History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Colchester Castle and the oldest Roman town walls in Britain
One of the most fascinating historic towns in England, Colchester has a mix of historic attractions from every era - from pre-Roman, to Roman, medieval, Georgian, and Victorian. Roman walls? Check. Medieval castle? Check. Saxon church? Check. Ruined abbey? Fascinating museums? Check and check. And if that's not enough, Colchester has a link to the history of the two nursery rhymes; 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', and 'Humpty Dumpty'.
There was an Iron Age settlement here, about 3 miles to the south west of the current town centre at Gosbecks. The settlement was later known as Camulodunum (the name is a Roman mangling of the Iron Age name, meaning Fortress of Camulos, the God of War). Camulodunum was a centre for powerful Trinovantes tribe in the 6th decade BC.
The major enemy of the Trinovantes was the Catevellauni, under a leader named Cassivellaunus. When the Catevellauni invaded Trinovantes territory and murdered the king, his son, Mandubracius, fled across the Channel to Gaul and begged the Roman general Julius Caesar for help. Caesar saw his chance at conquest, and after an abortive landing in 55 BC he returned again in 54BC and forced Cassivellaunus to surrender.
Caesar did not stick around to occupy the territory he had conquered, but in 43AD the Romans returned, under Emperor Claudius. The Romans landed in the south, and marched north, forcing the Catevellauni leader Caratacus to retreat to Camulodunum. The Emperor himself led the final assault, forcing Caratacus to flee.
The Romans recognised Camulodunum's strategic importance as a major British tribal power base and immediately built a legionary fortress on a spur of land near the old tribal centre. Not content with a military stronghold, the Romans established a colonia, or planned settlement, populated by retired soldiers, within the walls of the fort. This was, quite literally, Britain's first city, and it was called Colonia Victricensis (The City of Victory).
The Romans erected a triumphal arch to Claudius at the western entrance into the town. This arch was later incorporated into the defensive Balkerne Gate, the earliest surviving Roman gate in Britain. They also built a large temple to Claudius, a site later reused by William the Conqueror to build a Norman castle.
The Romans treated the British population - even their ostensible allies - with contempt and arrogance. In AD 60 the local Iceni tribe rose in revolt, led by their queen, Boudicca (dubbed Boadicea by late historians).
Boudicca levelled the Roman town, destroyed the temple, and is said to have killed 30,000 inhabitants and anyone who sympathised with the Romans. The revolt eventually faltered and Boudicca was killed, but the Romans were sufficiently alarmed to rebuild the town walls and create a fortified gate incorporating the old triumphal arch. Two-thirds of the walls still stand, making it the oldest town wall in Britain.
On Butt Road, beside the modern police station, are the foundations of a 4th-century Romano-Christian church, the oldest Christian church in England. Further south, closer to the Iron-Age Gosbecks site, are the remains of the only Roman Circus in Britain, discovered in 2004. The area around Gosbecks is now preserved as an archaeological park, with interpretive signs that explain the layout of the early settlement.
After the Roman legions departed in the 5th century Saxon settlers moved in, for the most part reusing the Roman streets system. The existing High Street still follows the Roman Via Praetoria, or main street. Though the Saxons must have built numerous stone structures, the only substantial pre-Norman building is Holy Trinity church, with an 11th-century tower.
This brief introduction only gives an overview of the early history of the town. If you'd like to learn more, the best source of information I know of for Roman Colchester is the wonderful Camulos website.
When William the Conqueror sought to establish his power over England he needed strong fortresses to keep the population in line. His first stone castle was here at Colchester, begun in 1076 on top of the old Roman temple to Claudius. Colchester flourished during the medieval period as a centre for wool, weaving, and the cloth industry, and the large number of surviving late medieval and Jacobean timber-framed buildings are a testament to that wealth.
The Civil War Siege
When the English Civil War broke out Colchester was held by Royalists under the command of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle. In 1648 a Parliamentarian army under General Thomas Fairfax surrounded Colchester, beginning a fierce siege that lasted almost 12 weeks.
By the end of the siege, the starving inhabitants were eating dogs and cats just to survive. The garrison of Colchester Castle was finally forced to surrender, and ordinary soldiers were released on condition that they never take up arms against Parliament again.
The two commanding officers, however, were executed behind the castle keep. Their alleged crime was high treason, the logic being that by refusing to surrender they had caused further loss of life. A simple stone obelisk memorial stands in the public park just north of the keep, near the spot where the men were executed by firing squad.
They died bravely, each, in turn, baring his chest to the firing squad. The execution caused a public outcry, and the men quickly became martyrs to the Royalist cause. It is said that no grass ever grew at the spot they fell. It is a bit surreal to see people relaxing on park benches, and children playing happily around the obelisk on the spot where the two Royalists were executed.
