History of Colchester

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Colchester is an historic town located in Essex, England. It served as the first capital of Roman Britain and makes a claim to be the oldest town in Britain.

Iron Age Fortress and Roman Colonia[edit]

Main article: Camulodunum

Iron Age Camulodunon[edit]

The Iron Age site of Camulodunon

The Celtic fortress of "Camulodunon", meaning Stronghold of Camulos is first mentioned on coins minted by Tasciovanus in the period 20-10BC.[1] Camulodunon consisted of a series of earthwork defences, built from the First Century BC onwards with most dating from the First Century AD.[1] They are considered the most extensive of their kind in Britain[1][2] The defences are made up of lines of ditches and ramparts, possibly palisaded with gateways, that mostly run parallel to each other in a north-south direction. The Iron Age settlement was protected by rivers on three sides, with the River Colne bounding the site to the north and east, and the Roman River valley forming the southern boundary; the earthworks were mostly designed to close off the western gap between these two river valleys.[1][3] Other earthworks closed off eastern parts of the settlement. The main sites within the bounds of these defences are the Gosbecks farmstead, a large high-status settlement with associated religious site,[1] the Sheepen river port and industrial area near the present location of St Helena School and the Lexden burial mounds, a group of barrows and cremation burials.[1] Originally Camulodunon was a stronghold of the Trinovantes tribe, lead by kings such as Addedomarus, but at some point in the First Century AD the aristocracy and ruling families were from the Catuvellauni tribe.[1]

Bronze coin of Cunobelin - note the letters CAMV for Camulodunon

Strabo reports Rome's lucrative trade with Britain; the island's exports included grain, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs.[4] Iron ingots, slave chains and storage vessels discovered at the Sheepen site at Camulodunon appear to confirm this trade with the Empire.[1] The Catuvellauni king Cunobelinus, ruling from his capital at Camulodunon, had subjugated a large area of southern and eastern Britain,[5][6] and was called by the Roman historian Suetonius "King of the Britons".[1] Under his rule Camulodunon had replaced Verlamion as the most important settlement in pre-Roman Britain.[6] Around 40AD he had fallen out with his son Adminius (acting as proxy ruler of the Cantiaci tribe in his father’s name), who had fled to Rome for support.[1] There he was received by the Emperor Gaius, who may have attempted an invasion of Britain to put Adminius on his father’s throne.[7] After Cunobelinus’ death (circa 40AD) his sons took power, with Togodumnus the eldest ruling the Catuvellauni homeland around Verlamion, and Caratacus ruling from Camulodunon.[1] Together these brothers began expanding their influence over other British tribes, including the Atrebates of the south coast. Verica, king of the Atrebates, which had branches on both sides of the English Channel and had been friends of Rome since Caesar’s conquest,[8] appealed to the Emperor Claudius for aid. At the time of this appeal in 43AD the newly enthroned Emperor Claudius was in need of a military victory in order to secure his shaky position with the military, and saw this call for help as the perfect pretext.[9] Aulus Plautius led the four Roman legions across to Britain with Camulodunon being their main target,[5] defeating and killing Togodumnus near the Thames and then waiting for Claudius to cross the Channel. Claudius arrived with reinforcements, including artillery and elephants,[10] leading the attack on Camulodunon. Caratacus fled the storming of the town, taking refuge with the Ordovices and Silures tribes in Wales and becoming a Welsh folk hero for his resistance to Rome.[1] The Roman historian Suetonius and Claudius' triumphal arch state that after this battle the British kings who had been under Cunobelinus’ sons’ control surrendered without further bloodshed, Claudius accepting their submission in Camulodunon.[11]

Roman Camulodunum[edit]

