While I’ve not been to all the historical places in Colchester this week, I’ve been by a good amount and thought it’d make a lovely post to tell the story of the town in standing architecture today.
Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain, being known in the past as Camulodunum to the Romans in the 40s CE. It was founded as a Roman Legionary retirement base on what was once the Celtic site of Camulodunon (“The Stronghold of Camulos”), Camulos being a Celtic war god of the region. That site has coinage dating back to between 20-10 BCE. There have been some attempts to link Camulos to the Old King Cole of nursery rhymes, but modern scholars have determined this is unlikely to be the case. There’s also some argument that Camulodunon may be the basis for Camelot, but it is mostly speculation at this point.
Camulodunum was one of the focus points of the Iceni rebellion led by Boudica in 60-61 CE, in which it was razed to the ground and no one was spared. The town at the time was undefended, and so the survivors of the initial onslaught took shelter in the Temple of Claudius, which had been built by local taxation and slave labor of natives. Needless to say, the building was a point of contention and was targeted for attack after only a few days. The town was so utterly destroyed by this events that archaeologists have named the deposit layer of the fire and carnage the Boudican Destruction Layer, consistently finding a thick layer of burnt organic material, building ruins, and fused metal and glasswork from the heat of the flames. This layer of chaos is important for archaeologists and historians today though, as it gives a definite time stamp to work with layers above and below the BDL.
The settlement was rebuilt quickly after the attack, with fortifications added this time around. Curiously, Camulodunum was officially a colonia instead of a municipia, which meant that the Romans considered it an extension of Rome and not a province, meaning that the inhabitants were all Roman citizens. Never again the capital city for the Romans in Britain, Colchester remained an Imperial cult capital for a long time with the Temple of Claudius and appeared in writings through the years by Pliny, Ptolemy, and Tacitus.
Jumping forward nearly 1,000 years, the town was continually occupied but mostly quiet. Many of the buildings still standing from this period show recycling of materials, with Roman era bricks being used to build Norman era creations such as St Botolph’s Priory and Colchester Castle. In fact, the Temple of Claudius was still standing in the 11th century when the Normans came in to Colchester. They actually dismantled the massive structure to place the castle on top.
King Cole makes another appearance at this point with the Normans referring to the temple as King Coel’s Palace. It was a popular medieval myth that the Roman town was founded by a native warlord named Coel, who was supposedly the father of St Helena (the patron saint of Colchester). Following the story, he then married Helena off to the Roman Constantius to save his town from siege, and the couple later gave birth to Constantine the Great. (In reality, these events took place WAY off in Turkey.) Not to be deterred by history, the town’s coat of arms shows the “true cross” and the crowns of the three magi that Helena was said to have found in Jerusalem and brought back to Colchester.
In the mid-17th century, Colchester had an influx of Dutch weavers and clothmakers from Flanders. They were well known for their “Bays and Says” cloths made of wool (associated with the “Baize” coarse wool and “Serge” twill of today). During this time frame, Colchester was one of the best towns for wool in England. The area of the Dutch immigrants is near the modern town center and is still known today as the Dutch Quarter, with a good amount of still-standing Tudor era homes.
Three hundred years later, the current town hall was built. The area has been in use as a town hall for over 800 years, but the building today was created by John Belcher in 1902. It was designed as a Baroque style with a statue at the top of the hall with what is either St Helena or the Virgin Mary on it. Inside, the Council Chambers has a painted ceiling with a classical theme of the months of the year, as well as two stained glass depictions of the Roman history in Colchester on the windows.
Finally, coming up to the modern day in terms of history, there is Castle Park. In 1727 the Colchester Castle had been purchased and the grounds turned into a private park for Sarah Gray, wife of the Colchester MP Charles Gray. Gray had originally kept the land split between a grain merchant and the county gaol (jail), but in the 1740s he restored parts of the castle and created the private park around the ruin and his summer house nearby. In 1922, nearly 200 years later, the castle and the park Gray had created were gifted to the town. The park was split into an upper and lower park and the castle became a public museum.
And of course, if you ask the locals they’ll all tell you that Colchester is “alright I guess.” 😛