I was brought up near to Colchester so I did visit the Castle when I was a child. I remember it as a cold shell of a Norman castle which seemed much more fun from the outside that it was when you went inside. Thankfully it’s a true visitor attraction now explaining the incredible history of this Essex town.
I had a great excuse to stop in Colchester recently as I spent a few nights in Harwich on the Essex coast to research a feature for the Autumn/Fall 2019 issue of Anglotopia print magazine (that gives you time to subscribe!) and this was a great place to break-up the return journey to London.
Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town
A thousand years ago people already considered Colchester an ancient place. The town’s many historic sites remain a source of local pride to this day.
Colchester’s military connections are an important part of its identity. The town began as an Iron Age fortress over 2,000 years ago. Since then it has been a base for a Roman legion, Viking raiders, French knights and the British Army.
Colchester considers itself to be the ‘cultural capital of Essex’ and there certainly is a lot of history here.
Colchester Castle is the largest Norman keep ever built and sits directly on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, the most important religious building in Roman Britain. (You can see the steps leading down to the foundations of the Temple near the Castle entrance.)
Over the years it has been a royal palace, prison, garden feature, air raid shelter and museum.
Colchester Museum began in 1846 when a room was provided in the old Town Hall.
In 1860 the Museum moved to Colchester Castle which was then owned by the Round family. At first, the museum occupied just a small part of the first floor of the building but over time it has grown to fill the entire Castle.
The Castle’s open courtyard was roofed over in 1935 creating substantial new space on two floors.
Today the Castle contains one of the finest collections of Iron Age and Roman archaeology in Europe.
The Birth of Colchester
A settlement at Colchester was formed in the Iron Age, over 2,000 years ago.
Most people in Iron Age Essex were directly involved in farming and communities were mostly self-sufficient.
Trade also took place, sometimes over long distances. For example, salt, produced from seawater on the Essex coast, was traded with communities elsewhere in Britain in exchange for materials, such as iron and bronze, not found in Essex.
A series of rulers emerged from the dominating warrior class of whom the most famous and powerful was Cunobelin. He was described by the Romans as “King of the Britons” and ruled from Colchester. This made the settlement Britain’s first capital.
This chart below is helpful to remind us of the layers of history.
Trade with Rome
From around 100 BC the leaders of Iron Age communities in Essex began to import goods from the Roman world.
At first, Italian wine was the most important item of trade. Later, fish sauces, olive oil and grape syrups reached Essex from Spain, as well as silver, glass and pottery vessels from other parts of the Roman Empire.
Tribal warfare was a regular feature of everyday life in Essex in the century before the Roman invasion. One of the main reasons for conflict was the need to acquire slaves to use as payment for Roman imports such as Italian wine.
Cunobelin and Camulodunum
Before the Roman invasion, Colchester was called Camulodunum, meaning ‘the fortress of Camulos’ who was a native war god.
From about 50 BC it was the tribal capital of the Trinovantes tribe. It became firmly established as the capital of a new kingdom under a king called Cunobelin who united the Trinovantes with the Catuvellauni tribe of Hertfordshire.
Cunobelin ruled approx AD 10-40. He was the most famous and most powerful of the kings of late Iron Age Britain.
Claudius and the Roman Invasion of Britain
“Taking over command, Claudius crossed the river and engaged the natives who gathered at his approach, defeated them and took Camuldonum, the capital of Cunobelin.”
Cassius Dio, c. AD 225
Claudius became Roman emperor in AD 41. This was a surprise to many people, even though he was a member of the imperial family. His health was poor, he limped and he had a stammer, all of which kept him out of public view. Powerful people doubted his ability to rule and wanted to return Rome to a republic.
Invading Britain gave Claudius the spectacular military victory that he needed to win public support. He received the surrender of British chieftains at Colchester before returning to Rome in triumph.
The Roman Legions
The strength of the Roman army lay in its foot soldiers called legionaries. At full strength a legion consisted of 5,200 soldiers. Four legions with over 20,000 men formed the backbone of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.
The military tombstones on display at Colchester Castle are unrivalled in Britain, being two of the earliest and most detailed ever found.
The Legionary Fortress at Colchester
When Colchester was captured in AD 43, the Romans built a fortress for the Twentieth Legion to control the native people. The fortress covered twenty hectares in the town centre from the area which is now the Mercury Theatre to Lion Walk.
