Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome local guide Gary to take us on a walking guide through Colchester, the oldest recorded town in Britain; the 30 plus audience was engrossed with his account of its history, which began with a summary timeline of major Colchester events.
The Romans invade Britain, with Emperor Claudius leading the capture of Camulodunum, their first target, taking the submission of 11 British Kings at Gosbecks, south west of the present town centre. The town became Britain's first city, as London at the time was much more of a village; it didn't replace Colchester as the capital until mid second century AD.
Construction of the Temple of Claudius begins, on the site where the Castle now stands.
A revolt by Boudica destroys the Temple and colonia (a Roman settlement in conquered territory).
65 - 80 AD
Town walls are built which incorporate Britain's largest Roman gateway - the Balkerne gate - a magnificent triumphal arch; approx. two thirds of this wall still stands, and is a testament to Roman construction methods.
A collapse of Roman administration in the province happened between 409 and 411, though activity in Colchester continued at a much-reduced level during the 5th century before the Romans finally left.
Following the 1066 invasion of Britain, the Normans commence construction of Colchester Castle in this year, built over the remains of the Roman Temple of Claudius.
Flemish refugees fleeing religious persecution are welcomed to Colchester; new prosperity is brought to the town from their weaving industry, and the area where they lived becomes known as the Dutch Quarter.
The Parliamentarian army besieged Colchester for 11 weeks during the Civil War, during which time the townspeople suffered dreadfully and the fine Roman walls were breached.
Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815)
Colchester Garrison played an eminent role during the Napoleonic Wars, with troops originally billeted in local inns and houses. After petitioning from the borough council, new infantry barracks were built in 1794, and by 1800 additional infantry, artillery, and cavalry barracks had been built; by 1805 the barracks were home to 7,000 officers and men, making Colchester a significant garrison town.
The 134ft high water tower dominating Colchester's skyline was completed after a 20-month project. 1.2 million bricks and 819 tons of stone and cement were used to build the tower, with the tank above constructed of bolted cast-iron panels. It held 37,800 cubic ft. (1,069 cubic m) of water, claiming to be the second largest water tower in England at the time. In 1882 the Reverend John Irvine coined the nickname Jumbo, after a London Zoo elephant sold amid national protests to showman and circus proprietor PT Barnum. This was meant to be a term of derision, as he was annoyed the tower dwarfed his nearby rectory at St. Mary-at-the-Walls, though today's Colcestrians love the nickname.
Gary then began his historical tour in earnest, with much more detail about selected topics.
The Balkerne Gate
We were told the gate, built circa AD 70-96, is the best-preserved Roman gateway in the country, even though the gatehouse, originally with two main arched passageways and separate arched footways on both sides, has largely disappeared. The gateway seen today is the south-side arched footway, where the remains of a guard tower are also visible.
It seems Roman town gates were usually limited to one or two, but sometimes had as many as three entrances; however, Colchester's Balkerne Gate had four gates with unusually wide carriageways, again emphasizing the importance of Camulodunum at the time. There are no other quadruple gates in Britain though a few exist elsewhere in Europe: the Porte d'Auguste at Nîmes, the Porte Ste. André and the Port d'Arroux, both at Autun, and the Palatine Towers at Turin.
St John's Abbey
Gary said this was Benedictine monastic institution founded in Colchester in1095 and dissolved in 1539. It suffered a disaster in its early years when a large fire in 1133, which also burned much of Colchester, severely affected the monastery. Major reconstruction ensued, involving landscaping much of the area around the Abbey, moving the officine (offices) and habitula (monks quarters) from the north to the south side, and rebuilding the Abbey in a cruciform layout. Because the Abbey itself was forbidden to lay worshippers St Giles's Parish Church was built to serve them, between 1133 and 1171. This replaced St John's Church as the parish church, which was demolished down to its foundations and covered by spoil from the landscaping. The Church of St Giles was built to the north of the Abbey on the early lay burial ground, which included many graves lined with Roman rubble.
We were told that around 1170 the monastery received a vial, allegedly of St Thomas Becket's blood, from a monk called Ralph; he had once stayed at the Abbey during Becket's exile and been present at his murder in Canterbury. Supposedly Ralph caught just a few drops of Becket's blood in the vial, but when he sent it to Colchester, it was miraculously overflowing and became the Abbey's most treasured relic; supernatural healing powers were attributed to it. Sadly the abbey suffered attacks from rebels during the peasants revolt (see later).
Following dissolution, the Abbey was leased by the crown to Sir Thomas Darcy, before eventually being bought by the Lucas Family in 1548. The Abbey church was slowly demolished during the late 16th century and early 17th century, and the Lucas family built a large manor house in its grounds, retaining the precinct wall with its large Abbey Gate around the old grounds. St Giles's Church was retained as a parish church, housing the tombs of the Lucas family.
During the Civil War, Sir Charles Lucas, one of the Royalist commanders, was a native of the Lucas manor in the Abbey grounds. As part of the siege of the town in 1648, the Parliamentarians ejected Royalist troops from the Abbey grounds after a long fight, destroying the Lucas mansion, St Giles's Church, parts of the old Abbey precinct walls and parts of the Abbey Gate in the process. The War Office bought the Abbey grounds from the Baring family in 1860 to become part of the Garrison.
In 2010 during excavations by Colchester Archaeological Trust, the Abbey church building was rediscovered and the church was found to have been much larger than expected, at 90m long, longer than the nearby St. Botolph's Priory.
