History of Colchester
- 1 Prehistoric and Roman era
- 2 Saxon and Viking era
- 3 Medieval era
- 4 Dutch Quarter
- 5 Siege of Colchester
- 6 Plague
- 7 Colchester earthquake
- 8 Oyster Feast
- 9 Colchester Army Garrison
- 10 Colchester Town Watch
- 11 Colchester Co-op
- 12 Paxman diesels
- 13 References
Prehistoric and Roman era
Colchester lays claim to being the oldest recorded Roman town in England, existing as a Celtic settlement before the Roman conquest. There is archaeological evidence of settlement 3,000 years ago. Its Celtic name was "Camulodunon", meaning "the Fortress of Camulos". (Camulos was the Celtic god of war.) This name was modified to the Roman spelling of "Camulodunum" (written "CAMVLODVNVM") and the town was developed as a major colonia in the early stages of the conquest of Roman Britain, possibly with a view to its becoming the province's capital. It was sacked in the Boudican revolt, and though it recovered afterwards and lasted throughout the Roman occupation, its position as capital was assumed by Londinium.
Saxon and Viking era
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. 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"
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."
.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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Between 1550 and 1600, a large number of Protestant weavers and clothmakers from Flanders, fleeing persecution, emigrated to Colchester 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.
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. 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". By the time he wrote this in 1722, however, he estimated its population (including "out-villages") to have risen to around 40,000.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Part 3: A.D. 920 - 1014 Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #17
- Historic Building in Colchester 3
- The Dutch Quarter
- Historic Building in Colchester
- Daniel Defoe, A tour through England and Wales, J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, London (1959) Available online here
- "History". The Colchester Town Watch. Retrieved 2009-08-14.[dead link]