The first stone castle built by William the Conqueror, begun in 1076. Besieged by King John, and later turned into a prison and courthouse. Heavily damaged in the Civil War siege of Colchester, and later sold for building materials, it was rescued by Charles Gray, who restored the building and created the extensive public park that surrounds the castle keep. Now owned by the town council, the castle houses a museum of local and regional history. See medieval gaol cells and graffiti scratched by prisoners long ago.
Roman Town Walls
Built by the Roman legions after Boudicca's devastating attack in 60AD, the walls encircled the town, with just 5 gates allowing access. The best-preserved section is in the west, where the Balkerne Gate is the oldest surviving Roman gateway in Britain. Along the southern stretch of the wall you can see medieval bastions added at the time of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381.
Jumbo Water Tower
The largest surviving Victorian water tower in the country, built in 1882 to replace an inadequate system of cisterns and reservoirs. It gained its name when an outraged rector named John Irvine complained at the thought of a tower holding 220,000 gallons standing at the foot of his rectory garden.
He wrote a letter to the Essex Standard, calling the project a 'Jumbo', after a popular elephant at London Zoo which had been recently sold over great public outcry to American showman PT Barnum. The tower is an iconic sight in central Colchester and [hopefully] now being preserved as a historic monument.
St Martins Church
Situated in the Dutch Quarter of historic Colchester, this fascinating building dates to at least the 11th century, though much of the current structure is from the 14th century. Like many early medieval buildings in the town, St Martins incorporates Roman bricks into its walls.
The tower was damaged in the 1648 Siege of Colchester and was never rebuilt. Look for the 15th-century timber arch in the chancel, carved with a Green Man figure. There are traces of a medieval 'Doom' painting over the chancel arch.
St Botolph's Priory
The very first Augustinian monastery in Britain, founded around 1100AD just inside the southern gateway into medieval Colchester. Now ruinous, the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536, and later damaged by cannon fire during the Siege of Colchester.
You can still see holes made by Royalist cannon fire, but you can also see Roman bricks used to construct the abbey church. Much of the nave arcade still stands, along with the west front, and these are an excellent example of Norman Romanesque architecture.
St John's Abbey Gate
The only remnant of a medieval abbey that used to stand to the south of the town walls. This exquisitely detailed gatehouse was erected around 1400 after the abbey had been pillaged by peasants in the 1381 Peasant's Revolt.
After the abbey was suppressed at the Reformation, the gatehouse formed part of a mansion owned by the Lucas family. Sir Charles Lucas commanded the Royalist garrison during the 1648 Siege of Colchester, and the gateway was heavily bombarded. The interior gateway passage is beautifully vaulted, with carved corbels of mythological beasts.
The only Saxon building still standing in Colchester, Holy Trinity incorporates Roman bricks into its tower. The west door to the tower is Saxon, with a triangular arch over the doorway opening. In the church is a memorial to William Gilberd, a physician to Elizabeth I and an early experimenter in the field of electromagnetism. Now redundant and used as an arts centre and cafe.
Natural History Museum
Located across High Street from the castle, housed in a redundant medieval church, this small, free, museum traces the geography, geology, and ecology of the Colchester area. A special exhibit tells the story of the famous Colchester Earthquake of 1884. Explore a badger sett, follow a winding trail through an urban wildlife garden, and learn about prehistoric animals that used to inhabit East Anglia.
This fascinating museum of toys, local history, and clocks stands immediately beside the Norman castle. It is housed in an elegant Georgian townhouse, built in 1718. Many of the Georgian and Victorian interiors have been retained, and visitors can learn about the real people who made their home at Hollytrees, including a Victorian owner, maidservant, and sedan chair carrier.
St Mary at the Walls church
A largely Victorian church with a 15th-century tower, incorporating Roman tiles into its walls. The church stands just inside the Balkerne Gate on the eastern edge of the old Roman town. Now used as an arts centre, St Mary's is famous for its role in the Civil War Siege of Colchester, when a one-eyed gunner named Thompson managed to get his cannon to the top of the tower, and from there fire down on the Parliamentarian troops besieging the town.
After causing great destruction, he was eventually dislodged by concerted return fire, and Thompson and his gun fell to the ground. One unlikely legend suggests that Thomspon was the model for the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty. You can easily see the different coloured brick used to repair the top of the tower after the Siege.
St Helen's Chapel
Standing just outside Castle Park, in an area of town known as the Dutch Quarter, stands this small Saxon chapel, now a Greek Orthodox church. St Helen's was founded as early as the 8th century and stands on the foundations of a Roman temple of the 3rd century. Roman foundations are incorporated into the walls and the layout of the original Roman structure is traced by different coloured bricks in the pavement.
