamorganshire Canal for the shipment of iron from Merthyr Tydfil down to Cardiff.
In 1840 this was supplanted by the new Taff Vale Railway. A year earlier the second marquess of Bute had completed the first docks at Butetown, just south of Cardiff, getting the jump on other South Wales ports. By the time it dawned on everyone what immense reserves of coal there were in the valleys – setting off a kind of gold-rush fever – the Butes were in a position to insist that it be shipped from Butetown. Cardiff was off and running.
The docklands expanded rapidly, the Butes grew staggeringly rich and the city boomed, its population mushrooming to 170, 000 by the end of the 19th century and to 227, 000 by 1931. A vast, multiracial workers’ community known as Tiger Bay grew up in the harbourside area of Butetown. In 1905 Cardiff was officially designated a city, and a year later its elegant Civic Centre was inaugurated. The city’s wealth and its hold on the coal trade persuaded Captain Robert Scott to launch his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole from here in 1910. In 1913 Cardiff became the world’s top coal port, exporting some 13 million tonnes of the stuff.
But the post-WWI slump in the coal trade and the Great Depression of the 1930s slowed this expansion. The city was badly damaged by WWII bombing, which claimed over 350 lives.
Cardiff’s designation in 1955 as Wales’ capital – making it Europe’s youngest capital city – gave it a new lease of life. It was chosen via a ballot of the members of the Welsh authorities. Cardiff received 36 votes to Caernarfon’s 11 and Aberystwyth’s four. Other cities who vied for the position included Swansea and Machynlleth. Today, with the continuing regeneration of Cardiff Bay, the opening of the Welsh Assembly Building, and booming media and service sectors, Cardiff is on the up again.