Gary told us it was the first of the great ‘keeps' and the largest ever built by the Normans in Europe, built upon the foundations of the Temple of Claudius. Construction began in 1076, not that long after the Norman invasion of the country, and probably under the supervision of Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester. Gundulph also built the White Tower in London, though at 152 x 112 feet, Colchester's keep is one and a half times its size. As there was no local stone readily available, Norman builders plundered Roman Colchester, which is believed was completed in 1100, taking longer than expected as work ceased in 1080 due to the threat of a Viking invasion. The castle's walls are up to 12 feet thick; so thick they defeated numerous attempts of John Wheeley, a local ironmonger given a licence to pull it down in 1683 to sell building materials, once he had removed the thinner upper walls.
The highest, though not the tallest tree in beautiful castle park, is to be found way above the castle entrance - the famous Sycamore allegedly planted by the gaoler's daughter in 1815 to commemorate victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo.
Despite destruction caused by the Black Death, Colchester entered a period of growth spurred by the cloth trade from the mid 14th century onwards, with 22 people admitted to the ranks of the burgesses every year in the 1350s. By 1377 the town's population reached 7,000, placing it Eighth in rank of English provincial towns, increasing to its medieval maximum of 9,000 by the early 15th century.
Gary then told us that Colchester was one of the centres of the Peasants Revolt in 1381. John Ball of St Albans, one of the leaders of the Rebels, had been a priest in Colchester for a long period during the 1350s. On 13 June a large group of peasants from the surrounding Essex countryside gathered in the town before marching to Stepney in South Essex. Those staying behind attacked Moot Hall and St John's Abbey, on 15 and 16 June, forcing the law courts to shut for five weeks and carrying off the court rolls of the Abbey. On 17 June a group of Stanway men carried off the court rolls of St Crosses hospital on Crouch Street. Following the defeat of the Rebels at Billericay by King Richard, survivors flooded into the town, taking their anger out on Colchester's sizeable Flemish population. Following the attack by the disgruntled peasants on the Abbey, its walls and gatehouse were strengthened.
The siege of Colchester
In 1648, we were told 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 by a detachment of Cromwell's New Model Army led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, Henry Ireton and Thomas Rainsborough. Roundheads besieged the town for 76 days, by which time many of the most ancient monuments, like St. Mary's Church and the Gate of St. John's Abbey, were partially destroyed. By August, provisions in the town had all but run out; cats, dogs and horses became the staple food, and towards the end, 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 being marked by an obelisk; there was a myth that no grass would grow in this area, which has since been covered with tarmac (to make sure?).
The Dutch Quarter
Between 1550 and 1600, Gary said that large numbers of Protestant weavers and cloth makers fleeing persecution emigrated to Colchester from Flanders. They were famed for the production of Bays and Says cloth (lightweight and heavier weight woollen cloth respectively, both hand woven from hand spun yarns) and were affectionately referred to as the 'Dutch'. Today an area in/near the town centre is still known as the Dutch Quarter, with many buildings there dating from the Tudor period - at this time, Colchester was one of the most prosperous wool towns in England.
Between 1796 and 1810 Jane Taylor, poet and novelist, lived in West Stockwell Street in the Dutch Quarter, now most famous for writing the poem Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Legend also has it that the nursery rhymes ‘Old King Cole' and ‘Humpty Dumpty' both originated from Colchester, but this is almost certainly not the case.
The site has been the focus of civic duties for more than 800 years; the first town hall, the Moot Hall, was built in 1160, and a second was built in 1844 - a three storey structure with a stone faced front.
John Belcher designed the present Town Hall following an 1897 competition. Construction began in 1898 and the building of Baroque design was opened by the Earl of Rosebery in May 1902. The 162ft Victorian tower was presented by industrialist James Paxman, complete with a statue at the top of St Helena, Colchester's patron saint, holding the true cross. The Moot Hall function room houses a custom built organ by Norman and Beard and the Old Library function room, originally Colchester's first town centre public library, was designed by Brightwen Binyon of Ipswich in 1894. We were told the Council Chamber has a glorious painted ceiling showing a classical description of the twelve months of the year, whilst the two stained glass windows depict the Roman history of the Borough.
Just below St Helena are four bronze ravens by Francis Carruthers Gould, representing the portreeve (port warden) who ran Colchester's medieval port. The tower also contains a chiming clock with five bells, plus another 15th century bell thought to have hung in the original moot hall. The main facade features six life-sized statues depicting famous people connected with Colchester. On the south elevation, Eudo Dapifer (a Norman aristocrat), Thomas Lord Audley (1st Baron Audley and Lord Chancellor of England 1533 to 1544), William Gilberd (English physician, physicist and natural philosopher) and Samuel Harsnett (an English writer and Archbishop of York from 1629); on the east, Edward the Elder (King of the Anglo-Saxons from 899) and Boudica. The interior features a marble staircase with a statue of Queen Victoria and a monument to the Colchester (English Protestant) Martyrs executed in Colchester for heresy.
Everyone had a great time and we look forward to our next events, which will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on the following dates:
Ian McLachlan (of ‘Overpaid, Over Sexed and Over Here' fame) will tell us stories from the Zeppelin raids on East Anglia 100 years ago, of the first casualties in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, and of how the sky monsters were defeated.
17th January Members Only
If these walls could talk by Roger Green. A short talk following the fortunes of one house in Friars St Sudbury over the course of many owners, after which some wine and nibbles.
Both are going to be great.
Andy Sheppard 17th November 2017