Outside the centre of town:
St Leonard at the Hythe
A redundant medieval church, built in the 13th century and remodelled two centuries later. Look for the Civil War bullet holes in the south door, made when Royalist soldiers took refuge inside St Leonards during the 1648 siege. Pieces of the original 16th-century screen are incorporated into a Victorian replacement.
A restored 16th-century water mill, begun as a fishing lodge in 1591. Converted to cloth fulling in the 19th century and then to a corn mill. The walls incorporate Roman bricks. Now owned by the National Trust, the mill operates limited opening days during the summer months.
Berechurch, Audley Chapel
A Tudor chapel created for the Audley family, attached to a 14th-century church and set in a pocket of green trees on the southern outskirts of greater Colchester. Among the tombs in the churchyard is that of James Ward, who sailed with Captain Cook in 1778 and was credited as being the first European to spot the islands of Hawaii.
Lexden Earthworks and Bluebottle Grove
Two separate pre-Roman sites, a mile apart on the western outskirts of Colchester. Lexden Earthworks is a part of the defensive system of ditches and banks erected to defend the British settlement that pre-dated the Roman town.
There are several tumuli, or earthen burial mounds, near the earthworks, including one at Lexden Tumulus, traditionally said to be the burial site of Cunobelinus, the British chief at the time of the Roman invasion. You can follow trails along the top edge of the earthworks at Bluebottle, and along the bottom of the ditch as well.
Other Historic Highlights:
A symphony of late Victorian architecture, heavily decorated with carved figures in marble. The first town hall was built in 1160, but the present elegant building was designed by John Belcher in 1897. It is an extravagant design in Baroque style, with a striking tower standing 162 feet high. The council chamber has a painted ceiling depicting the months of the year, and stained glass windows telling the story of Roman Colchester.
Near the hall is the Hippodrome. Now a night club, this was once a popular vaudeville theatre. Among the stars who performed at the Hippodrome were Charlie Chaplin, and singer Marie Lloyd.
Twinkle Twinkle House
There is a small plaque on the exterior of an unobtrusive red-brick house at 11/12 West Stockwell Road, just north of the town hall. It simply states 'In these houses lived Jane & Ann Taylor, Authors of 'Original Poems for Infant Minds'. 1796-1811. The most enduring of the poems published by the Taylor sisters is the childhood favourite, 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'.
East Hill House
Dating to the mid-18th century, this is just one of a series of historic buildings along East Hill. Opposite is Greyfriars, site of a 13th-century Franciscan friary. Further west along East Hill is The Minories, a Tudor building fronted by a neo-classical facade.
Almost opposite Holy Trinity church on Trinity Street is a narrow passage. It is easy to miss, but if you duck down the passage it opens out at the gates of an attractive timber-framed building named Tymperleys. In the Elizabethan period this was the home of William Gilberd (see Holy Trinity church), and in the early 20th century it was owned by businessman Bernard Mason.
Mason established a collection of historic clocks, and on his death he gave the house and collection to the borough. After a brief period as a clock museum, the house was closed and the clocks moved to Hollytrees Museum. There have been periodic efforts to reopen Tymperleys to the public - stay tuned!
Hole in the Wall inn
Straddling part of the Balkerne Gate opening is this attractive and rather aptly named 17th-century pub. Part of the pub actually rests on the Roman wall, and at the base of the building on the western side is an exposed section of wall foundations. After the Siege of Colchester, the area of the wall around the Roman gates was pulled down. A house was built on the ruins of the gateway, and this house was later converted into the inn we see today.
Red Lion Hotel
Another popular historic inn, the Red Lion stands on the High Street. It was built in 1481 and was one of the first inns in Colchester to be used as a stopping place for coaches from London. The front facade of the building has beautifully carved timber beams, including a carving of St George and the Dragon beside the main entrance.
Where Headgate meets Sir Isaac's Walk. Look for the plaque marking the site of the Roman Head Gate. A large building on the corner was owned by Sir Isaac Rebow, a merchant of Flemish origin. Rebow was an MP for three decades and welcomed William of Orange (later William III of England) to his house on several occasions.
Address: Colchester, Essex, England
Attraction Type: Town
Location: Good visitor parking at postcode CO3 3WG (Sheepen Road and Balkerne Hill/A134 junction)
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Colchester Castle Museum - 0 miles (Castle)
Hollytrees Museum - 0.1 miles (Museum)
Natural History Museum, Colchester - 0.1 miles (Museum)
Colchester, St Helen's Chapel - 0.1 miles (Historic Church)
Colchester, St Martin's Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church)
St Botolph's Priory - 0.2 miles (Abbey)
Colchester, Holy Trinity Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church)
Colchester, St Mary at the Walls - 0.3 miles (Historic Church)
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