While there were Iron Age and Roman settlements in the area now covered by the town, Rotherham itself was not founded until the Dark Ages. It soon established itself as a key Saxon market town, lying, as it does, on a Roman road near a forded part of the Don.
In the 1480s the Rotherham-born Archbishop of York, Thomas Rotherham, instigated the building of a college (The College of Jesus) to rival the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford. This and the stylish new parish church of All Saints made Rotherham an enviable and modern town at the turn of the 16th century. But the college was dissolved under the reign of Edward VI - its assets stripped for the crown. By the end of the 16th century, Rotherham had fallen from a fashionable college-town to a notorious haven of gambling and vice.
The region had been exploited for iron since Roman times, but it was coal that first brought the industrial revolution to Rotherham. The seams were the driving force behind the improvements to navigation along the Don - the various cuttings that eventually formed the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation.
However, the iron resources were soon picked up on, most notably by the Walker family, who built up something of an Iron Empire in Rotherham. Throughout the 18th century, the Walker foundries produced high quality cannons, in addition to more experimental contracts for bridges and the likes. Meanwhile, Joseph Foljambe established a factory to produce his Rotherham plough, the first commercially successful iron plough.
Rotherham iron was very highly regarded for its strength. Iron, and later steel, became the principal industry in Rotherham well into the 20th century. Steel, Peech and Tozer's massive Templeborough steelworks (now the Magna Centre) was, at its peak, over a mile long, employing 10,000 workers, and housing six electric arc furnaces producing 1.8 million tonnes of steel a year. The operation finally closed down in 1993.
Despite its history, Rotherham is rather short on old (secular) buildings. The only surviving timber-framed structure is the empty, dilapidated, and much altered former Three Cranes pub (16th century). In fact much of Rotherham's town centre was knocked down and modernised during the course of the 20th century.
The town centre does, however, contain one of only four bridge chapels in the country: the 15th century Chapel of Our Lady of Rotherham Bridge (or "Chapel on the Bridge") on Chantry Bridge. The chapel was restored in 1923 having spent a good period of time as a tobacconist's shop.
Other buildings of note include the 15th century parish church of All Saints, and the 18th century Clifton House which now houses Clifton Park Museum.
Beyond the town centre, the Rotherham district is largely rural, containing a mixture of farming and mining communities as well as the Wentworth Woodhouse estate.
Culturally, Rotherham has produced several entertainers who started on the Working Men's Club scene, such as Dougie Brown, Paul Shane, and The Chuckle Brothers. The athlete Peter Elliott and politician William Hague both come from Rotherham, as does former England goalkeeper David Seaman.