On this date in 1955 Cardiff was proclaimed the capital city of Wales. Surprised that it is so recent? Wales was subsumed under English hegemony from the 13th to 19th centuries, when its distinctive culture (which was always there) was finally acknowledged politically. Until 1955 London was the de facto capital. Cardiff was a small town of little importance until the early 19th century when its prominence as a major port for the transport of coal and manufactured goods developed following the arrival of mining and attendant industries in the region.
King Edward VII granted Cardiff city status on 28 October 1905, and the city acquired a Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1916. In subsequent years an increasing number of national institutions were located in the city, including the National Museum of Wales, Welsh National War Memorial, and the University of Wales Registry Building—however, it was denied the National Library of Wales, partly because the library’s founder, Sir John Williams, considered Cardiff to have “a non-Welsh population.”
After a brief post-war boom, Cardiff docks entered a prolonged decline in the interwar period. By 1936, their trade was less than half its value in 1913, reflecting the slump in demand for Welsh coal. Bomb damage during the Cardiff Blitz in World War II included the devastation of Llandaff Cathedral, and in the immediate postwar years the city’s link with the Bute family (of major importance in the development of modern Cardiff in the 19th century) came to an end.
The city was proclaimed capital city of Wales on 20 December 1955, through a written statement by the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George. Caernarfon (rather more Welsh in culture than Cardiff), had also vied for this title. The Encyclopedia of Wales notes that the decision to recognize the city as the capital of Wales “had more to do with the fact that it contained marginal Conservative constituencies than any reasoned view of what functions a Welsh capital should have”. Although the city hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1958, Cardiff only became a center of national administration with the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, which later prompted the creation of various other public bodies such as the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Development Agency, most of which were based in Cardiff.
Archaeological evidence from sites in and around Cardiff—the St Lythans burial chamber, near Wenvoe (about four miles (6.4 km) west, south west of Cardiff city centre), the Tinkinswood burial chamber, near St Nicholas (about six miles (10 km) west of Cardiff city centre), the Cae’rarfau Chambered Tomb, Creigiau (about six miles (10 km) north west of Cardiff city centre) and the Gwern y Cleppa Long Barrow, near Coedkernew, Newport (about eight and a quarter miles (13.5 km) north east of Cardiff city centre)—shows that people had settled in the area by at least around 6,000 BP during the early Neolithic; about 1,500 years before either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed. A group of five Bronze Age tumuli is at the summit of The Garth (Welsh: Mynydd y Garth), within the county’s northern boundary. Four Iron Age hill fort and enclosure sites have been identified within Cardiff’s present-day county boundaries, including Caerau Hillfort, an enclosed area of 5.1 hectares (51,000 m2)
Until the Roman conquest of Britain, Cardiff was part of the territory of the Silures – a Celtic British people that flourished in the Iron Age – whose territory included the areas that would become known as Breconshire, Monmouthshire and Glamorgan. The 3.2-hectare (8-acre) fort established by the Romans near the mouth of the River Taff in 75 AD, in what would become the north western boundary of the centre of Cardiff, was built over an extensive settlement that had been established by the Silures in the 50s CE. The fort was one of a series of military outposts associated with Isca Augusta (Caerleon) that acted as border defenses. The fort may have been abandoned in the early 2nd century as the area had been subdued. However, by this time a civilian settlement, or vicus, was established. It was likely made up of traders who made a living from the fort, ex-soldiers and their families. A Roman villa has been discovered at Ely. Contemporary with the Saxon Shore Forts of the 3rd and 4th centuries, a stone fortress was established at Cardiff. Similar to the shore forts, the fortress was built to protect Britannia from raiders. Coins from the reign of Gratian indicate that Cardiff was inhabited until at least the 4th century; the fort was abandoned towards the end of the 4th century, as the last Roman legions left the province of Britannia with Magnus Maximus.
Little is known about the fort and civilian settlement in the period between the Roman departure from Britain and the Norman Conquest. The settlement probably shrank in size and may even have been abandoned. In the absence of Roman rule, Wales was divided into small kingdoms; early on, Meurig ap Tewdrig emerged as the local king in Glywysing (which later became Glamorgan). The area passed through his family until the advent of the Normans in the 11th century.
In 1081 king William I of England, began work on the castle keep within the walls of the old Roman fort. Cardiff Castle has been at the heart of the city ever since. The castle was substantially altered and extended during the Victorian period by John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, and the architect William Burges. Original Roman work can, however, still be distinguished in the wall facings.
A small town grew up in the shadow of the castle, made up primarily of settlers from England. Cardiff had a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 in the Middle Ages, a relatively normal size for a Welsh town in this period. By the end of the 13th century, Cardiff was the only town in Wales with a population exceeding 2,000, but it was relatively small compared with most notable towns in England. In the early 12th century a wooden palisade was erected around the city to protect it. Cardiff was a busy port in the Middle Ages, and was declared a Staple port (look it up) in 1327. Henry II travelled through Cardiff on his journey to Ireland and forbade the holding of Sunday markets at St Piran’s Chapel, which stood in the middle of the road between the castle entrance and Westgate.
In 1404 Owain Glyndŵr burned Cardiff and took Cardiff Castle. As the town was still very small, most of the buildings were made of wood and the town was destroyed. However, the town was soon rebuilt and began to flourish once again.
