Updated: May 3, 2020
By Max Fox
We are here because Claudius needed a conquest to save himself after the brutal assassination of Caligula in AD 41.Caligula had embarrassed the army by saying he would conquer Britannia only to stop at the Channel and force his soldiers to fill treasure chests with sea shells.Between the time of the opportunist Julius Caeser in 55 BC and AD 41 the Celts had got a taste for fine living. They wanted the wine and pottery and clothes and traded at the coast so the hillfort system broke down and Celtic rulers became economically dependent on Roma.
Julius Caeser may have accepted the defeat of Cassivellaunus at Camulodunum, the principal settlement of the Trinovantes tribe of Essex. But Julius could not hold the country and left.
Claudius enlarged Caligula's plan and under Aulus Plautius led an invasion in AD 43
Claudius arrived with 16 War Elephants and recieved the tribute of 11 Celtic Kings, including Presutagus of the Icini. There may have been an observer from Orkney.
Claudius built the fort for Legio XX on the hill in 43 AD that was converted into the first Municipium (town) in Britiannia in 49 AD. Called Camulodunum it became Colonia Claudia Victricensis after the defeat of Boudica.
So this is the true size of the Balkerne Gate from the curved wall on the right to the curved wall round the pub. Originally build around a triumphal arch. Two pedestrian arches and two road arches.
And this is the bit you can still walk under.
And next to it we have the only Roman guard room still standing that you can walk into
We have the oldest town walls in Britain and the longest existent unreconstructed Roman wall in Britain 3000 yards
· Largest Roman Gateway in Britain – Balkerne – which is also the Oldest and Only remaining original arched Roman Gateway in Britain
· Only Roman Circus in Britain which is also the largest Roman Circus north of Rome 470m Long, 75m Wide
· Also the Roman Town aligned to true North with principal gate to the East – Sea Trade
· North Bridge and East Bridge are on the site of two Roman bridges
4 Major Roman Roads at least
• The Great Road – (A12 a lot) London Aldgate to Colchester – (Pye Road)
• Pye Road (A140) Colchester to Caistor St Edmund to
• Stane Street – Braughing to Colchester and Marks Tey to St Albans –
• Via Devana – Colchester to Chester
And because of the Romans, we have the largest Norman Keep in Europe.
At 46.3 m. × 33.5 m, it is 1.5 X the size of White Tower of London (same design) because the foundations are wrapped around the podium of the Imperial Temple of Emperor Claudius and the Forum and Agora around it were 120 x 120m and the front arcade had 28 archways with columns with a grand gateway in the middle.
This is the line of the original entrance to the temple. The colonnade is behind us under glass floors in the Claudius Gateway Cafe.
We are linked with the Olympic Games. The real games from 776 BC
All our statues of Victory are actually Nike.We know because she is holding the Laurel Leaves and the original stood on a cone, cut from a single block of stone balanced by the wings on one foot, at Olympia; and she was stepping down from the Gods to hand the Laurels to the winner.
Roman Theatres – only 6 in Britain
2 are in Colchester
1 – Verulaneum
1 – Canterbury
1 – Kent – Faversham
1 possibly at Cirencester
Colchester Town Theatre seats 3,500 and Gosbecks Theatre seats 5,000 – which also makes it the largest Roman Theatre in Britain
In Athens the Theatre of Dionysus is at the foot of the Acropolis. Theatrical drama evolved from religious ceremonies which is why theatres were often next to temples - The Town Theatre is next to Temple of Claudius. Gosbecks Theatre is next to a huge Roman temple precinct that adapted a Celtic religious site.
And the first accepted Christian Church in Britain is here
Outside the Police Station on Southway.
Dates from 330 AD
So how big was Roman Colchester?
Well this is the view from the Duncan gate to Hollytrees on the Decumanus - High Street. This is one half of one end. Municipium towns were built for 10,000 inhabitants.
We have other unique features...
This is St Botolph's and it has the first Rose Window in England. That round curve above the door. 1102 AD.
St Botolph is also the first Augustinian house in England and had authority over all others in England 1116.
This is the true scale of St Botolph's. I am standing just behind the East End.
It is 54m long.
St Botolph gives us a link to Boston USA. St Augustine give us a link to HIppo in Numidia (Algeria) and Wittenberg because Luther was an Augustinian.
In Trinity Street we have a Saxon church tower that doubled as a watch tower.
Near the top you see curved arches. They were open originally.
We know it is Saxon because of the very distinctive Arrowhead doorway.
There are some really early churches still standing in East Anglia and there was an apocryphal story that when Saxons caught a Viking they would flay them alive and nail the skins to the church doors as a warning. Real Vikings were very noticeable because of their vivid red hair and very pale skin. Hence the ancestors of the Highlanders in Scotland.
When some research into the age of church door timbers was done in East Anglia they did also find human tissue under some of the nails.
You all know of the Great Colchester Earthquake but we had at least 7 before that.
