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You are here: About Cardiff > Cardiff History

Cardiff History

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff’s rich culture has a diverse range of influences, from the Romans and Normans of antiquity to the industrial revolution and the coal industry - which transformed Cardiff from a small town into a thriving, international city. To find out more of the city's history, visit The Cardiff Story, a free museum where the story of Cardiff is told through the eyes of its people.

Origins of the Name

There are two rival theories regarding the precise origins of the name Cardiff or Caerdydd in Welsh.  There is uncertainty concerning the origin of "Caerdydd" — "Caer" means "fort" or "castle," but although "Dydd" means "Day" in modern Welsh, it is unclear what was meant in this context. Some believe that "Dydd " or "Diff" was a corruption of "Taff", the river on which Cardiff castle stands, in which case "Cardiff" would mean "the fort on the river Taff" (in Welsh the T mutates to D). A rival theory favours a link with Aulus Didius Gallus who was a Roman governor in the region at the time the fort was established. The name may have originated as Caer Didius – The Fort of Didius.

Roman origins

Cardiff lies at the centre of three river systems, the Taff, the Ely and the Rhymney. Its location allowed its first residents to control trade and movement along these rivers, giving them power over a large area. The first people to take advantage of this location were the Romans who set up a fort here on the site of Cardiff Castle about AD55-60. Some of the original Roman walls can still be seen and the Castle's interpretation centre, is set against the backdrop of the original Roman foundation walls. This dominating fort protected its inhabitants until about AD350-375 when it was abandoned at the end of Roman rule in Britain. Find out more about the Romans in South Wales at the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon.

The Vikings and the Normans also made their presence felt in Cardiff, and in 1091 Robert Fitzhamon began work on the castle keep, which has been at the heart of the city ever since.

Medieval Cardiff

Today, much of Cardiff's Roman remains are lost beneath the medieval castle. The castle dates from the 11th century, when the Normans conquered Glamorgan. It was begun by William the Conqueror on his return from St Davids in Pembrokeshire, in 1081. This is supported by an inscription on a coin found within the castle grounds which suggests that William may have established a mint at the castle.

Cardiff Castle was originally built in wood. In the 12th century, Robert Consol, Duke of Gloucester, rebuilt it in stone. At this time, the Castle's west and south walls were raised, building upon the ruined walls of the Roman fort.

The medieval town spread out from the castle's South Gate. Interestingly the High Street lines up with the Roman rather than the medieval south gate, suggesting it dates from this earlier period.
The Medieval town probably developed in two stages. The first stage was within a relatively small enclosure marked out by Working Street and Womanby (Hummanbye) Streets' both names are linked to old Norse. In the second stage of its development, Cardiff expanded south. The town was then enclosed and defended to the east by a bank and ditch and eventually a stone gate. To the west, the town was protected by the meandering river Taff.

Owain Glyndŵr

In the 15th century, the town was destroyed by Owain Glyndŵr's Welsh army. The Castle lay in ruin until Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, restored the defences and castle buildings in 1423. Beauchamp also constructed the octagonal tower, now known as Beauchamp's tower.
Much of the rest of the castle and walls dates to the 19th century, when the third Marquess of Bute employed William Burges to restore, refurbish and rebuild it.

Black Gold transforms Cardiff

In the late 19th Century, the 2nd Marquess of Bute built the Glamorganshire canal, which linked Merthyr Tydfil with Cardiff and the Cardiff docks, to take advantage of the huge coal reserves in the area. This saw Cardiff become the biggest coal exporting port in the world, resulting in Edward VII granting Cardiff city status in 1905. The port reached its peak in 1913, with more than 10 million tons going through the port. Find out more about the region's industrial heritage at Big Pit: National Coal Museum and Rhondda Heritage Park.

Double birthday

After going into decline in the 70's and 80's Cardiff's docks and city centre have now been regenerated. Cardiff Bay is now a thriving waterside development, and the construction of the Millennium Stadium in the city centre helped transformed Cardiff into a true European capital city. In 2005 Cardiff celebrated its centenary as a city and 50 years as capital of Wales, and enjoyed a year-long calendar of events, festivals and parties which marked the double anniversary.

Home of the Daleks

Terry Nation, creator of The Doctor's arch-enemies, the Daleks, was born in Cardiff, and in 2005 the Daleks returned to their place of birth for the new BBC Wales series of Doctor Who. Cardiff Bay is home to the BBC Studios at Porth Teigr which is home to Doctor Who, Casualty & Pobol Y Cwm. The Doctor Who Experience which takes you and the Doctor on a spectacular adventure though time and space, is right next door.

World’s first FairTrade capital

In March 2004 Cardiff was designated as the world’s first FairTrade Capital City in recognition of its support for the scheme. To gain this status Cardiff Council had to ensure that FairTrade products are available in a number of cafes, stores and supermarkets in Cardiff, as well as serving FairTrade teas and coffees in its own canteens and meetings.

Famous sons and daughters

Cardiff has produced many famous names in the last century. Children’s author Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff in 1916, and the Norwegian Church where he was christened is now used as an arts centre and café. In the sports world Ryan Giggs, Colin Jackson, Dame Tanni Grey Thompson and Olympic Gold Medal cyclist Geraint Thomas often fill the headlines, and Shirley Bassey and Charlotte Church are the city’s home grown musical divas.

Captain Scott and the South Pole

In 1910 Captain Robert Scott set off from Cardiff in the ship the ‘Terra Nova’ on his ill-fated trip to the South Pole. Cardiff connections to Scott include a memorial sculpture in Cardiff Bay, a memorial lighthouse erected in Roath Park and the Discovery pub in Lakeside, home to photos from the expedition. The Captain Scott room in the Royal Hotel is where he ate his farewell dinner.

Sporting history

Cardiff has a long association with sport. In 1958 the city hosted the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, now better known as the Commonwealth Games. The Empire swimming pool, however, was demolished to make way for the Millennium Stadium – which hosted the Rugby World Cup final in 1999. The stadium again made sporting history in 2005, 2008 & 2012 when Wales won the Six Nations Grand Slam Championship. Cardiff hosted the first test for the Ashes cricket in 2009 and hosted football matches during the 2012 London Olympic Games.


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