Main article: Roman Colchester

A Roman legionary fortress or castrum, the first permanent legionary fortress to be built in Britain,[1] was established within the confines of Camulodunon (which was latinised as Camulodunum) following the successful invasion in 43AD, and was home to the Twentieth Legion.[5] After the legion was withdrawn in c. 49 AD, the legionary defences were dismantled and the fortress converted into a town, with many of the barrack blocks converted into housing.[1][12] It’s official name became Colonia Victricensis, and discharged Roman soldiers making up the population. Tacitus wrote that the town was "a strong colonia of ex-soldiers established on conquered territory, to provide a protection against rebels and a centre for instructing the provincials in the procedures of the law".[6] A Roman monumental temple, the largest classical style temple in Britain, was built there in the 50sAD and was dedicated to Emperor Claudius on his death in 54AD.[13][12] The podium of the temple has been incoporated into the Norman castle, and represents "the earliest substantial stone building of Roman date visible in the country".[6] A monumental arch was built from tufa and Purbeck Marble at the western gate out of the town.[14] Tombs lined the roads out of the town, with several belonging to military veterans,[1] with the most famous being those of Longinus Sdapeze and Marcus Favonius Facilis.[15]

Roman Mosaic found at the Middleborough House, Colchester

The city was the capital of the Roman province of Britannia, and its temple (the largest classical-style temple in Britain) was the centre of the Imperial Cult.[1] But tensions arose between the Roman colonists and the native British population in 60/61AD, when the Roman authorities used the death of Iceni king Prasutagus as a pretext for seizing the Iceni client state from his widow Boudica. The Iceni rebels were joined by the Trinovantes around Colonia Victricensis, who held several grudges against the Roman population of the town. These included the seizure of land for the colonia’s veteran population, the use of labour to build the Temple of Claudius, and the sudden recall of loans given to the local elites by leading Romans (including Seneca and the Emperor), which had been needed to allow the locals to qualify for a position on the city council.[1][16] The Procurator Catus Decianus was especially despised.[5] As the symbol of Roman rule in Britain the city was the first target of the rebels, with its Temple seen in British eyes as the "arx aeternae dominationis" ("stronghold of everlasting domination") according to Tacitus.[6] He wrote that it was undefended by fortifications when it was attacked[16] The rebels destroyed the city and slaughtered its population. Archaeologists have found layers of ash in the site of the city, suggesting that Boudica ordered her rebel army to burn the city to the ground.[17] After the defeat of the uprising, the Procurator of the Roman province moved to the newly established commercial settlement of Londinium (London).[18]

The Roman colonia of Colonia Victricensis in its wider landscape

Following the destruction of the Colonia and Suetonius Paulinus’ crushing of the revolt the town was rebuilt on a larger scale and flourished,[19] growing larger in size than its pre-Boudican levels (to 108 acres/45 ha)[6] despite its loss of status to Londinium, reaching its peak in the Second and Third centuries.[1] The towns official name was Colonia Claudia Victricensis (City of Claudius’ Victory), but it was known colloquially by contemporaries as Camulodunum or simply Colonia.[1] The colonia became a large industrial centre, and was the largest, and for a short time the only, place in the province of Britannia where samian ware was produced, along with glasswork and metalwork, and a coin mint.[1] Roman brick making and wine growing also took place in the area. Colonia Victricensis contained many large townhouses, with dozens of mosaics and tessellated pavements found, along with hypocausts and sophisticated waterpipes and drains.[1][20] The town was home to a large classical Temple, two theatres (including Britain's largest), several Romano-British temples, Britain's only known chariot circus, Britain's first town walls, several large cemeteries and over 50 known mosaics.[5][6][1] It may have reached a population of 30,000 at its height.[21]