The fortress was rectangular-shaped, defended by a ditch and bank which was topped by a wall of wooden stakes.
The army was only based in Colchester for six years. In AD 49 the town was considered safe and the Twentieth Legion left to continue its military campaign to the west. The terrible treatment and conditions of many ordinary native Britons increased popular resentment towards the Roman rulers which would lead to revolt.
The Temple of Claudius
The Temple was built for the worship of the Imperial families and dedicated to Emperor Claudius after his death in AD 54.
It was the most famous building in Roman Britain. The Romans took refuge in the Temple when Colchester was attacked by Boudica.
The Romans in newly conquered Britain worked with the local elite, rewarding with status and wealth those who co-operated.
However, the majority of the people in Colchester were forced to work on building the new Roman town including the Temple of Claudius. This resentment became open rebellion in AD 60 when Boudica led a huge army against the Romans. Colchester was attacked by the Iceni tribe of Norfolk and Suffolk led by Queen Boudica, and joined by the Trinovantes tribe of Essex. Colchester was burnt to the ground and the very survival of Roman Britain hung in the balance. No prisoners were taken and everyone who lived in Colchester was killed. Buildings were looted and then set fire to destroy all trace of the Roman town.
Roman Colchester Reborn
When Colchester was reoccupied by the Romans after the Boudican revolt the town was rebuilt. It was called Colonia Victricensis, ‘the colony of the victorious’. The following two hundred years brought peace and prosperity to Colchester and saw Roman culture and technology flourish.
The Temple of Claudius was rebuilt and it remained a symbol of Roman power and authority for the next 350 years.
The Romans learnt from their mistakes and built a town wall to defend the new colony from future attacks. Life was harsh for the natives as slavery was central to the success of the Roman economy.
The slave population was vast and conditions for slaves varied enormously. It was common for a master to reward a slave with their freedom. The hope of eventual freedom encouraged many slaves to be obedient and loyal.
Colchester ceased to the capital of Roman Britain but it remained the main religious centre.
The Romans worshipped many gods and goddesses. Some had only a local significance, others were worshipped across the Empire. The Roman state tolerated this religious diversity unless a cult was thought to pose a threat to the established order.
The Roman Kitchen
Cooking in early Roman Colchester was done on hearths or in ovens set in the dirt floors of houses. One kitchen discovered at Lion Walk had six ovens.
Scorch marks and soot on the outside of these vessels show those pots that were used for cookery. Pottery was also used to store food and drink.
For most Roman people, meals consisted of bread and porridge. But for the wealthy, dinner was a great occasion with several different courses to entertain guests.
As the navy and army helped to suppress piracy and highway robbery, imports from across the Roman Empire could reach Colchester. Roman Colchester was a wealthy town and trade peaked in the second century AD at the high point of the Empire, but declined in the centuries that followed.
The Colchester Vase
Colchester was one of the major potteries of Roman Britain. Over 40 pottery kilns have been discovered in the town. The industry peaked in the town in the second century when potters won army contracts to supply forts on the northern frontier.
The Colchester Vase is the most famous pot from Roman Britain. It was found in a grave between AD 175 and AD 200 at West Lodge in Colchester.
The pot is decorated with detailed scenes showing a fight between two gladiators, a man beating a bear with a whip and a hunting dog in pursuit of two stags and a hare.
Colchester Samian Ware
Colchester is the only place in Britain where the distinctive Roman pottery called Samian was made. However, it was not very successful, possibly because of the quality of local clay used.
Roman Colchester had two theatres, one near the Temple of Claudius and the other in the countryside at Gosbecks.
The popularity of gladiator fights can be seen by the many images of gladiators excavated in the town. The fights took place in an amphitheatre which is yet to found in Colchester.
The Colchester circus is of major importance because it is the only one known in Britain. It was identified as a circus in 2006 following excavations to the south of the town centre.
The circus was a race track for chariots built in the second century AD. It attracted large crowds with enough seating for 16,000 spectators. The races would have been an exciting spectacle with as many as eight chariots competing in each race.
The circus continued in use until the end of the third century AD, after which it fell into ruin.
The Middleborough Mosaic
This mosaic floor was one of several laid in a house built just outside the town walls of Colchester at Middleborough.