The other seven are 1185, 1246, 1248, 1275, 1382 and 1480 and 1692 which cracked the tower of St Peter’s Church.
But the most earthquake in Britain was 5.1 on the Richter scale and lasted for 10 seconds at 9.20am 22ndApril 1884 damaging almost 1250 buildings and toppled Red Lion Church spire.
This is also where the bodies are still buried.
When you walk over these slabs, just underneath there are small vaults and inhumation earth burials, still there.
And the Yew tree we all love....
... is still here because the roots are wrapped round a big barrel vault and it was too much trouble to move.
I was digging here with Colchester Archaeological Trust in 1985.
Under the Victorian gothic church were Georgian vaults and under the vaults was a Roman town house, a substantial Roman gutter drain and a small Roman Road.
When you look at River Island, the hand rails are roughly where the road was.
And the road was over the top of the filled in ditch that was the boundary for the 43 AD fort.
What’s in a name – where do you think you live?
Abbeygate Street = Lodders Lane 13thC
Eld Lane = Poor Row
Maldon Road = Crowcherche Lane 1389
Northgate Street = Duck Lane 1729
Pelham’s Lane = Whitefoots Lane 1306
Red Lion Walk = Cat Lane 1357
St Helen’s Lane = Berkelersbery Lane 1423
St Peter’s Street = Dead Lane 1702
Vineyard Street = Bear Lane 1767
And the botanic gardens founded in 1823 by The Colchester and East Essex Botanical and Horticultural Society, behind Greyfriars to the East of the Castle were sold for development in 1852 as Roman Road and Castle Road (There was also Mr Jenkin’s Pleasure Grounds in St John’s Street which charged for entry. Long before Bernard’s time!)
Three Nursery Rhymes
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
was written here in 11-12 Stockwell Street in 1806 by Jane Taylor age 23, the sister of Ann Taylor who was also a poet. Attic window on the left.
On top of the town hall we allegedly have the daughter of Old King Cole. St Helena. Mother of Constantine. She is facing Jerusalem and holds 'The True Cross'.
St Helena must be the only archaeologist in history to go somewhere and find what she wanted to find in minutes. Even Indiana Jones can't do that.......
The true cross was broken into 4 pieces. Only 4 OK.... 1 - Jerusalem, 2 - Alexandria, 3 - Constantinople, 4 - Rome.
Below her are the 4 Ravens who are symbols of the authority of the Port Reeve. We had a port on the Colne from at least 43 to 2003.
You will notice most of the tower at St Mary's is Tudor. During the Great Siege of Colchester in 1648 a one eyed Royalist gunner called Jack Thompson was taking pot shots at the Roundheads with a Saker which was a fat oval hand cannon.
Given the Parliamentarians had cannon from the Tower of London it is not surprising Jack and his peashooter were blown clean off and most of the top of the tower with him.
And all the King's horses and King's men could not put him back again.
But we have actually had 5 Sieges:
1216 King John besieges the castle to take it from French soldiers
1342 and 1343 Lord Fitzwalter besieges the town until paid off with £40
1350 Lional of Bradenham besieges the town until paid £20
1648 The big one!
St Mary's is also the site where 23 Protestant martyrs were burnt alive during the awful brief reign of Queen Mary which was more than in any other town in England.
Other notable literary connections:
• Colchester is Atom Bombed - In George Orwell's 1984.
The main character, Winston Smith, thinks back to his childhood and his first memories of war in the 1950s, recalling: "Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester." (Part 1, Chapter 3).
• First part of Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe is set in Colchester
• The opening credits for the British TV comedy show Blackadder Goes Forth and a scene from the film Monty Python and the Meaning of Life were both filmed at the former Cavalry Barracks.
• The Doctor Who episodes The Lodger and Closing Time are set in Colchester, although they were filmed in Cardiff!
And the immortal ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was written in a Colchester Pill Box in 1940 at Roman Way Camp.
Our magnificent town hall cost more to build in real terms than Firstsite.
It has 80 rooms and stained glass windows celebrating kings and queens of England and statues of local notables.
The Famous and the Infamous – Visitors
Possibly Julius Caesar who besieged an Iron Age fort – Camulodunum being the richest tribal stronghold
The Emperor Claudius - Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
General Vespasian – Later Emperor
11 British Kings including one from Orkney
• 917 Edward the Elder, a late Saxon King, drives the Danes out of Colchester and repairs the walls, adding bastions.
• King Athelstan in 931 and King Edmund in 940, held councils here, Athelstan's being attended by the archbishop of Canterbury
We have been graced by 7 Kings and 7 Queens since 1066
• 1157 Henry II holds court attended by Thomas a Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury
• 1354 Queen Phillipa visits
• 1445 Henry VI
• 1489 Henry VII stops on way to Walsingham for Easter
• 1515 Catherine of Aragon on the way to Walsingham
• 1544 Henry VIII
• 26th July 1553 Queen Mary
• 1561 Queen Elizabeth stays for three days
• 1638 Maria de Medici, widow of Henri IV of France and mother-in-law of Charles I
• 1667 Duke of York (James II)
• 1669 Duke Cosimo III De’Medici of Florence
• 1677 William Penn attends a local Quaker meeting
• 1691 William III
• 1704 Duke of Marlborough
• 1758 John Wesley preaches in the town
• 1763 Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stay at the White Hart.