However, the late Third century and Fourth centuries saw a series of crises in the Empire, including the breakaway Gallic Empire (of which Britain was a part), and raids by Saxon pirates, both of which lead to the creation of the Saxon Shore forts along the East coast of Britain.[12] The fort at Othona overlooking the confluence of the Blackwater and Colne estuaries, and two more at the mouth of the river into the colonia were built to protect the town.[1][22] Balkerne Gate and Duncan’s Gate were both blocked up in this period, with the later showing signs of being attacked.[1] The extramural suburbs outside of Balkerne Gate had gone by 300AD[12] and were replaced by cultivation beds.[23] The re-cutting of the town ditch in front of the newly blocked Balkerne Gate in 275-300AD involved destroying the water pipes which entered the colonia through the gate.[23] As with many towns in the Empire, the colonia shrunk in size in the 4th Century AD but continued to function as an important town.[24] Although houses tended to shrink in size, with 75% of the large townhouses being replaced by smaller buildings by c.350AD,[24] in the period 275 to 325 a weak "building boom" (the "Constantinian renaissance") occurred in the town, with new houses being built and old ones reshaped.[24] Many of the towns mosaics date from this period, including the famous Lion Walk mosaic.[6] Late Roman robber trenches have been found at some sites for removing and salvaging tessalated floors and tiles for reuse in later houses.[25][14] The pottery industry in the town had declined significantly by 300AD,[24] but the Fourth century did see an increase in the bone-working industry for making furniture and jewellery,[25] and evidence of blown glass making has also been found.[25] Large areas of the Southern part of the town were given over to agriculture.[25] Despite the scaling down of private buildings an increase in the size and grandeur of public buildings occurs in the period 275-400AD.[24] The Temple of Claudius and its associated temenos buildings were reconstructed in the early-Fourth century, along with the possible forum-basilica building to the south of it.[26] The Temple appears to have had a large apsidal hall built across the front of the podium steps, with numismatic dating evidence taking the date of the building up to at least 395AD.[26] A large hall at the Culver Street site, dated 275-325 to 400+AD, may have been a large centralised storage barn for taxes paid in kind with grain.[25][24] During this period the late Roman church at Butt Road[12] just outside the town walls was built with its associated cemetery containing over 650 graves (some containing fragments of Chinese silk), and may be one of the earliest churches in Britain.[1][27] A strong numismatic chronology has been obtained from the over 500 coins found at the site, and puts its date from 320AD to c.425AD.[23]

Sub-Roman Town[edit]

The formal collapse of Roman administration in the province occurred in the years 409-411AD. Activity in the Fifth century continued in Camulodunum at a much reduced level,[24] with evidence of at the Butt Road site showing that it briefly carrying on into the early fifth century.[27] Several burials within the towns walls have been dated to the Fifth century. These include two burials discovered at East Hill House in 1983, which have been surgically decapitated (in a fashion found in both Pre-Roman and some early pagan-Saxon burial practices),[1][12] and other burials cut into the Fourth century barn at Culver Street.[1] A skeleton of a young woman found stretched out on a Roman mosaic floor at Beryfield, within the SE corner of the walled town, was initially interpreted as a victim of a Saxon attack on the Sub-Roman town; however, it is now believed that the burial is a post-Roman grave cut down to the hard floor surface (the name Beryfield means Burial field, a reference to the Medieval graveyards in the area).[1] As well as burials, coin hoards from the late Fourth and early Fifth centuries have been found, including a hoard minted in the reign of Constantine III (reigned 407-411AD) from Artillery Folly, that are heavily clipped; this clipping must have occurred in the years after they were minted and so would have happened in the 400s AD.[1][12] Post-Roman/early Saxon burials from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries, some buried with weapons, have been found outside of the walls in the areas of former Roman cemeteries, suggesting a continuity of practice.[1] Scattered structures have also been excavated by archaeologists, such as a mid-Fifth century dwelling at Lion Walk,[14] as well as fifth century loam weights and cruciform-broaches found across the town.[1] At the Culver Street site a thin layer of early Saxon pottery was discovered along with two dwellings.[25] Other circumstantial evidence of activity includes large post-Roman rubbish dumps, which suggest nearby occupation.[24] The existence of a post-Roman entity centred on the town, sometimes linked to the legend of Camelot, has been argued[28] and was first proposed by archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.