It was created by a team of master craftsmen at work in the town just after the middle of the second century AD. The house was demolished in about AD 300.
Christianity in Roman Colchester
In AD 313 Emperor Constantine granted Christians freedom to worship. It was not long before many citizens of Roman Colchester converted to Christianity and built a stone church just outside the town wall at Butt Road. Worship at Butt Road ended in the fifth century.
By AD 370 Colchester was a largely Christan community and had become a very different place to the earlier Roman town.
The strength, influence and power of the Roman Empire were fading. The town was much smaller than in earlier years, visibly decayed and under fear of attack.
Less than one hundred years later Colchester and the Roman way of life had come to an end.
The Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons
By AD 410 the Roman troops had departed from Britain and it left the area defenceless.
Incoming people from north Germany and Denmark called Angles, Saxons and Jutes started to settle in what became known as England. This was not an organised conquest of the country but was a gradual settlement of small groups of people.
In Colchester, there is evidence of settlers from Germany arriving early in the fifth century.
The surviving Roman walls around the ruins of Colchester offered a safe base for Viking armies that attacked Britain in the 800s. In AD 917 the Saxon king, Edward the Elder, threw the Vikings out and refortified Colchester. After centuries of neglect, Colchester started to function as a town again.
Following William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Colchester soon prospered under Norman rule. The Normans were great builders. The Castle and St Botolph’s Priory are evidence of their skills.
At one and a half times the size of the ground plan of the White Tower at the Tower of London, Colchester’s keep of 152 by 112 feet (46 m × 34 m) has the largest area of any medieval tower built in Britain or in Europe.
Colchester Castle was used as a gaol for over 600 years. People were punished and imprisoned in the Castle for a variety of offences, some of which would not be considered crimes today.
In the 1500s people were put to death for following their personal faith rather than official religious practice.
In 1645, during the troubled times of the English Civil War, the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, used Colchester Castle as a base for his interrogations.
In the Castle grounds, there is a garden in memory of the victims of the Essex Witch Hunts.
Over the years thousands of convicted criminals and prisoners of war have been held here. The first record of Colchester Castle being used as a prison dates from 1226.
The Castle was also used as a place to hold people before they went to trail or until they had paid their fines. Prisoners had to pay the gaoler for their food and drink. When the gaoler was corrupt, this left prisoners at his mercy.
“Wee are crediblie informed that the miseries of the poor prisoners are soe great and lameentable partlie by reason of the crueltie of the gaoler”
Report on Colchester Castle Gaol, 1631
The Castle gaol closed in 1885, by which date it was completely unfit for purpose.
The Siege of Colchester
The English Civil War, fought between the Royalists and Parliamentarians, centred on Colchester in the summer of 1648.
Royalist troops occupied Colchester. A Parliamentarian army failed to storm the town and settled in for a siege. When the food ran out people were reduced to eating dogs, cats, rats and candles made from animal fat.
After eleven weeks the Royalists surrendered. Two of their commanders, Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, were executed by firing squad outside the Castle. Scars of the Siege can still be seen on some buildings in the town.
The Town Charter
Colchester gained rights and privileges through royal charters, issued by a series of monarchs, which allowed the town to prosper. Colchester received its first charter in 1189 from Richard I. Privileges included holding markets and local courts and exemption from paying various taxes. The fishing rights on the River Colne were another important benefit.
Charters were particularly significant in the Middle Ages as they gave Colchester more control over its own affairs and opportunities for increasing the wealth and status of the town and its leading people.
The charter issued by Henry V in 1413 is the first to show the Borough Arms. The Arms make reference to the town’s Roman past and show that the townspeople were proud of Colchester’s long history.
You exit through the gift shop which has some fun gift ideas.
As a visitor, I found the layout confusing even with the map that was provided. You start upstairs with the Iron Age and Roman displays and then the ground floor has Saxon/Norman, Medieval, the English Civil War Siege and the prison.
You need 1.5-2 hours to visit. There isn’t a cafe but there are cafes, pubs and restaurants in the local area.
It’s a family-friendly attraction with trails for the kids to follow, dressing up clothes and lots of ‘Please Touch’ displays.
Address: Colchester, Essex CO1 1TJ
Nearest Station: Colchester Town railway station is about an hour away from London Liverpool Street station.
Official Website: colchester.cimuseums.org.uk/visit/colchester-castle