In 1536, the Act of Union between England and Wales led to the creation of the shire of Glamorgan, and Cardiff was made the county town. It also became part of Kibbor hundred. Around this same time the Herbert family became the most powerful family in the area. In 1538, Henry VIII closed the Dominican and Franciscan friaries in Cardiff, the remains of which were used as building materials. A writer around this period described Cardiff: “The River Taff runs under the walls of his honours castle and from the north part of the town to the south part where there is a fair quay and a safe harbour for shipping.” Cardiff had become a Free Borough in 1542. In 1573, it was made a head port for collection of customs duties, and in 1581, Elizabeth I granted Cardiff its first royal charter. Pembrokeshire historian George Owen described Cardiff in 1602 as “the fayrest towne in Wales yett not the welthiest.”, and the town gained a second Royal Charter in 1608.
During the English Civil War, St Fagans just to the west of the town, played host to the Battle of St Fagans. The battle, between a Royalist rebellion and a New Model Army detachment, was a decisive victory for the Parliamentarians and allowed Oliver Cromwell to conquer Wales. It was the last major battle to occur in Wales, with about 200 (mostly Royalist) soldiers killed.
In the ensuing century Cardiff was at peace. In 1766, John Stuart, 1st Marquess of Bute married into the Herbert family and was later created Baron Cardiff, and in 1778 he began renovations on Cardiff Castle. In the 1790s a racecourse, printing press, bank and coffee house all opened, and Cardiff gained a stagecoach service to London. Despite these improvements, Cardiff’s position in the Welsh urban hierarchy had declined over the 18th century. Iolo Morgannwg called it “an obscure and inconsiderable place”, and the 1801 census found the population to be only 1,870, making Cardiff only the 25th largest town in Wales, well behind Merthyr and Swansea.
In 1793, John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute was born. He would spend his life building the Cardiff docks and would later be called “the creator of modern Cardiff”. A twice-weekly boat service between Cardiff and Bristol was established in 1815, and in 1821, the Cardiff Gas Works was established. After the Napoleonic Wars Cardiff entered a period of social and industrial unrest, starting with the trial and hanging of Dic Penderyn in 1831.
The town grew rapidly from the 1830s onwards, when the Marquess of Bute built a dock, which eventually linked to the Taff Vale Railway. Cardiff became the main port for exports of coal from the Cynon, Rhondda, and Rhymney valleys, and grew at a rate of nearly 80% per decade between 1840 and 1870. Much of the growth was due to migration from within and outside Wales: in 1841, a quarter of Cardiff’s population were English-born and more than 10% had been born in Ireland. By the 1881 census, Cardiff had overtaken both Merthyr and Swansea to become the largest town in Wales. Cardiff’s new status as the premier town in South Wales was confirmed when it was chosen as the site of the University College South Wales and Monmouthshire in 1893.
Cardiff faced a challenge in the 1880s when David Davies of Llandinam and the Barry Railway Company promoted the development of rival docks at Barry. Barry docks had the advantage of being accessible in all tides, and David Davies claimed that his venture would cause “grass to grow in the streets of Cardiff”. From 1901 coal exports from Barry surpassed those from Cardiff, but the administration of the coal trade remained centered on Cardiff, in particular its Coal Exchange, where the price of coal on the British market was determined and the first million-pound deal was struck in 1907. The city also strengthened its industrial base with the decision of the owners of the Dowlais Ironworks in Merthyr (who would later form part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds) to build a new steelworks close to the docks at East Moors, which Lord Bute opened on 4 February 1891.
Cardiff’s fortunes in the 20th century followed those of South Wales in general – growth through the 2 world wars followed by decline in the 1970s up to the turn of the century. The stereotypical 20th century image of Wales as a land of coalminers and male voice choirs is reflected in this clip from John Ford’s 1941 movie “How Green was my Valley.”
But when the BBC Dr Who spinoff, Torchwood, was first filmed in Cardiff in 2006, the city was represented as a highly modern urban center. “There’s not a male voice choir … or a miner in sight.” said BBC Wales Controller Menna Richards. Conservative MP Michael Gove described the debut of Torchwood as the moment confirming “Wales’ move from overlooked Celtic cousin to underwired erotic coquette.”
The national symbol of Wales is the leek, and I have covered this vegetable more than enough in posts here with cock-a-leekie, leek and potato soup, and buttered leeks, plus the myriad uses of leeks in soups and stews. Right now leeks are in season in Mantua, so, having lived without them (proper ones) in Argentina and China for close on 6 years, I now use them every chance I get, and always have a plenteous stock on hand. Instead, therefore, I will turn to another Welsh staple, laver.
Laver is an edible, littoral alga (seaweed). In Wales, laver is used commonly as a vegetable of for making laverbread. It is smooth in texture and forms delicate, sheet-like thalli, often clinging to rocks. The principal variety is purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis). Purple laver is classified as a red alga, tends to be a brownish color, but boils down to a dark green pulp when prepared. It is unusual amongst seaweeds because the fronds are only one cell thick. Laver has a high content of dietary minerals, particularly iodine and iron. The high iodine content gives the seaweed a distinctive flavor in common with olives and oysters.
Laver cultivation as food is thought to be very ancient, though the first mention was in Camden’s in the early 17th century. It is plucked from the rocks and given a preliminary rinse in clear water. The collected laver is repeatedly washed to remove sand, and then boiled for hours until it becomes a stiff, green mush. In this state, the laver can be preserved for about a week. Typically during the 18th century, the mush was packed into a crock and sold. Nowadays you can get frozen laver mush online quite easily.
Laver can be eaten cold as a salad with lamb or mutton, or heated with butter and the juice of a lemon or Seville orange. Commonly now it is served heated with cockles and bacon as part of a Welsh breakfast. Or you can make laverbread. Simply coat a patty of laver mush in oats and fry it in lard or bacon fat. Richard Burton has been quoted as describing laverbread as “Welshman’s caviar”.