A Roman Town
See also First Site
Unlike Queen Boudica who burned the place to the ground and then proceeded to do away with all the inhabitants, I had completely overlooked Colchester on my journeys around England in the past.
But we were both attracted to it for the Roman connection: she, in AD60, to take revenge on the Romans for killing her husband, king of the Iceni, assaulting her and her daughters, and ignoring her claim to queenship; and I, in 2007, to see what was left of those Roman remains she so carelessly reduced to rubble.
If I’d had to depend on what her assault left behind for my romp through Roman history, there wouldn’t have been much to see. But, by the time she’d destroyed London and St Albans, the Romans took her a little more seriously and succeeded in ending her revolt.
The second time around the Romans got smart and built a defensive wall around the town—3100 metres long and six metres high, much of it surviving today. They promptly rebuilt Colchester, the first capital of Roman Britain, in an even grander style, and it remained a leading player in their British holdings for 400 years. It’s the remains of that Roman town that are on view for the visitor today.
The best place to start is at the Colchester Castle Museum, where all the Roman archaeological finds are on display as well as the history of the Roman occupation and later happenings.
An audio-visual presentation, ‘The Revenge’ graphically depicts the Roman takeover of the Briton’s homes and land and the forced labour to which they were subjected. No wonder Boudica took matters into her own hands.
Colchester, originally named Camulodunum (kaMulo’duun-am) for the Celtic war god Camulos, owes its title, Britain’s oldest recorded town, to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder who referred to it in AD77. In the beginning Cunobelin—the Romans called him king of the Britons—reigned over the area. It was his death in AD40 that tipped the scales in favour of invasion by Rome’s powerful war machine in AD43. Thus the Roman presence first made itself felt in Colchester, and they turned the town into their first capital in the province.
Thinking themselves safely in control after a few years, they withdrew their troops and turned Colchester into a giant retirement home for soldiers. They built large public buildings that included the temple of Claudius for worshipping their emperor, considered to be a god. The first monumental Roman temple in Britain, its foundations still survive and can be seen underneath Colchester castle during a castle tour. The tour also takes in the rooftop and the remains of a former chapel.
Rebuilding on the ruins, the Romans created the defensive walls and a main entrance to the town, the Balkerne gate, the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain. The Temple of Cladius was rebuilt along with many other temples.
For entertainment two theatres were added; one, with seating for 5000, was Britain’s largest. Part of the remains, on Maidenburgh St, are on view today. A drainage and water supply system were put in. Grand houses for the wealthy were constructed with fine mosaic floors—Roman Colchester had one of Britain’s largest collections of mosaics. The population swelled to 10,000.
A view of how important this town was to the Romans can be appreciated in the artefacts on display in the museum. One of the finest Roman bronze sculptures found in Britain, a statue of the Roman god Mercury, was discovered at Gosbecks, on the south-west edge of the town. The area is now an archaeological park.
Other finds on display include the Colchester vase, an outstanding piece of ceramic art adorned with four gladiators and a hunting scene. The Roman glass in the museum is one of Britain’s best Roman glass collections. Jewellery lovers will appreciate other finds; a brooch with coloured enamels is particularly elaborate.
Boudica left her mark behind in the scorched finds of Samian ware pottery and soldiers’ helmets. A 20th Legion centurion, Marcus Favonius Facilis, has achieved modern notoriety through his statue on his tombstone, one of several at the museum. Burial objects and cremated body remains were uncovered south of the town walls.
Helping to bring history alive are activities for kids, who can try on togas and replica Roman helmets and handle Roman pots and other objects.
But wait, Roman Colchester isn’t the entire story. Flash forward 400 years, by which time the Romans had abandoned Britain, and the Saxon settlers took over. Not being townies, they left Colchester to decline and fall into ruin. It took the Norman invasion in 1066 to breathe life back into the town.
The Normans, unfortunately for future historians, raided many of the Roman ruins for the stone, recycling it for new construction, one of which was the castle keep. It’s Britain’s largest Norman built one and predates the famous Tower of London. The Normans turned the town into England’s fifth in terms of tax collected. Yes, the revenue collectors were active even then.
The castle keep is set in 23 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and parkland complete with a river. Concerts and sporting events are on offer at various times.
By 1189 medieval Colchester got its first Royal Charter which allowed the town’s bigwigs the right to manage their own affairs. Wealth came to Colchester from the cloth trade, and buildings became grander.
The tower of Holy Trinity church, built c1000, the earliest surviving building of the time, was constructed from the remains of Roman buildings. Colchester is also home to the ruins of St Botolph’s priory, the first Augustinian house in England. It was reduced to ruin by the Parliamentarians (anti-monarchists) in the Civil War.
