Ancient land but young capital?

How come?

For those of you used to visiting ancient European cities with deep historical roots Cardiff is an enigma. It is the capital of Wales, the country full to the brim with ancient monuments and more castles per square mile than anywhere in Europe, deep spiritual traditions, a strong, even defiant Celtic identity, among a population with strong links back to the ancient Britons, and one of Europe's oldest living languages (Welsh, which is still spoken daily by about half a million people and goes back in a recognizable form about 1500 years).

Yet Cardiff as a major city is a surprisingly modern phenomenon.  It has only been a capital for 50 years, and only been a city for 100. 

So how come an ancient land and people have such a 'young' capital? 

Invasion and Conquest - Wales, the western troublemaker

The answer lies in the wider history of Wales, a story of repeated invasion, conquest, and rebellion against the occupier, which left it a relatively poor upland problem area which required massive fortifications to hold it down (hence the huge size and number of castles), and divide and rule policies by its occupiers to keep order. First the Romans, then the Normans, and then King Edward 1.  In 1301 he gave the title Prince of Wales to his son, following his defeat of the native Welsh Prince Llewelyn in mid Wales, and occupation began in earnest. 

In the early 1400s Owain Glyndwr, a Welsh aristocrat and London trained lawyer, descended from the Welsh Princes, almost succeeded in driving out Henry IV's armies for good.  He showed masterly tactics on the battlefield and in his ability to quickly melt into the Welsh countryside to prepare for the next attack.  He utilised the legendary and much feared skill of Welshmen with the long bow (the same men who in years to come were to help earn Henry V a famous victory at Agincourt).  Owain drew up a famous blueprint of a free Wales, which would have a capital at Machynlleth, a network of universities, and a restored Welsh Legal System (which had predated the Norman Conquest and, interestingly, had been far more progressive than standard Western law in terms of the power it gave to women, and human rights). However, Owain lacked the resources to sustain the rebellion.  He mysteriously vanished in true mythical fashion, but not before capturing and destroying many of the English occupied castles in Wales (which is why so many of them are ruins today!).  He is honoured by a marble statue in Cardiff's City Hall - a national hero practically unheard of outside Wales.

As a result Wales lacked wealth and significance for centuries.  Welsh revolt against England's rule had consistently proved futile and in the mid-1500s, Wales was officially annexed to England.  Ambitious Welshmen learned to assimilate into English life, and become good courtiers, landowners, soldiers and politicians. Wales was largely administered from England, and therefore lacked the indigenous urban institutions of law, education, and power which elsewhere were moulding urban centres into capitals.  Urban settlements in Wales, such as they were, were small scattered market towns or religious settlements. Wales was largely a rural outpost.

Early Cardiff - river port, market town - with a castle of course!

And what of Cardiff in all this?  The name 'Cardiff' is a corruption of the Welsh name 'Caerdydd', pronounced Kyre-DEETHE (rhymes with 'breathe', with emphasis on the second syllable).  'Caer' is the Welsh for 'fort' and 'dydd' is a mutation of the name of the river 'Taf' flowing through the city on which the fort was built.

The building of the fort marks the start of recorded Cardiff history.  In about 43AD, when Rome invaded Wales, Cardiff is said to have had its origin as the site of a Roman fort. Roman influence was felt for 360 years in the island country and by the time of its decline, it had penetrated every aspect of Welsh society. There is every sign that eventually the 'Welsh' assimilated well into the Roman lifestyle, trading with them, marrying them and dressing like them - the Welsh language has clear links to Latin. The Romans built the fort in the first century AD to guard against attacks from Irish raiders, not the locals!  The remains of the Roman fortification are clearly visible today in the outer walls of Cardiff Castle. 

The Norman conquest of Wales in the 11th century instigated the establishment of Cardiff as a town in the middle ages. A wooden castle was built within the structure of  the Roman fort and a village grew around it. Later a stone keep was built which remains one of the best preserved stone keeps in the UK.  For centuries Cardiff remained a very small and insignificant river port and market town, consisting of a few streets, dominated by its castle which expanded in the 15th century, became a military garrison, and eventually a residence.  Nearby were numerous religious sites housing the orders greyfriars and blackfriars.  2 miles to the north an important religious site was emerging at Llandaff.  

All change overnight - Wales becomes the world's first 'industrial nation', Cardiff becomes the world's largest coal port  

Cardiff's, and Wales's, fortunes and history changed dramatically with the industrial revolution.  A few miles north of Cardiff some of the world's richest seams of fine coal lay waiting to be exploited to fuel the industrial revolution sweeping the Western world.  Whoever found themselves owning the land had struck the jackpot.  The Scottish Bute family owned the land in and around Cardiff by marriage, and began building a port to export the coal being dug up in the valleys.