Saxon and Viking era[edit]

Trinity Church, Colchester with its 11th Century Saxon church tower

Around the time of the final withdrawal of Roman armies from Britannia in c.410 there is evidence of hasty re-organisation of Colchester's defences, including the blocking of the Balkerne Gate. Archaeological excavations have shown that public buildings were abandoned, although the 8th-century chronicler Nennius mentioned the town, which he called Caer Colun, in his list of the 28 most important cities in Britain. Archaeological excavations in Colchester have revealed post-Roman activity, including 5th century huts at Lion Walk, 7th century huts at Culver Street and burials within the Roman walls.[1] The layout of Head Street and the High Street, with St. Runwalds churchand the moot hall in the centre, have also been suggested as 8th century.[1] The archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler was the first to propose that the lack of early Anglo-Saxon finds in a triangle between London, Colchester and Verulamium (modern day St Albans) could indicate a 'sub-Roman triangle' where British rule continued after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. It has been suggested that the name Camulodunum may have been rendered Camelot and be the source of the legend of that city of Arthurian legend. The basis for this theory is pure conjecture but is supported by Colchester's historical position as the first capital of Britannia and the city could have retained a symbolic status in Romano-British kingship.

Since then however, excavations have revealed some early Saxon occupation, including a 5th-century wooden hut built on the ruins of a Roman house in present-day Lion Walk. However there is little other evidence of early Saxon occupation, as early Saxon settlers actively avoided living in most former Roman towns, although Colchester later resumed its natural position as the regional focus of trade routes, both along the old Roman road (which is now the A12) and up and down the River Colne and the Colne valley. An early Saxon poem The Ruin although describing the ruins of Roman Bath gives an idea of what the early Saxon settlers would have seen at Colchester:

"This masonry is wondrous, fates broke it, courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying. Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers, the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged, chipped roofs are torn, fallen, undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses the mighty builders, perished and fallen, the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations of people have departed. Often this wall, lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another, remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed. Still the masonry endures in winds cut down"[29]

Following the founding of the Kingdom of Essex, traditionally in 527 AD, Colchester became the major settlement of the kingdom along with London. The Essex kings converted to Christianity in the 7th century and for a while the Kingdom was a major power in the south of England. By the mid of the 8th century the Kingdom was subordinate to the expansive Kingdom of Mercia. By 825 the Kingdom was made a possession of the Kingdom of Wessex.

The isolated raids by Vikings in the first half of the 9th century took a far more serious turn in 865 when a great army of Danes under the command of Ivar the Boneless invaded the Kingdom of East Anglia. In 869 King Edmund of East Anglia was defeated and killed by the Danes and the east of England fell under Danish control. Under a peace treaty between Wessex and the Danes in 879, Colchester was incorporated in the Danelaw. Norfolk and Suffolk were heavily settled by the Danes as can be traced by the density of Scandinavian place names. In Essex, Scandinavian place names, are only found near Colchester (Kirby-le-Soken and Thorpe-le-Soken) Colchester was an important base for the Danes as it had its Roman walls still largely intact and had access to the Colne estuary and the sea. The Kings of Wessex waged continual war on the Danes and finally Colchester was recaptured by English armies under Edward the Elder in 921. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Edward's army:

"Went to Colchester, and beset the town, and fought thereon till they took it, and slew all the people,and seized all that was therein; except those men who escaped therefrom over the wall."[30]

Saxon doorway of Trinity Church. Note the Roman tiles reused in its construction

.Following successful battles against the Viking armies, Edward returned to Colchester:

"After this, the same year, before Martinmas, went King Edward with the West-Saxon army to Colchester; and repaired and renewed the town, where it was broken down before."[30]

In the later Saxon period, Colchester became an important port and a burh, and apart from the High Street and Head Street which date from the Roman times, most of the old streets in Colchester come from this period. Colchester also became a mint in this time and an important part of the Kingdom of the English. The only Saxon building remaining in Colchester today, is the tower of Holy Trinity church which dates from around the first few decades of the 11th century. The church tower is built in the Romanesque style. The lack of natural building stone around Colchester forced the inhabitants to either build in wood, or to reuse the stone and roof tiles from the remains of the Roman city. This can be seen most pronounced in Colchester Castle but can be seen in all the medieval churches in Colchester.