Plague (the Black Death) hit Colchester in 1348, killing off a fourth of the population; Colchester rebounded with Dutch immigrants creating high quality cloth, making the town a leading light in the New World and Europe. The Dutch quarter of the town dates from 1565. Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Audley, came from here as did Queen Elizabeth I’s physician William Gilberd. He was the first known person to research electricity.
Colchester was up and down in the 17th century. Booming to 11,000 population by 1620, it had the misfortune to harbour Royalists during the Civil War. Under siege in 1648 by the opposing Parliamentarian army, the people ate dogs, rats, and candles to keep from starving. Many of the town’s important buildings were destroyed by canon fire. Twenty years later the Black Death struck again, this time killing half the population.
Never one to say ‘die’, the town bounced back in time to pick up the cloth trade, then move forward with the agricultural boom in the late 1700s when the cloth trade died. Colchester also had a silk weaving industry until the end of the 18th century. The town was also famous in the 18th century for its candied sea holly roots, considered a special treat.
In Victorian times the citizens pitched in and established mills and factories. Most notable was the engineering section, the best known of which was Paxman’s famous steam engines and boilers. In 1882 a massive red brick water tower was built. It’s easy to see why it garnered the nickname ‘Jumbo’.
There’s more to discover on a walk around the town, either on your own using the walking tour provided by tourism or with a town guide to discover all the sights and history. In addition to the Roman sites you’ll discover the house where Ann and Jane Taylor wrote the poem ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ that was published in 1806.
The Greek Orthodox St Helen’s Chapel—she’s the patron saint of the town—is a tiny one room building full of icons. Tradition, not fact, says she was born locally and used the chapel for her prayers. Her son, Constantine, was also said to be born in the town. He was the first Christian emperor of Rome.
The chapel’s foundations were part of the Roman theatre, built in the 1st century. The chapel itself is thought to have been built by Offa, king of Mercia, in the 8th century. In 1539 it ceased to be used for worship and went through a number of uses including a school, library, house, and storeroom. It was brought back as a site of worship in the year 2000, after serving a brief stint as a Quaker place of worship in the 18th century.
The town tour also takes in the 15th century timber framed building housing the Tymperleys Clock Museum (clocks from 1640-1840),(unfortunately the museum has closed since my visit) and former home of Queen Elizabeth I’s physician, Firstsite: New Site art gallery, the Natural History Museum in a former church, and the elaborate Victorian town hall.
Wind up with a visit to the Purple Dog, once an ancient public house. Or perhaps you perfer the Hole in the Wall, a pub constructed in 1843 by bashing a hole in the Roman wall. Trust modern man to make use of an ancient pile of stone for chowing down. And behave yourself—the castle still has its 17th century gaol (jail) intact.
Getting to Colchester
Colchester is approximately 60 miles north-east of London. Population in 2008 is 170,000.
By rail: InterCity services from London Liverpool St, Norwich, and east coast towns of Clacton, Frinton, and Walton, and Harwich international port.
National Express Coach services daily from all major towns and cities
By road: via A12, M25, and A14
By air: from Stansted airport 50 minutes via road or coach service.
By cycle: route 1 of National Cycle Network runs through Colchester town centre.
Visit Colchester Tourist Information Centre
1 Queen St.
Colchester, Essex, C01 2PG
Tel. 01206 282920
Walking tours from the centre March-Oct
Colchester Castle Park
23 acre Victorian park; concerts, fairs, flower beds and gardens, playground, pitch and putt, boating lake, river walks, café.
Colchester Castle Museum
High St, Colchester
Tel. 0 1206 282 939; To book a tour tel. 0 1206 282 937
Fee charged for admission
Colchester Natural History Museum
Located opposite main gates to castle park at east end of High St, Colchester
Tel. 0 1206 282 941
Hands-on activities related to natural history; video microscope; urban wildlife garden, family trail; events program
Colchester Museums website: Colchester Museums
Firstsite Contemporary Art Gallery
74 High St
Tel. 0 1206 577 067
Web: First Site
Castle Park, Colchester, off High St
Tel. 0 1206 282 940
300 years of home life in Colchester displayed in Georgian townhouse built in 1718; childhood gallery with playroom; AV, hands-on activities; shop; special events throughout the year; free admission.
St Botolph’s Priory
Tel. 0 1206 282 920
Open: daylight hours
Owned by English Heritage
St. Helen’s Chapel
Key from Tourist Information Centre
Generally open 10.30am-12.30pm
Check for time of worship services
St Martin’s Church
West Stockwell St, Colchester
Roman brickwork makes up much of the construction
Obtain key from Visitor Information Centre or Castle Museum
St Michael and All Angels Church
Off Aldecar Rd, Copford Green, Colchester
Tel. 0 1206 210 488
12th century apsidal church with medieval fresco wall paintings. Free
Purple Dog Pub website: The Purple Dog
Note: all material is copyrighted under International Copyright Laws.
All text and photos © by Barbara Ballard
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