• 1763 and The Prince Regent stays at The Three Cups – George IV
• 1783 John Wilkes stays at the White Hart
• 1801 Lord Nelson visits The Three Cups
• 1823. Duke of Wellington visits The Three Cups
• 1811 Prince Regent passes through
• 1937 Queen Mary
• The Queen 1985, 2004
As for the infamous...
Klaus Kinski - actor, director, former German POW in Colchester during the World War II
Followed by The Kray Twins who served time in the Military Glasshouse here during National Service. And that is the only one in Britain now.
Behind the Town Hall is the first public library in Colchester - 1894
You can’t get that on Kindle…
• 1631 Samual Harsnett of Colchester and Archbishop of York leaves his personal library to the Corporation for the use of Colchester Clergy.
• 1733 – Colchester Weekly Journal
• 1749 Charles Gray opens a library room in the Castle possibly merging his collection with Harsnett’s.
• 1786 Subscription library opens opposite The Three Cups in the High Street.
• 1803 Colchester (subscription)Library in High Street
• 1831 – Essex County Standard
• 1855 First Public Library in High Street.
• 1894 First modern Public Library behind the Town Hall
• Second Modern 1946 near the square.
• Third Modern in Lion Walk/Trinity Street - 1970s
Also this area behind the Town Hall was the site of our first modern theatre in 1764
It held 300 seats and lasted to 1810.
Then it was converted into an extension of the town gaol with the ladies in the gallery and the gentlemen in the stalls.
Some call it sport
• Butt Road may or may not have been a place of Archery practice but we do know it happened in the court of St John’s Abbey in 1319.
• The bear-stake at the junction of High Street and North Hill was used for baiting bulls before slaughter but a bear was baited there in 1365.
• Dice and gambling were common and Chess was played as far back as 1373.
• Tennis is recorded in 1382
• 1750s Mile End race course.
• 1753 Dancing Bears at the Market Cross
• 1764 Cockfighting is banned – again!
• 1829 George Green makes a balloon ascent to three miles (5km)
• 1861 Colchester and Essex Cricket Club
• 1867 Colchester Town FC
• 1884 Colchester Swimming Club – swimming in the Colne until 1932.
• 1902 Colchester Bowling Club
• 1909 Colchester Golf Club
A plague on both their houses....
Just behind the first library is an overflow graveyard, for plague victims.
Including 1348 and 1665 we have actually had 11 outbreaks of plague.
Which leads us into Ghostly Phantoms....
• James Parnell a Quaker radical is said to haunt the dungeon in the Castle where he died of neglect age 19.
• The Ghostly Cavalier - Colchester - East Street around Siege House has been seen walking down East Street, disappearing when reaching Siege House. One of the rooms in the building is said to be so haunted that staff will only work there in pairs.
• A Phantom Puritan is also seen in the area.
• George at the Hippodrome – fell to his death.
• Anne Lisle - Hollytrees Museum – the footsteps and face of
• Fred in a peaked cap who walks through walls at O’Neil’s
• The Red Lion - Alice Mellor –, killed 1633 and of such terrifying manifestation that her room was sealed up.
• The Red Lion also has a monk who died in a fire.
We didn't have any real witches, but we do have the first recorded Serial Killer
Throughout his reign of terror 1645-1646, in just 14 months, Matthew Hopkins was responsible, by use of torture and trickery, for the condemnations and executions of some 230 alleged witches, more than all the other witch-hunters that proliferated during the 160-year peak of the country’s witchcraft hysteria. The proof is that he was paid for each one condemned so had a very strong motive to see that they were.
Thankfully there are lots of better people who were born or lived in Colchester
Archibald Wavell (1883–1950) British Field-Marshal during World War II, Viceroy of India.
Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon of Blur
Daren Day - actor and television presenter
Dermot O'Leary– Television and radio presenter, attended Colchester Sixth Form College
Margaret Thatcher lived in Colchester when working in Manningtree as a research chemist - 1950s.
Mary Whitehouse – Christian morality campaigner, died in Colchester.
Paul Allender – musician, lead guitarist of Cradel of Filth
Piers Courage - F1 driver
Roger Penrose - mathematical physicist and philosopher
Samuel Harsnet – Archbishop of York d.1631
Thomas Audley - Lord Chancellor of England 1533–44, founder of Magdalene College, Cambridge.
William Gilbert d.1603 Court physician to Elizabeth I and James I and author of De Magnete. Lived at Tymperlies
William Gull – Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria; researched and named anorexia nervosa
and William Hale, early rocket engineer
We also have a link to New York enterprise because this little building in Queen Street was actually built as a showroom and base for the Singer Manufacturing Company.