Medieval era[edit]

Colchester Castle, constructed over the vaults of the ruined Temple of Claudius

Colchester Castle[edit]

Main article: Colchester Castle

Colchester Castle is the borough's main medieval landmark. The surviving castle building is an 11th-century Norman keep built in the same style as the Tower of London. Few traces of the outer buildings, walls and bailey remain. The castle is built atop an old Roman temple. The castle is surrounded by the landscaped Castle Park.

Medieval Churches[edit]

Main article: Colchester churches

The Benedictine abbey of St. John the Baptist, generally known as "Colchester Abbey" or "St. John's Abbey," was a beautiful late 11th century church until the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the execution of its abbot in 1539. Now all that remains of it is its gateway, which is still a tourist attraction on St. John's Green and a small church with a wooden tower (St. Giles) which was built for the layworkers on the site.

The Augustinian priory of St. Botolph, generally known as "St. Botolph's Priory", was also established in the 11th century. This adopted the Augustinian Order in around 1200 and became the mother church of the order in Britain. Today all that remains of the priory are ruins. The present church on the site is Victorian.

In addition, Colchester had eight other medieval (Norman) churches within the walls. These were St. Mary at the Walls, St. Martin's, St. Runwald's, St. Nicholas, All Saints, Holy Trinity, St. James the Great, and St. Peter's.

Royal charter[edit]

In 1189, Colchester - was granted its first English Royal Charter by Richard I. The charter was granted at Dover with the King about to embark on one of his many journeys away from England. The borough celebrated the 800th anniversary of its charter in 1989.[31]

There were many other charters were granted by successive monarchs. The 1413 Charter granted by Henry V is on display in the Castle Museum.[32]

The 1189 charter granted the borough rights to the oyster fishery in the estuary of the River Colne.

Dutch Quarter[edit]

Between 1550 and 1600, a large number of Protestant weavers and clothmakers from Flanders, fleeing persecution, emigrated to Colchester[33] and the surrounding areas where they were affectionately referred to as the 'Dutch'. They were famed for the production of Bays and Says cloth. An area in Colchester town centre is still known as the Dutch Quarter and many buildings there date from the Tudor period. During this period Colchester was one of the most prosperous wool towns in England.

Between 1796 to 1810 Jane Taylor lived in East Stockwell Street of the Dutch Quarter, famous for writing the poem Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.[34]

Siege of Colchester[edit]

Main article: Siege of Colchester

In 1648, Colchester was thrown into the thick of the Second English Civil War when a large Royalist army (led by Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle) entered the largely Parliamentarian (Roundhead) town. They were hotly pursued from Kent by a detachment of the New Model Army led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, Henry Ireton, and Thomas Rainsborough. The Roundheads besieged the town for 76 days.[35] By that time, many of the town's most ancient monuments like St. Mary's Church and the Gate of St. John's Abbey were partially destroyed and the inhabitants were reduced to eating candles and boots. When the Royalists surrendered in the late summer, Lucas and Lisle were shot in the grounds of Colchester Castle. The spot is marked by an obelisk today and there is a myth that no grass will grow in this area (it has since been covered with tarmac to make sure.)


Daniel Defoe mentions in A tour through England and Wales that the town lost 5,259 people to the plague in 1665, "more in proportion than any of its neighbours, or than the city of London".[36] By the time he wrote this in 1722, however, he estimated its population (including "out-villages") to have risen to around 40,000.

Colchester earthquake[edit]

At around 9:20 in the morning of April 22, 1884, the Colchester area was at the epicentre of the UK's most destructive earthquake, estimated to have been 5.2 on the Richter Scale, and lasting for about 20 seconds. The quake was felt over much of southern England and into Europe, and over 1,200 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

The Times for Wednesday, April 23 reported damage "in the many villages in the neighbourhood from Colchester to the sea coast", with many poor people made homeless, and estimated the financial cost of the quake at 10,000 pounds sterling. Great damage was also reported in Wivenhoe and Ipswich, and buildings destroyed included Langenhoe church. The death of a child at Rowhedge was also reported.

A copy of the Report on the East Anglian Earthquake of April 22, 1884 can be found in the Colchester local library.