By the mid nineteenth century a new dock had been constructed, and several more were to follow in the decades ahead.  As coal mining boomed, Cardiff's docks became packed with ships sending coal all over the Empire.  Cardiff's population exploded to serve this activity.  In 1801, its population had been just 1,500.  In 1901 it had reached 170,000.  These inhabitants came from all over the world, as well as from Wales and other parts of Britain, large numbers of whom settled for good in the wild and gritty dockland area which became known as 'Tiger Bay'.  It was a remarkable phenomenon - the place of many a 'punch up' on a Saturday night, but one of the most harmonious multi ethnic communities the UK has known - today over 100 languages are said to be spoken in Cardiff and this fact has its roots in this period, where many different races, and faiths, worshipped side by side, worked and traded together and inter-married in this small area of the city.

The Butes became, it is said, the richest family in Europe, and the young 3rd Marquess of Bute in the 1860s wanted to turn his attention to using his wealth to redesign Cardiff Castle as a Neo Gothic fantasy palace, with no expense spared in architecture, and interior fittings. New towers were added to the existing 15th century house, and the interiors lavishly remodelled with generous helpings of gold, marble, glass, gems, and wood.  Castell Coch was similarly redeveloped as a 'Bavarian' style 'fairy tale'' summer retreat on the wooded hills north of Cardiff.

Cardiff grows up

It was in this period that Cardiff really began to emerge as a 'town' of note.  In addition to his own dwellings, Bute turned his attention to the 'moral elevation' of Cardiff.  Generous portions of land were given over to parkland - in particular Roath and Victoria Parks, as well as sportsground along the riverbank (where the Millennium Stadium now stands).  59 acres of land were set aside adjacent to the castle for park (Cathays Park) dedicated to civic buildings, including the university, museum, town hall, and law courts, to be lined with avenues and gardens.

At this time too some of the earliest 'shopping malls' began to emerge - Cardiff's indoor market opened in 1891 and the tight network of covered shopping arcades began to emerge weaving their way between High Street, St Mary Street, Duke Street and the Hayes.  Elegant  villas for the merchants, as well as comfortable homes for the 'well to do artisan', complete with tree lined avenues began to emerge in the north of the city - in Pontcanna (most notably the Cathedral Road area), Llandaff, and Whitchurch - these small historic villages merged with the ever expanding Cardiff to become fashionable suburbs.

Cardiff also saw one of the UK's earliest 'Garden Villages' grow in this period - in Rhiwbina, as part of the movement to house workers in dwellings with gardens and light.  It was to be followed years later by a further one in Ely, just west of the city centre.

A city at last!

In 1905 the transformation of Cardiff was recognised when it was granted City Status by King Edward VII.  The newly completed baroque style 'town hall' could be opened as 'City Hall', and the city returned the compliment by naming one of the Cathays Park Avenues, as 'King Edward VII avenue and the latest dock was opened as 'Queen Alaxandra Dock' in honour of the Queen consort.

Meanwhile the backbone of Cardiff's wealth - coal - continued to serve the city well.  In 1913 it reached its peak with nearly 11 million tons leaving Cardiff by boat.  In the nearby Coal Exchange that year the world's first cheque for £1million sterling was signed.

Cardiff boomed during World War 1 as the British fleet demanded coal.  However, South Wales was devastated by the Depression which followed.  The docks began a steady decline as the demand for Welsh coal (and the viable supply of it) fell.  With this, it seemed, the future prosperity of Cardiff was at stake.

Mixed fortunes in the twentieth century

The nineteenth century had given the city of Cardiff enough of a foundation to manage without the once mighty stimulant of coal-induced wealth.  Its population continued to grow, though more slowly, and it became increasingly recognised as a commericial and administrative centre.  However, for much of the twentieth century, the city was a shadow of the nineteenth century boom town.  Quiet development continued, in housing, its city centre (especially the shops) and government institutions.  However, the city's reputation and fortunes were tied closely to the wider industrial ups and downs of south Wales.  The heavy industry era was coming to an end for Wales, as coal, steel, iron and the trade around them suffered from overseas competition.

Yet the period was not without notable developments:

In 1947 The Bute family gave as a parting gift to the city, the castle and all its grounds - hundreds of acres of parkland stretching from the castle along the riverbank two miles north to Llandaff.

In 1948 the Plymouth family gave its 100 acre estate at St Fagans on the western of Cardiff, to the National Museum of Wales, leading to the development of the National History Museum, as one of Europe's foremost open air museums.

In 1955 Cardiff was recognised by Queen Elizabeth II as Capital City of Wales.

In 1964 the 'Welsh Office' was created with its headquarters in Cathays Park, to administer Welsh affairs, with a Secretary of State appointed by the UK Prime Minister.  It gave a focus on the fact that there was indeed a 'country' of Wales!

However, for all these developments, beyond Wales Cardiff was still regarded as an economic and cultural backwater - Wales's reputation as a western outpost remained and beneath the elegance of the castle towers and civic buildings it was as though the city was asleep.

The 1980s and 1990s - an astonishing deathbed recovery

To be continued .....

Cardiff History