Oyster Feast[edit]

Main article: Oyster Feast

The Oyster Feast is the centrepiece of the Colchester's annual civic calendar. The feast celebrates the "Colchester Natives" (the native oyster, Ostrea edulis) that are gathered from the Colne oyster fishery. The feast has its origins in the 14th Century and is held in the Moot Hall.

Colchester Army Garrison[edit]

Main article: Colchester Garrison

The Colchester Garrison has been an important military base since the Roman era. The first permanent military garrison in Colchester was established by the Legio XX Valeria Victrix in AD 43 following the Claudian invasion of Britain. Colchester was an important barracks during the Napoleonic Wars and throughout the Victorian era. During the First World War several battalions of Kitchener's Army were trained there. Today, there are considerable plans to build a new and modern barracks out of the town to free up building land in the centre and replace the Victorian buildings. There are hopes that some of the original architecture will be conserved for heritage.

Colchester Town Watch[edit]

Colchester Town Watch was founded in 2001 to provide a ceremonial guard for the mayor of Colchester and for the town for civic events.

A self-financed body of volunteers, the Watch is convened under the auspices of the Statutes of Winchester of 1253. This statute was introduced to provide for some sort of law and order, and created the first police force in the UK. Today's Watch, of course, are a purely ceremonial body, leaving law and order to the Essex Constabulary.[37]

The Watch's livery is based on late Elizabethan dress, and is in the town colours of red and green. The Watch wear crested morions, back and breastplates, and carry either partizans or half-pikes when on duty. The Captain has the privilege of wearing Elizabethan "civvies".

A fine and colourful (in every sense) body of persons, the Watch provide a link with Colchester history at many civic events. Their day is, however, the Marching Watches. On the Saturday closest to the Vigil of St. John The Baptist, the watch "walk the walls" completing a circuit of Colchester's town wall (the oldest in Britain, with parts dating back to Roman times), a "beating the bounds" type ceremony, establishing the territory they protect. A distance of some 3 kilometers, it finishes in a local hostelry, The Foresters Arms, so that the Watch may refresh themselves. They are accompanied by Mayors past and present, such civic dignitaries as may wish to attend, and anyone else who cares to join in.

Colchester Co-op[edit]

Main article: Colchester co-op

The Colchester and East Essex Co-operative Society was founded in 1861. Today the society is the largest independent retail chain in the region with a net asset value of £65 million.

Paxman diesels[edit]

Main article: Paxman diesels

The Paxman diesels business has been associated with Colchester since 1865 when James Noah Paxman founded a partnership with the brothers Henry and Charles Davey ('Davey, Paxman, and Davey') and opened the Standard Ironworks at a location in the town centre. In 1876 James Paxman obtained a site on Hythe Hill and the company moved to the "New" Standard Ironworks.

In 1925 Paxman produced its first spring injection oil engine and joined the English Electric Diesel Group in 1966 - later becoming part of the GEC Group. Since the 1930s the Paxman company's main business has been the production of diesel engines. Paxman engines are world famous. They are used in fast naval patrol craft, submarines, and high speed trains. At its peak, the Paxman works covered 23 acres (93,000 m²) and employed over 2,000 people.

Paxman became part of MAN B&W Diesel Ltd in 2000. In 2003 the company announced proposals to transfer manufacturing to Stockport. Production was wound down, and what was to be the last production engine to be built in Colchester was completed on 15 September 2003. However, the Stockport plant proved unable to manufacture the popular VP185 efficiently, and thus in 2005, production resumed in Colchester.


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  15. ^ Toynbee, J.M.C. (1996) Death and Burial in the Roman World. Published by Thames and Hudson. (ISBN 0-8018-5507-1
  16. ^ a b Tacitus (1876), XIV:31.
  17. ^ http://www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/?p=13560 retrieved 21/07/2014
  18. ^ Graham Webster, Boudica: the British Revolt against Rome AD 60, 1978, pp. 89-90
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  20. ^ http://www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/?p=13656 retrieved 21/07/2014
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